Sister act: Yolanda and Carmen Bruno combine for violin-cello duo at Festival Pontiac Enchanté

Yolanda and Carmen Bruno

Sisters Carmen and Yolanda Bruno have come full circle. The Ottawa natives have both returned to Canada after several years in Europe and they are back playing together again, much as they did as young performers.

This week, they will be on the stage at the Venturing Hills concert space north of Ottawa in the Pontiac playing a challenging program of modern and not-so modern pieces from the violin-cello repertoire as part of Festival Pontiac Enchanté.

While they will play some Bach, Ravel and Kodaly, the sisters also like playing contemporary work in these pairings.

“There is a lot written for cello and violin, but not a lot of it is really great music. So we have begun searching and experimenting with things that work for us,” Yolanda says.

One of those is a piece by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks whose Duo for Violin and Cello ‘Castillo Interior’  was written in 2014.

Carmen explained that the title of the work is drawn from a book by Teresa of Avila in 1577, the nun and mystic. Vasks pulled music out of this reading that is at once contemplative and “medieval sounding” paired with some “really fiery passages.”

Vasks grew up under Soviet rule and faced a lot of challenges in beginning of his career, she said. A lot of his music has spiritual references, she added.

The sisters have really been back playing together seriously for about a year. They both have settled in the Plateau district of Montreal and live about 20 minutes walking distance apart.

“We did dabble in duo playing in high school but I don’t think we were mature enough to get along,” she said with a laugh.

The sisters grew up in Ottawa and attended Immaculata High School. Yolanda headed first to McGill University and then to London, England where she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Carmen moved to study music at the conservatory in Amsterdam. Both sisters have Dutch passports as their mother is Dutch.

Carmen came back to Canada in 2015 to continue her studies at McGill and Yolanda returned a year later to work as a freelance musician.

“Now we both live in Montreal and it has been fantastic rediscovering making music together,” Yolanda said.

The sisters enjoyed their times in Europe.

“A lot of people go because a lot of the music we play is from Europe. And each country has different way they approach music. It was fascinating to discover that,” Yolanda says.

For Carmen, travelling in Europe is easy and she said “you hear a lot of different voices in cities such as Amsterdam. You are exposed to a lot of different stuff.”

But they are glad to be back in Canada because the music culture here, Yolanda says, is more open.

“One incredible thing about playing in Canada is there is an openness to music. There is room to do things in a way that in certain European countries you can’t.

“You can make a living here,” she says. “There is a lot happening in Europe but it’s not that easy to make a living in Europe. The orchestras don’t pay as much as we think they pay.”

The other thing that drew Yolanda home: “I missed my family and I missed my home here.”

Carmen describes herself as a “go with the flow kind of person. Coming home seemed like the logical thing to do. At the time there were more opportunities for me in Canada.

These day’s she’s working on her PhD at McGill. “Hopefully by time I’m 30 I’ll be out of school.”

The sisters have known the Becke family that runs Venturing Hills “since we were children. Carson (Becke, artistic director of Festival Enchate) and I have played together a few times and Carmen has played with him as well.”

They enjoy playing in the setting recalling one concert in particular when the audience was clapping and stomping their feet. The concert hall is above a stable and the horses started kicking their stalls too.

Yolanda plays the violin like her mother.

“As a child I wanted to do everything my mom was doing so I wanted to play violin. She was reluctant but eventually she gave me an instrument.”

Carmen handles the cello. But she didn’t start there.

“Against my wishes I started on violin. I didn’t want to play it because everyone I knew played one. After much begging I was allowed to switch to cello. I was much happier on the cello.

The sisters will play together again in the spring in Ottawa and at another event in the summer on a 200 year old farm in  Hinchinbrooke, Quebec, near the U.S. border.

They will play the same repertoire as the concert this weekend.

The sisters believe it is important to perform the work of contemporary composers, such as the German Jörn Widmann, who was a composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic.

The sisters are playing extracts from his 24 Duos for Violin and Cello.

“He is well respected German composer. has a sister who is a violinist and he writes well for strings. These pieces are so experimental, so quirky and in your face at times, Yolanda says.

“I’m constantly listening to new music. It feels to me to be a reflection of our time. You kind of feel you know these composers in a way you don’t when you are playing Mozart.”

Carmen was exposed to a lot of new music in Amsterdam.

“We had a great composition department with some very creative students. We played a lot of new pieces. It was a chance to get to collaborate with a living composer and hear what they are looking for and what their motivation is.”

The sisters are practicing what they preach by commissioning a piece of music for violin and cello from Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy.

“The lives of composers are really challenging,” Yolanda says. “That’s another reason why we need to commission them. Mozart doesn’t get any benefit when we play his music 200 times a year. We need to support the art of our times.

“It’s exciting to have a living composer write something for you with your personalities in mind. We can’t wait,” she added.

Yolanda and Carmen Bruno, Duo Recital
Festival Pontiac Enchanté
Where: Venturing Hills Concert Studio, Pontiac, Quebec
When: Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information about upcoming concerts:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.