Double act brings classical music to the masses

 

Two violinists supporting Atomic Kitten? Duel are Pete Waterman's latest project, writes Tony Clayton-Lea

As success stories go, you'll have to admit it's a good one: in the early Noughties, two struggling, budding classical musicians, Craig Owen and Greg Scott - each studying at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music - had been busking around the Northern parts of England to supplement their meagre student incomes. It seemed likely that on graduation they would find their true calling in an orchestra, and there they would remain.

And yet, they considered, look at Vanessa Mae, the Opera Babes, Bond and various other classically trained musicians who had opted out of the traditional routes for a career in classical music. Hhhmm, they pondered - but isn't it easier for women? A slinky silk dress and a strategically positioned violin bow or cello seemed to be the way forward. Oh, yes, the talent was undoubtedly there, but so were the looks and the glamour. And, dammit, the sex appeal.

When twenty-somethings Craig and Greg were approached by a middle-aged, grey-haired, balding man in Manchester a year or so ago, they might have baulked at what they thought was coming. Thankfully, pop impresario Pete Waterman - the man who brought the likes of Kylie, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley and Sonia to the masses - asked them something more important: did they love classical music?

Fast-forward 18 months. Craig and Greg are now called Duel, their eponymous début album is a bestseller on the classical charts, and in the past 15 months they have supported the likes of Joss Stone, Bryan Ferry, Atomic Kitten and kd lang. Which leads swiftly onto the question: what exactly is going on?

Craig and Greg are sitting in their dressing room at the Olympia Theatre, preparing to set foot on stage as support to kd lang.

They look like refugees from Boy Band Central: dressed in black, hair gelled to the tips, make-up just so, sharp cheekbones intact. Lovely chaps. Classical musicians. Polite. This pair may have busked on the streets, but they're no Mike Skinner.

While the reality is that listening audiences for classical music and the circulation of classical music magazines is growing, the clichéd perception of classical music is that there are still people out there who think you have to have a degree in Advanced Maths to appreciate it.

"That's why we love touring with pop acts," says Greg, "because we are bringing the music to a completely different set of people. They make their minds up at the end of the set, but so far it has been really positive wherever we've played."

Craig likens their show to a conversation - they throw melodies at each other and trust they'll be caught in time to respond. Greg, meanwhile, says that if there were little or no chemistry between them, then the sight and sound of two men playing violins wouldn't really mean a lot.

They cite as influences and inspirations Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grapelli, Anne-Sophie Mutter and - naturally - Nigel Kennedy. "He's got that extra zip and energy. It's the whole package with him - the personality, the image, the music, great technique - everything, basically," says Craig admiringly. Then he adds the clincher: "He's an entertainer." And there's the rub: while Craig and Greg can play classical violin like the classically trained violin players they are, it's clear they are finding the entertaining part - the bits that make a live audience feel they are experiencing something quite different from the norm - somewhat more difficult to master.

Later that evening on stage, they run through selections from their début (including Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, Pachelbel's Canon, Riyuchi Sakamoto's Theme from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) with all the dynamism of cold candle wax. As they don white jackets and start to dance with each other - this in a Strictly Come Dancing fashion - their stage show takes on all the resonance of a down-the-bill act in The Good Old Days.

You half expect MC Leonard Sachs to come on stage and reward Duel with a splendiferous, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious array of multi-syllabled epithets and encomiums. Young girls scream at them, says Craig and Greg, but with such a drippy, unintentionally camp stage act you'd really have to wonder why.

They also claim that Peter Waterman - who produced Duel's album as well as introducing the lads to the expert professional management know-how of former Virgin Records boss, Irishman Paul Conroy - had never wanted to change their ideas.

"He just told us to go away," says Craig, "and make our ideas cleverer."

Both Craig and Greg are aware of the novelty-value tag, but say that before any judgements are made people should listen to the music and see the stage act.

"We don't think of us as a novelty act," says Greg, approaching sniffiness but backing off at the last second. "We're classically trained musicians."

"We're doing what we've been dreaming of," stresses Craig reasonably. "Pete Waterman has opened a door or two, yes, and he has helped us take classical music to loads of people. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"

Will serious classical music lovers listen to the music, look at you and your show and dismiss all of it out of hand? Greg: "We'd hope our musicianship as two classically trained performers would shine through and they'd appreciate that." Do you see the inherent perception of the seriousness of classical music performance as a barrier you have to overcome? Craig: "Not really, because we're going all over the world, and every concert is a new experience for us and a great opportunity. I trust my mum's judgement and she likes what we do!"

Their age and the way they scrub up also helps the pair to break down whatever barriers there might be, implies Greg. "Pop fans see us as good-looking blokes in our early 20s - not some person who might look like Schubert."

Duel (the album) is currently on release. For more information about Duel (Craig Owen and Greg Scott) visit www.weareduel.com/site.html