Matching Timbres and Colours

At the age of three, Heidi Krutzen announced to her non-musical parents that she wanted to play the harp.

She had to settle for the piano until she was nine and big enough to tackle the hefty, 47-string instrument of her choice.

At the age of three, Ariel Barnes, whose parents are both professional musicians, started playing the violin.

By the time he was five, he had switched to the cello.

As longtime colleagues in the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and the Turning Point Ensemble, Krutzen and Barnes realized a few years back that her harp and his cello could make a fine blend.

“The minute we tried playing together, we just realized the incredible spectrum of colour that we can delve into, that we loved making music together, and that the two instruments together are really spectacular,” Krutzen says.

“The cello and harp actually have the same range. We can match timbres and colours, yet we have enough differences, so there’s quite a lot of contrast.”

There was just one snag: very little music existed for their combination of instruments.

Their response? Get some composers to write more.

In fact, since last October’s debut of their duo, Couloir, they have premiered no fewer than three works written especially for them.

“One of the prime focuses of Couloir is to develop literature for the instruments,” Barnes says.

“I’m not too aware of other cello and harp duos that are doing a lot of commissioning, although I’d be happy to learn that.”

Krutzen admits some people get nervous when they hear the term “new music”, but quickly adds that composers such as Bach or Mozart met the same reaction in their day.

“We are very interested in presenting music that is going to resonate with people right now, that they’re going to understand and be able to connect with,” she says.

Still, they don’t mind pushing boundaries.

“So it’s interesting, and you feel like you’ve been on a bit of a journey and you’ve learned something, or experienced something, and participated in the concert.”

One of the commissioned pieces Couloir will introduce to the Whitehorse Concerts audience next week at the Yukon Arts Centre is Drifting Seeds, by a young American composer, Baljinder Sekhon.

“I came across Baljinder quite by accident, and found one of his pieces for cello and percussion, and I think what I loved about it was its rhythmic intensity,” Krutzen says.

The new work, which Krutzen calls “very lyrical, very rhythmic, very beautiful”, explores “how in a way we’re drifting seeds through life, and how at times we think we are so different, but in the end we realize we’re all the same.”

Another recent work Couloir will offer next week is a new sonata by Ukrainian composer Valery Kikta, based on a traditional Russian folk song.

“It sounds as if it could have been written 150 years ago,” Barnes says.

“It seems to be a real audience favourite. When we play this work, people are pleasantly surprised. We get a wonderful reaction.”

Barnes describes the prevailing theme of the upcoming concert as “music inspired by song and dance, which is of course things that people love to do all the time, whether it’s art music, or folk music, or around the campfire.”

Not everything the duo plays falls into the “new music” category, unless one considers Manuel de Falla (1874-1946) or Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as “new” composers.

“We do play arrangements of some music that’s been around, some more traditional music,” Barnes explains.

“The de Falla Suite populaire espagnole is a wonderful set of folk songs that have been arranged in art music, and have a very simple meaning and very understandable character,” he says.

“It’s a really beautiful suite that’s been arranged and arranged and arranged again. It’s the kind of music that works with various instrumentations.”

The duo will also present Ravel’s ever-popular Habanera as what Krutzen terms “a little amuse-bouche” for the Whitehorse audience.

“It’s just sparkly and gorgeous and sultry. It’s just tiny. I think it’s about two minutes long. It’s just a lovely little work.”

To round out the program, Couloir will go back to the 17th century court of King Louis XIV with a work by Marin Marais, whom Barnes describes as one of the premier viola da gamba, or viol, players in the history of classical art music.

“His Five French Dances is a piece that Heidi introduced me to, actually,” he says.

The work has “a sort of folky, rustic element”, he adds. “There’s these wonderful drones and almost hypnotic sounds.”

Couloir’s performance for Whitehorse Concerts on Saturday, September 29, is under the auspices of the Prairie Debut touring network.

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