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INTERVIEW | Toronto Duo VC2 Talk Cellos, Community, And Their New Release I And Thou

By Anya Wassenberg on February 28, 2023

VC2 Cello Duo (Photo: Bo Huang)
VC2 Cello Duo (Photo: Bo Huang)

Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt are VC2 Cello Duo, a Toronto-based ensemble that has taken their boundary pushing repertoire from classical concert halls to neighbourhood music lounges. Their latest recording, I and Thou, was released February 10, 2023 on the Leaf Music label.

The duo has performed with the TSO, COC orchestra, National Ballet orchestra, Art of Time Ensemble, Continuum Contemporary Music, and at festivals in Toronto and Ottawa, including the Toronto Music Garden. They first began to catch the notice of major music critics in 2018 with their release, Beethoven’s Cellists. It includes commissions from five Canadian composers, works that were based on the Beethoven Cello Sonatas project. Since then, they’ve been busy with major tours, including a stint in Italy.

Their new recording I and Thou is about connections, and spotlights compositions that have a personal link.

We had a chance to talk to Amahl and Bryan about the duo and their latest recording.


How did two cellists with a taste for classical music, among other genres, and a shared vision for performance get together?

“We met at UofT back in 2008,” says Bryan. “But we’d known each other a little bit from youth orchestra before that.”

After undergrad studies in Toronto, then post-grad at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, both musicians ended up back in Toronto. At some point, the pair were asked to perform as a duo clad in black leather jackets. It sparked the idea of coming together to take classical music to the people.

“We had a lot of fun doing it,” Bryan recalls. So much so, that the duo began to research repertoire for two cellos so they could do it again. “It started as a two cellos cover band, and then evolved into this,” he says. In the beginning, their take was new. “Trying to be super cool, rocking out on the cellos.”

VC2 Cello Duo (Photo: Bo Huang)
VC2 Cello Duo (Photo: Bo Huang)

From existing repertoire, they came to their commitment to performing and commissioning new works, favouring those of living Canadian composers. How did they come up with the mix of classical and casual, performing/recording and innovating out of the concert hall box?

“It’s somewhat out of necessity, because we both like to wear a lot of musical hats,” Bryan says. “By this point, we’ve carved out the path we’re looking to continue on.”

What’s appealing is the freedom that comes with stepping outside the usual concert recital box and becoming what they call a “slightly less typical ensemble”. They can go in any direction that presents itself.

“We like to do a lot of arranging. It becomes slightly more accessible,” Bryan says.

Was it circumstance or planned?

“I’d say it’s both,” Amahl says. “I think the vibe that we try to create lends itself to more non-traditional classical places. We want to make it more of an interactive experience with the audience.”

Even when they perform in the usual classical music venues, they keep the mood more casual. “We’re not a comedy act, but we want to keep it personal and relatable,” Amahl says. It’s about staying on the same level as their audience.

The CD release took place in Toronto’s venerable Tranzac Club. “It felt perfect in a real sense of community,” Amahl says. “It felt really comfortable.”

The Album

“Almost all of the music on the album was written for us,” Amahl says. He notes that the pieces that weren’t specifically created for them are rarities that aren’t performed or recorded often. During the early years of the duo, they spent a great deal of time exploring contemporary repertoire, and became familiar with many Canadian composers. “They were from composer who were really important to us.”

The commissioned pieces include:

  • Heist 2 by Vincent Ho, commissioned for VC2 Cello Duo by Prairie Debut, with support from the SOCAN Foundation;
  • Discord by Laura Sgroi, commissioned for VC2 Cello Duo with support from the Ontario Arts Council;
  • Suite for Two Cellos by Chris Paul Harman, written for and dedicated to VC2 Cello Duo;
  • Final Glimpse by Kelly-Marie Murphy, commissioned for VC2 Cello Duo by the Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Ontario.

Vincent Ho’s piece came to the duo while on tour. “We were preparing for our first Western Canada tour,” Amahl recalls. After meeting with the director, they talked about the lack of Western Canadian composers in their repertoire. “We were throwing around some names. Vincent Ho came up. She called him on the spot.”

According to the tour director, Ho agreed to the commission even before the funding was secured, and his inspiration came from their onstage wardrobe as well as their playing. “Those guys look like gangsters,” she quoted.

In the liner notes, Ho comments on his inspiration. “Hearing VC2’s phenomenal playing in 2018 motivated me to sketch out an energetic riff that later developed into a continuous motoric line.” After the go-ahead, he sent the single track to VC2, who improvised over it. From their recordings, Ho came up with the finished piece, which he titled after crime noir books he was reading.

Laura Sgroi’s Discord expresses a personal story, one that was inspired by her battles against sexual harassment, and the confines of the music industry. “We had gone to school with Laura, and had been familiar with her work,” says Amahl.

According to his statement in the liner notes, Chris Paul Harman’s Suite for Two Cellos was “written for, and is dedicated to, the indefatigable cellists of VC2”. Amahl says that they got a message out of the blue that Chris had written the piece for them. “We thought he was joking. You can never tell with him,” he notes. The duo got to know him during their time in Italy at the soundSCAPE performance and composition exchange in Maccagno in 2018.

In the liner notes, composer Kelly-Marie Murphy explains that her composition for VC2 was “a challenge” that she’d never done before: write for cellos and recorded material. That material comes from the Pathé newsreel of the fiery crash of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. “She used our duo to expand her artistic practice,” Amahl says. “It was really flattering.”

Along with the commissions, the other works have intimate connections. Youell Domenico’s Duet for Two Cellos was written as an exercise in moving beyond tonal harmony. The piece was originally referred to them by a colleague. “We were looking for more Canadian music to perform,” Amahl says. “We’ve played it a lot over the last few years.”

Kati Agócs titular piece, I and Thou, comes from the book of the same name by Israeli philosopher Martin Buber, and refers to his concept of the mutually dependent relationship of two beings. The work was originally commissioned by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York in 2007. Agócs thanks the duo in the liner notes for their premiere recording of her work. Bryan says he first became familiar with it during his days in the National Youth Orchestra. “She was the commissioned composer from that tour,” he says.

Also included is Jocelyn Morlock’s The Violet Hour, inspired by that time just before the sun rises. “We were really familiar with Jocelyn Morlock’s work,” Amahl says, noting they’d seen it in performance at the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto in one of their afternoon recitals. “We saw it performed by people who taught us.”

“The relationship aspect is not just the composers, but the musicians we work with,” Amahl notes. “Steph Chua — she’s kind of a staple in the Canadian classical music scene, and one of the first collaborative pianists I ever worked with.”

Drummer Ben Reimer plays with the duo on Vincent Ho’s track. They know him as a prog rock fan. “It only seemed appropriate to have him play on it.”

Cellist Andrea Stewart joins the duo on Violet Hour. “Andrea I knew from McGill,” Amahl says. “We had played in cello ensembles with her.”

“With our producer, Brian Current, we both go way back with him,” Bryan comments.

They’ll be booking more performances for the new material in the near future in various venues. The new release is available here.


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