Genre-busting andPlay duo transcends contemporary music norms

"andPlay" duo is pictured performing during Tufts Department of Music "andPlay Duo: Glass Screams" virtual event on Oct. 5. Megan Szostak / The Tufts Daily

On Oct. 5, the Tufts Department of Music invited the genre-busting violin-viola duo andPlay to perform a livestreamed concert of contemporary string works by four female composers

The New York City-based duo, consisting of Maya Bennardo (violin) and Hannah Levinson (viola), has known each other since their undergraduate years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio. The musicians formed andPlay after having a residency on Fire Island in New York and performing works for violin and viola in front of an enthusiastic crowd.  

We quickly realized that we loved playing with each other, and we loved having a small ensemble,Levinson said. “But there’s not a lot of music written for violin-viola duo. So that’s kind of where we started commissioning our own works. That’s become the bulk of our repertoire.

Now a well-established duo that has commissioned over 30 works, andPlay often works closely with budding contemporary composers during the composition process.

“There’s a really deep understanding of the pieces because we’ve gone through kind of a process [with the composers],Bennardo said.

With the two musicians’ performing lives having been upended by COVID-19 and the nationwide cancellation of countless live events, Bennardo and Levinson emphasized that as much as listeners miss being in the audience, performers miss being on stage and interacting with a live audience. 

We like to have that kind of dialogue with our audience where we talk about the pieces,” Bennardo said. “A lot of our programs are with music that we have either commissioned, or where we have worked directly with the composers. So we have a lot of background on all these pieces, and we like to be able to share that with the audience, which is a better experience for everyone.

This, however, does not mean that andPlay has given up on dialogue and audience interaction.

“I think we are still going to try to do that in these concerts,Levinson said. “Speaking from a livestream is just a little bit of a different experience.” 

The concert, which was broadcast on YouTube Live, included a live comments section which allowed audience members to offer words of feedback and praise, as well as to ask questions of the musicians, who graciously responded in the chat at the end of the performance. 

The concert, “Glass Screams,” featured four works: “Ghosting [A Shadowy Trace]” (2017) by  Leaha Maria Villarreal; “Letters to My Future Self” (2018) by Leah Asher; “ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing into” (2018) for violin, viola and electronics by Bethany Younge and “My Loves Are In America” (2019) by Carolyn Chen. The two musicians were standing far apart in the same studio, broadcasting live from Brooklyn

From the first piece on the program alone, Bennardo and Levinson proved that they are a dynamic and engaging duo who perform as auditorily as they do visually. Villarreal’s piece was an ethereally dissonant exploration of timbre and responsorial playing, and demonstrated Bennardo and Levinson’s advanced ensembleship. According to Villarreal’s original program notes, which were shared by Bennardo during the livestream, “Ghosting,” which was commissioned for andPlay, “explores absence and presence in our lives through our understanding of ghosts, which has universal meaning spanning spiritual, visual and emotional parameters.” 

Next on the program was Asher’sLetters to My Future Self,” which began with Bennardo setting her violin down and instead picking up a letter addressed to a “future self,” which she proceeded to fervently read aloud, accompanied by Levinson’s musical interjections. The presentation of Asher’s work was nothing short of theatrical and included moments of profound precision on the part of the musicians to points of near discontent, where the performers uttered single syllables using their voices and their instruments again and again, like a skipping track.

The next work to be performed was Younge’sing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing ing into,” which featured the duo accompanied by an electronic track of Younge’s voice. The performers, who played with earpieces and microphones, used their instruments, voices and bodies in this segment and sometimes went through the motions of playing their instruments without ever setting the bow on the string. Bennardo and Levinson let out ear-piercing screams at several moments during the performance as well; Younge’s experimentalism with the human voice in conjunction with bowed acoustic instruments and electronics made for an invigorating performance unlike anything else on the program.

The concert concluded with the most melodic and lengthy piece of the night. “My Loves are in America” was inspired by Chen’s exposure to and love for Irish fiddling music. This work was fluid and diaphanous and showcased Bennardo and Levinson’s musicianship. 

Both musicians expressed their gratitude to Tufts Music for working to make the livestream possible.

We really appreciate everything that the music department has done,” Levinson said. “John McDonald and everybody over there made sure that this concert could still happen, and that it’s going to happen at a really high quality, and that we will hopefully be able to see you all in person another time.”