Brother-sister team offers new violin sonata

Arts / Article

Suliman and Jamila Tekalli.

The Tekalli Duo, a brother-and-sister violin-and-piano partnership from Winter Park, Fla. have been playing music together since they were children, and while there were the inevitable sibling tensions, today they are busily building a career.

“There were pencils flying at some point,” said pianist Jamila Tekalli.

“But no major injuries,” said her brother, violinist Suliman Tekalli.

The duo performs tonight at Barry University in Miami Shores, and on Sunday afternoon at Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Palmetto Bay. They’ll perform works by Olivier Messaien (his early Theme and Variations), the Ukrainian jazz-crossover pianist Nikolai Kapustin (Violin Sonata, Op. 70), the Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch’s Nigun, and Ravel, in Suliman’s arrangement of four movements from Le Tombeau de Couperin.

The other work on the program is a new sonata by the American composer Michael Brown, written for the duo this past year and premiered by them in November at an arts festival in Orlando. The Tekallis raised money for the Brown commission and their current tour — which takes them to Connecticut, New York and Mexico in the coming months — through a Kickstarter campaign in September that brought in nearly $4,000, when the pair had sought just $2,500.

“Kickstarter is a great way to begin a project that goes beyond the normal closed routes of raising money, which can be very insular,” said Suliman, a graduate of the Juilliard School and the Cleveland Institute of Music who is currently pursuing an artist’s diploma at Yale with Hyo Kang. “Because it’s part of this new wave of social media, it was a great way to put out our project and get it immediately out there, not just to people we meet and talk to within our immediate network, but also to a broader public.”

And doing a freshly composed piece was central to the mission, Jamila said.

“We have a big passion for new music,” said Jamila, 29, a graduate of Indiana University, the University of Central Florida, and a current doctoral student in piano performance at the University of Miami. “The way classical music is going, I think we really need to pay attention to what is being made now.”

Suliman met Brown, a New York-based composer, when they were both students and cabin mates at a music camp in the Adirondacks. Brown had written a single-movement violin and piano work, “Echoes of Byzantium,” and Suliman wanted him to write a sonata that could be transformed into a concerto. But as he began working more with Jamila, the focus of the work changed.

“It evolved into having a piece that was more equal for violin and piano,” he said, and the result was a 16-minute, three-movement work whose formal structure hearkens back to that of the Violin Sonata of Richard Strauss, with a large slow movement that transitions to what Suliman calls a “very quick, barnstormer-esque finale.”

Jamila said Brown’s piece is “very much a dialogue” for the two instruments. “In a lot of ways, that makes it equal,” she said, citing its rhythmic profile and the tradeoff of harmonies between the two instruments.

“The second movement itself ends with a lot of contemplation that in some ways is not completely answered,” Suliman said. “And then that connective tissue between the second and third movements is a sort of psychological segue into this crazy third movement.”

The children of a Libyan aeronautical engineer and a Japanese dancer who met in Daytona Beach, the Tekallis performed in their father’s home country before the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.

“We were originally invited by the U.S. Embassy in Libya to perform as part of a cross-cultural exchange,” Jamila said. “We performed at Tripoli University for the students there, and that was an amazing experience. They were very, very excited to hear us, and they were very interested in Western music.”

Soon after, however, Gadhafi’s government began to crumble, she said, and future cultural exchanges are on hold until the political situation settles. But the two are eager to play music from different cultural traditions, and indeed have programmed music by a Japanese composer in the past. They are believers in the idea that the arts can facilitate dialogue between cultures that don’t know much about each other.

“Music is something that everyone can understand as a language on a certain level,” Jamila said. “I think if it’s going to happen, it will happen through music.”

Some of the other music on the program reflects a melding of compositional cultures, in particular the Kapustin sonata. The composer spent much of his work life as a jazz pianist, and that informs his musical voice, but the Tekallis find the energy of another popular form within it.

“What I love about this piece is not only is it combining jazz, it’s also combining progressive rock, especially the last movement,” Jamila said. “You’re just grooving with it. It’s so much fun.”

Suliman said the duo’s first performance of the sonata in Orlando was a memorable experience.

“I didn’t know what to expect in the performance, but one of the things that struck me in that third movement was I felt like I had two huge amps behind me. Jamila basically has to play every other part … she’s playing the bass, she’s playing the drums, she’s playing the whole texture,” he said, then imitated the sound and rhythm of the sonata’s propulsive finale. “I was thinking, ‘Man, this is an intense piece.’”

The Bloch work, Nigun, from his trilogy Baal Shem, evokes the Jewish cantorial tradition in its ecstatic, improvisatory layout. Suliman said the duo added the work to its programming on the same concert as the Brown sonata, which premiered as the world was observing the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

“We wanted to make a gesture of respect,” he said, and additionally, the music fits well into the Tekallis’ programming orientation. “Kapustin involves a lot of written-out improvisation; ‘Nigun’ (reflects) the cantorial practice of improvising. It also has such a tremendous beginning. We thought it’d be a great way to open the night.”

Suliman he also takes a cue from jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1964 classic album A Love Supreme, which opens with a powerful flourish from Coltrane before settling into its first groove. “The way that opens invites one in,” he said. “That’s how I wanted to bring people in, to (show) that this is the direction we’re going in this program … I think that’s also what we want to do with our performances in general. We don’t want people to feel locked into their seats.”

The Tekallis will be performing in Brooklyn in February at Barbès, a bar and performance space in the Park Slope neighborhood. That’s in keeping with today’s trend of classical presentations in bars and other unusual spaces.

“It’s that intimate vibe that I think classical music in a lot of ways has lost or been out of touch with,” Jamila said, adding that her colleagues in Miami have been performing in art galleries and other salon-style settings. “I think that’s really important, because that’s where your art folk are, that’s where the cultural centers are for our generation, and that’s exactly who we need to be targeting.”

The Tekalli Duo’s mini-concert at Barry University’s Gato Gallery begins at 7 p.m. Friday and includes the Brown Violin Sonata; the full concert Sunday at Old Cutler Presbyterian’s Davis Chapel begins at 4 p.m. Tickets for the Cutler concert are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students. Visit for more information.