Nikki Chooi, his brother Timmy, and Angela Cheng have yet to convene for their first rehearsal together, so it’s too early to tell what they’ll be asked to do when they premiere Marc-André Hamelin’s new work, Reverie—but the older of the Chooi brothers says that listeners might want to prepare themselves for a surprise.
“I don’t know if I actually want to give it away, but there’s some theatrics that come into play,” Nikki Chooi says teasingly, checking in with the Straight from Santa Fe. “I guess people will have to come to the concert to find out.”
Reverie, he goes on to explain, will be almost as new to the musicians as it will be to the audience. Commissioned by Vancouver Recital Society founder and artistic director Leila Getz to mark her organization’s 40th anniversary, the work has just been delivered to the performers, and they haven’t yet had a chance to discuss it among themselves.
“We’ve only got the part and looked at it individually,” Chooi notes. “I haven’t looked at it with Timmy, or with Angela, so once we arrive in Vancouver next week we’ll hear the piece for the first time. I guess, as with any new commissioned work, part of the challenge—and part of the excitement, too—is to figure out beforehand what it would sound like. And most of the time that is really different from what it actually sounds like. So we’ll do our best, individually, and then once we start rehearsing we’ll think of more things around how to interpret it and do it justice.”
Chooi is also looking forward to working with Cheng, whom he’s known since he was a teenager. Surprisingly, the B.C.–raised, violin-playing brothers have never actually performed with the Hong Kong–born pianist, so their meeting will be just as historic as the debut of Hamelin’s new composition. They will, however, be joined by a few old friends—in musical terms, at least.
The other trio feature, Nikki says, will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s 5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, a work that calls for a greater-than-usual amount of interpretational insight from the performers. The notes on the page—deceptively simple, bittersweet tunes, some with a singsong air of schoolyard banality—need to be brought to life with a mixture of caustic wit and simmering anger in order to fully reveal their complexity.
“With Shostakovich, his melodies and his works have always had this double meaning,” Chooi observes. “If a piece sounds happy, there’s also much more depth and sorrow to it. There’s always meaning behind the music that he composes. You know, you have to be aware of the experiences that Shostakovich had to go through, and the period when he was alive, and all the things happening then.”
Cheng will get a solo feature, Cécile Chaminade’s Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano; she and Timmy will play Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano; and then Nikki will join her for César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, a piece the 30-year-old violinist has known for literally half his life.
“I’m always relearning it as though I’d never played it before,” says Chooi, who last performed the Franck sonata six or seven years ago. “Obviously, that’s hard to do, right? But I started this process a couple of weeks ago. I began with a fresh score with no previous markings, and started to just figure out, architecturally, where the music goes, which harmonies he goes into, and where the climaxes are, where the intimate moments are, and how it links from movement to movement to movement. Sometimes I get a little biased towards one way to do it, because I’ve done it before, but at least I treat this process as a new thing.”
One thing Chooi doesn’t need to intellectualize, he adds, is his musical relationship with his brother. “When we play together, it feels like coming home,” he says—and in this homecoming celebration that warmth should be on full display.
The Vancouver Recital Society presents Nikki Chooi, Timmy Chooi, and Angela Cheng at the Vancouver Playhouse at 3 p.m. on Sunday (September 22).