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Acclaimed Canadian violinists and brothers Nikki and Timothy Chooi got their start as a duo not on the rarefied concert stage or in any hallowed halls of a music conservatory.

Instead, they began on the bustling streets of their hometown of Victoria, B.C., specifically, its Inner Harbour, where they once busked for coins as young children to then splurge on ice cream.

It’s a humble beginning for the two close-knit siblings now billed as "prizefighters" for their Manitoba Chamber Orchestra debut in a South American-themed season opener at 1 and 7:30 p.m. at Westminster United Church, with both performances led by MCO music director Anne Manson.

"We were really cute," Timothy, 25, says over the phone with a chuckle, remembering when he was only four and older brother Nikki was nine. "Tons of tourists would crowd around us and just watch for entertainment. We loved it and it became a fun way to practise together, as well as a lesson in how to perform for a crowd that has carried into our professional lives."

In addition to performing as a duo, the Chooi Brothers continue to hone highly acclaimed individual solo careers, each performing with orchestras and chamber groups worldwide. Nikki, now 30, was appointed concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the 2016-17 season, and won first prize at the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in New Zealand and the Astral Artists’ Auditions in 2013. He was also laureate of the 2012 Queen Elizabeth Violin Competition. He has performed around the globe, touring extensively with Chamber Music New Zealand, recorded his debut album in 2015 and was featured as guest artist during Australia’s Musica Viva Recital Series.

Nikki has also appeared several times with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, including sharing the stage with one of his mentors, WSO concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, whom he first met — as did his brother — while participating in the Morningside Music Bridge International Music Festival, a month-long summer music institute for exceptionally talented young musicians, for which Hoebig and her pianist husband, David Moroz, served on the faculty. "She’s an amazing person and an amazing musician," Nikki says. "I have a lot of respect for her and for her husband David as well."

Timothy, a recent graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, earned the prestigious Grand Prix of the 71st Montreal Symphony Orchestra Standard Life Competition at age 16 in 2010, and picked up the bronze medal at the 2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, among others. His 2010 prize opened doors to a host of subsequent orchestral debuts around the world, including performances with the Santa Barbara Symphony, National Symphony of Costa Rica, Auckland Philharmonia and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the orchestras in Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, to name a few.

The two string players joined forces for Nikki’s graduation recital from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2012, where they performed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56. They realized how closely aligned their artistic sensibilities were — joyfully playing off each other — which has led to annual concert dates as a duo augmenting their respective solo performances. Their professional union has also borne rich fruit by their commissioning a growing body of new works for the genre, including Canadian pianist-composer Marc-André Hamelin’s Reverie, which they premièred last week in Vancouver.

Tonight’s program features J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, fondly known as the "Bach Double," and Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a steamy re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Baroque masterpiece, The Four Seasons, with the four movements being divvied up between the two players.

Nikki Chooi rehearses with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Nikki Chooi rehearses with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It’s very groovy," Timothy says, when asked to describe the latter work. "It’s also very suave and will be very unexpected for most audience listeners, but highly relatable."

The question often on many lips is whether or not the two musicians had to grapple with potential sibling rivalry while growing up. However, both brothers quickly put that notion to rest. Their mutual respect and deep admiration for each other is palpable.

"We might be competitive in other things, but never in music," Timothy says emphatically. "The combination of us playing the same instrument and being in the same industry, as well as our age difference, has allowed us to support each other rather than competing neck and neck. It’s made us very close."

Nikki concurs, elaborating further on how they manage to keep their chosen repertoire fresh — such as the Bach Double they first learned as children in the Suzuki program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and have since performed countless times internationally.

"We always have so much fun playing together that it’s going to be fresh, no matter what," Nikki says. "The two of us also play with a lot of other people as well, so that every time we perform together, it’s almost like coming back home while playing with the closest person I know."

"I’ve performed with other great violinists, but whenever I play with Timmy, it’s just very different. It’s something more than just rehearsing and getting it together and is almost organic. We feel it naturally together, or we know what’s going to happen. There’s that bond."

Fine fiddles are like thoroughbreds of the orchestral world, often valued in the millions of dollars. Nikki plays a custom-made, three-year-old instrument built by Toronto-born luthier Joseph Curtin, while Timothy performs on a decidedly older, 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank.

It’s a long way from the pair of wooden chopsticks Timothy used to scrape together for hours as a three-year-old, emulating Nikki’s daily practice sessions, until his computer-scientist father crafted a "violin" from cardboard that became the prototype before his first "real" instrument.

Besides Hoebig and Moroz, the Choois have another Manitoba musical connection. When Nikki makes his debut as concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the concert will have Brandon-born violinist James Ehnes making a guest appearance, performing Korngold’s Violin Concerto in early October.

"We know a lot of people in Winnipeg, and it’s always a joy whenever we get to perform there," Timothy says, with his elder brother Nikki adding his own perspective.

"We call it our Prairie home," he says.

holly.harris@shaw.ca