Cassie Yukawa and Rosey Chan: Beauty and the beat

Cassie Yukawa and Rosey Chan combine musical virtuosity with good looks, says Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

Last week I found myself watching Yukawa singing, dancing, and playing in Georges Aperghis's extraordinary Little Red Riding Hood at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London: a gifted mime artist, she commanded the stage. And, tonight, these women make their Wigmore Hall debut with a varied programme of Bach, Rachmaninov, Holloway, and Andriessen. The pair are suddenly making a very big impact. What makes them tick?

We meet at the Almeida rehearsal rooms during a break in their 10-hour practice day, and they eagerly rattle through their "how we met", which was on the competition circuit in Richmond when they were eight. Chan's mother is Taiwanese and her father hails from Hong Kong, but she is British born and bred; Yukawa moved to London when she was four. As the years went by, the girls took it in turns to win: each saw the other as an artistic threat and a sartorial challenge. Yukawa: "I thought she was very musical. But I also liked how she looked - punky, with Doc Martens and frizzy hair." Chan: "I loved the way she played, her accuracy and imagination - and also her elegant clothes." They both went to the Royal College of Music but limited their contact to smiling at each other in the corridor. However, their teacher, Yonty Solomon, began to notice they had the same musical quirks.

They graduated together, whereupon Yukawa decided to forsake the piano and pursue an interest in photography: she was leaving to organise an exhibition in Japan when the phone rang. Chan had been invited to stage a concert, and asked Yukawa if she'd like to make a duo. "I'd always seen myself as a soloist," she says. "But when I left college I realised the life was too solitary for me." Yukawa: "I had always thought duos were what pianists did when they didn't have the guts to go it alone. A cop-out, not a serious musical career." But at their first rehearsal they clicked, and now can't think of doing anything else. Yukawa: "Duo-playing offers a much wider sound-world than solo, with double the possibilities. I'm naturally wild and impulsive, but since joining forces with Rosey I've become more focused."

The Labeque sisters are their heroes - they'd love to get coaching from them - but they've also been watching the Turkish Pekinel twins. Unlike the Pekinels, who arrange their pianos so they can't see each other, Yukawa and Chan make a fetish out of eye-contact. Yukawa: "Eye-contact is what I feed off. I don't know what Rosey is going to do at any given moment, and I don't want to know until we're on stage. I'm totally on a wire." Chan feels the same: "It's not so much about signalling to each other, as seeing how the other is feeling."

Do they ever disagree? They look momentarily stumped. Yukawa: "A disagreement is a spur to try out new things." But surely one of them must be dominant? Yukawa: "I do the admin, but Rosey is a fantastic networker." Musically, says Chan, dominance shifts back and forth. Yukawa: "If one of us were to become permanently dominant, that would mean the end of the duo." What are Chan's musical strengths? Yukawa: "Natural sense of line and phrasing. And I'm in love with her tone." Chan's views on Yukawa complete the symmetry: "The most amazing tone, but she always comes out with new ideas."

But they are visibly different animals: while Chan has sturdy repose, Yukawa is nervier, more questing. How Asian do they feel? Chan: "Though I speak with my parents in Chinese, I feel very English. But though you can take a girl out of China, you can't take China out of the girl." Yukawa's reply reflects a more interesting journey. Her banker father had wanted to be a classical pianist, but he was killed when a passenger jet crashed into a mountain 20 years ago. "I was very much his girl, and my memories of him are very clear," she says. "When I was 15 I went on a personal journey to try to discover why that mysterious crash had happened. I talked to experts and engineers, and climbed the mountain, a beautiful place with lots of waterfalls. When we got to the crash site I ran on ahead, but began hyperventilating when I found the sign for the place where his body was found, and the reality of having lost him sank in. Now I realise I was using that trauma as a way of masking other questions which needed to be answered. I'm past that now." She gives Chan a shamefaced grin: "She puts up with a lot of this from me. But I am a naturally inquisitive person."

That's something which shows itself in her intentions about where the duo should go artistically. "We want to consider new ways of presenting what we do. We love playing in conventional concert-halls - there's a timeless beauty about that which we never want to lose - but we also want make contact with a contemporary audience." So they're thinking about mixed-media experiments, first of all in a video with film-maker Mike Figgis's son Arlen, whom they've provided with a stack of surreal images to get his imagination going. Classic FM wants them aboard: it's only a matter of time, I'd guess, before some fashion company snaps them up as Chanel did the young American violinist Leila Josefowicz, and Chan's friends in the designer world will doubtless see to that. And the duo are not exactly unwilling. Yukawa: "We just happen to like dressing up - we'll never need to get married." But isn't it awkward to perform in six-inch stilettos? Chan: "It's actually much easier - you get more leverage. I like playing barefoot, but I wear high heels every day and I'm used to that angle."

Yukawa-Chan play Wigmore Hall, London W1, tonight (020-7935 2141)