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Culture

Musical duo mixes love and work

Love and music go hand in hand for musical duo Christoph Blickling and Suzanna Hlinka. Performing around the world for over 10 years, they've found that passion and compromise are crucial to both music and marriage.

The white rabbit under the grand piano watches, transfixed, as horsehair slides along the long gut strings and Beethoven fills the air. Welcome to the world of husband-and-wife cello-piano duo Christoph Blickling and Suzanna Hlinka, and their white rabbit.

It was a simple music assignment at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music on the Australian east coast which brought these two musicians together in 2001. In search of a piano accompanist for a Vivaldi cello sonata, 18-year-old Christoph sought out Suzanna.

Not particularly keen on the idea, her repeated refusal didn't perturb the persistent cellist, who kept asking until, 10 years later with a diamond ring in hand, he went down on one knee and proffered the time honored question that sealed the partnership.

On average, the duo's pet rabbit hears 10 hours of music a day, seven days a week. Such is the life of a classical musician, between teaching students six days a week and daily practice. Add to that duo rehearsals and chamber music rehearsals with collaborating artists in the couple's local Eloquenz concert series.

Listen to audio 04:38

Listen to the interview with Christoph Blickling and Suzanna Hlinka

"Ten thousand hours is what research shows is the minimum amount of time needed to reach expert level in any field," says Suzanna. "This applies to anyone from Tiger Woods to Bill Gates to a violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic, and what's more, it has to be 10,000 hours of purposeful quality practice. You can't be playing scales and thinking about what's for dinner later."

Musical beginnings

Suzanna, who received her doctorate of music in performance psychology from the University of Western Australia, certainly knows her craft and the level of commitment and perseverance required. She was just three years old when she took her first piano lesson. Seven years later she was playing concertos with professional orchestras in her home state.

Her Czech father, a professional violinist, was well known in musical circles behind the Iron Curtain and once received a personal telegram from composer Dmitri Shostakovich congratulating him on his playing. In the late 1960s, Vojta Hlinka met Suzanna's mother, a piano teacher, in Mannheim, Germany. Difficult political circumstances in their native Czech Republic led the couple to immigrate to Australia, where Suzanna was later born.

German-born Christoph, who arrived on Australian shores as a 10-year-old, is the only professional musician in his family. "If someone had told me that I would study in Brisbane and meet my future wife there, and then move to Prague, Weimar and Switzerland and then to Bonn, I would have thought they were crazy," Christoph chuckles.

This international pair speak five languages between them - plus the language of music. "Duo playing is completely different to solo performance," says Christoph. "Obviously the rehearsal process can be a lot more intense. Two strong personalities, two different sets of ideas - at the end of the day, though, you have to reach a compromise."

"Points like phrasing, tempo, and shaping of melody and harmony are things we need to discuss sometimes," reflects Suzanna.

Blickling and Hlinka on their wedding day in October 2012. The private event took place on an idyllic beach in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Blickling and Hlinka on their wedding day at the beach in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

But, according to Christoph, the differences in their musical personalities are enriching for their performance. "Having your musical interpretation challenged by another musician is good because it forces you to think more deeply about the score and what the composer is trying to express," says the cellist.

When it comes to musical taste, the couple agree: Beethoven, Schumann and Grieg are among their favorites, though their Eloquenz concert series has seen them perform works ranging from Bach to Glinka to contemporary Australian composers such as Ross Edwards.

Harmony and discord at home

"We've lived together in three different countries, and everywhere we go, whether it be Asia or Europe or Australia, we always face the same problem in the city - neighbors!" says Suzanna. Hours of scales and avant-garde harmonies have not endeared the couple to too many neighbors.

"Beethoven probably had the same problem. He moved at least 27 different times in his lifetime," says Suzanna.

Marriage can be challenging enough for those who don't work together, but add to this rehearsing and performing side by side and managing a busy teaching school. What's their secret?

"It's quite simple," explains Suzanna. "On the one hand we're best friends, and I feel I can share everything with Christoph. Then there's the musical aspect, and having the same passion which fulfils the creative drive and desire. And then. . ."

"There's love!" exclaims Christoph. As they strike the final cadence, their white rabbit applauds, "Bravissimo!"

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