Judging by the differences in Helena Gullan and Yuna Mao’s backgrounds, training and tastes, it is surprising the violin duo can take to the stage with ease – their tempo in sync, the staccatos and pizzicatos, pronounced. What is even more astonishing is that they are performing repertoires that are deceptively sweet, yet extremely technical, on stilts.
Gullan hails from London where she grew up in a musical family. “My mother used to sing, and my father plays the violin,” said Gullan.
“I began when I was ten but there are performers who began their training as early as three, so in a way I started quite late,” she said. “But I had already begun learning the piano at that time, so I was able to read sheet music and catch up.”
“I wanted to learn how to play a harp, but then my mother started to think about how we were going to buy a van to lug the harp around,” laughed Gullan.
“But then it turned out my sister went to school with some incredible viola players for the London Philharmonic Orchestra who eased me into the idea of the violin, so I started learning and it somehow became my main instrument.”
Mao’s story, is quite the contrast to Gullan’s beginnings. In Taiwan, she was three when her parents told her to start playing the violin – as an infant she had little say in the matter. “But then I started getting into it and I began to appreciate the versatility of it as a musical instrument,” she said.
“With the violin, I was able to appreciate the nuances of different time periods – the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic period – and it became a driving force for me,” said Mao, who pursued her training all the way to Yale School of Music. What was once imposed on her, became a career path that she is deeply passionate about.
The differences don’t stop there. Gullan is quite fond of the jovial scores of the Classical period – Mozart’s opuses, for example – while Mao prefers the expressionism of Brahms’ works in particular. These are two performers who have a deep understanding of not only the technical aspect of a musical score, but the emotions that it attempts to evoke.
So with all the technical aspects of the performance explored, one must move on to the stilts. The juxtaposition of an art form that is usually associated with those with a stiff upper lip, with the stilts and their novelty value, is indeed quite unique, if not downright bizarre.
“I was working as an actor and performer at that time, and I was touring with this troupe that worked with some circus performers,” recalled Gullan. “They were really talented performers, so I started to learn how to walk on stilts while we were touring across the UK. And then I thought, there couldn’t very many people who play the violin on stilts, right?”
“Actually, now I’m working on a new kind of performance – aerial violin concertos – so that’s something to look forward to,” said Gullan as she readies herself for her show. “Tonight, we want to bring a touch of Christmas by playing a duet of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but I’m sure there will be something for everyone.”
Helena and Yuna perform at 4pm and 7pm each day throughout December at NagaWorld Hotel and Entertainment Complex in Phnom Penh.