For a musician, there is something empowering about watching two professional violinists exchange relatable banter on YouTube. But when I saw the YouTube duo TwoSet Violin perform live in San Francisco on Friday, the moments of magic were few and far between.
The duo, composed of Brisbane-based Brett Yang and Eddy Chen, has attracted over 7.5 million followers across social media with its comedic videos, ranging from musical charades to tracks dissing K-pop group Blackpink. Despite recently receiving allegations of exploiting employees, TwoSet still managed to fill a 1687-seat theater with a balanced mix of teens, college students and middle-aged adults.
The program mirrored TwoSet’s typical online content: an amusing delivery of classical music performances interspersed with humor, aimed to resonate with musicians’ experiences while educating non-musicians on the genre. Yang and Chen began with a “violin charades” concerto, only to be interrupted by an adjudicator of a fictional “Classical Music Academy” appearing on the screen, threatening to send them a copyright strike of the concert if they did not pass a “Ling Ling Exam.” (Ling Ling is a TwoSet-imagined fictional prodigy who practices, paradoxically, 40 hours per day.)
For the rest of the 1.5-hour performance, Yang and Chen completed a series of musical challenges required by the exam, such as hula-hooping while playing Massenet’s “Meditation” or performing a trio blindfolded (accompanied by Austrian pianist and violinist Sophie Druml).
To my disappointment, there were numerous instances in the performance where I found myself unmoved by the duo’s intentional cracks.
The third task in the “repertoire” section, where Chen, Yang and Druml competed for the melody in Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata,” was full of ups and downs. I was not particularly amused by the three physically fighting for the solo parts, knocking one musician off the piano bench or grabbing another’s violin; these were simply unconvincing.
Instead, certain moments in the musical arrangement proved much more intriguing. Chen banging on the high register of the piano to disrupt Druml’s playing was not at all random motion — the notes fit into the bass parts to form an interesting texture.
Another attempt at acting came during the hula-hooping challenge of the exam’s “repertoire” portion, when the two started lifting one leg and pretending to almost fall over. I was more impressed by their ability to deliver a decent rendition of “Meditation” while hula-hooping nonstop for five minutes than by their comedy.
As the duo split themselves between refreshing performances and lackluster acting, I was torn between cringing at the comedy and marveling at the music. I found myself asking why this was the case. Why didn’t I enjoy their content offscreen?
I first discovered TwoSet Violin’s YouTube channel during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Stuck in quarantine, I found TwoSet videos comforting. They gave me a realistic window into classical musicianship within the lives of two friends, in a time when human company was much needed.
But this down-to-earth realism can hardly be transferred onto the theater stage, where the performer is so physically and symbolically distant from the audience. What is required to captivate the audience is either convincing drama (as an actor does) or virtuosic spectacle (as a soloist does).
TwoSet’s concert exists in this liminal space of drama and music, with their skill levels slightly lacking for both. It certainly did not help that the Sydney Goldstein Theater did not have traditional concert hall acoustics, and the microphone did not effectively transfer their speaking or playing.
Regardless, there were several moments of the Friday show where I was impressed by TwoSet’s artistry. At the end of the Ling Ling exam, the duo decided to “trick” the Classical Music Academy’s copyright strike system by fooling the music analysis algorithm. They played a medley of tunes that took inspiration from famous classical pieces but turned them upside down.
My favorite was Chen, Yang and Druml putting Beethoven’s famously dark “Moonlight Sonata” into a major key, prompting the recognition algorithm on screen to display a confused “Sunlight Sonata???”
Another was when the trio transposed Vivaldi’s “Summer” into a higher-pitched key, hence turning it into “Summer … with global warming.”
These arrangements were innovative and amusing to any musician in the room who recognized the original pieces from which they took inspiration. The algorithm’s display of the recognized tunes also conveniently helped educate non-musicians on classical repertoire.
I walked away from the theater feeling unsatisfied with the concert, for which I paid more than $100. But I do not blame TwoSet. It takes more than humor and musical talent to deliver a fantastic comedy-classical music mash-up performance. I will still click on TwoSet’s next video with the same anticipation I had before, and I’ll appreciate their onscreen realism just the same.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.