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For the second time in a week, a major chamber music series began its 2002-03 season with a visiting piano trio. On September 14, the Chamber Arts Society presented, for the first time in the Triangle, the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey trio. Like the Ahn Trio that opened the William S. Newman series last week in Chapel Hill, each member of this trio boasts Juilliard credentials. Pianist Navah Perlman (OK, I'll give in with the obligatory remark that she is the daughter of legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman), cellist Zuill Bailey and violinist Giora Schmidt are a trio of outstanding individual soloists. This can be seen by the artist biographies in the program notes. It would be nearly impossible not to compare two identical ensembles, with a recent one still fresh in my mind, so I must confess from the start that I could not avoid comparing this performance to last week's Ahn trio. I think the key here is that they are a relatively new group, having just been formed in 1998. While there was certainly nothing especially "wrong" with their performance, at times they sounded like, well, three outstanding soloists.
There's nothing like a bright, peppy trio-sonata to start out an evening of chamber music. Antonio Lotti is a little-known Italian baroque composer who wrote mostly choral music. This Sonata in G, originally in F and scored for flute, viola da gamba, and continuo, is in typical slow-fast-slow-fast baroque sonata form. The Largo began with a lovely theme played by Bailey on his 1693 Matteo Goffriller cello, a wonderfully rich, yet focused sound that would serve as the focal point for most of the evening. Even the most jaded critics or grumpy musicologists cannot resist the infectious driving rhythm of well-played fast sections of these sonatas and this was no exception. The trio played these at a very brisk tempo, with great energy and spirit.
Beethoven's Trio in B-Flat, Op. 11, was originally written for clarinet, cello and piano but soon violinists were eager to take hold of what became a very popular work. Here is when I first felt a kind of disconnect among the trio's members. Cellist Bailey was the one who seemed to move towards the others both physically and musically to attempt some communication but Perlman and Schmidt for the most part remained buried in the printed score. There was also a tightness that came from several passages that Perlman seemed to struggle with a bit. The Adagio movement gave the performers a chance to show their lyrical phrasing before the final movement's theme and variations on a playful and well-known tune from a popular opera of the day.
Despite the official biography of the group which tells of "the charisma of the artists - both in their music making in their dialogues with audiences", the only dialogue during the evening was Perlman's brief introduction to Lowell Liebermann's Trio No. 2 for Violin, Piano and Cello, Op. 77, in one movement. While there are no real pauses, this is certainly a piece that is in several clearly delineated, contrasting sections. This Trio, premiered by these artists in November, 2001, is a work that seems like a thickly-textured late Romantic composition with some "modern" effects thrown in. Works such as these should be given multiple hearings for a fair evaluation, but it should at least make you want to hear it a second time.
One of the most difficult tasks for any performer(s) is to play a so-called "warhorse", a work that has become so well-known and played so often, and to still make it sound fresh, new and exciting. In the piano trio realm, Franz Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-Flat, D.898, deserves its status as one of the most beloved chamber works of all time. There were moments during this performance where you could see glimpses of the potential greatness of this group. This was especially evident in the Andante movement which contains one of those incredible Schubert melodies; simple yet profound, both mournful and joyous. For the first time there was some eye contact between the piano and strings and you could hear a noticeable difference in the feeling coming off the stage. This newly-found communication continued on throughout the piece. Perhaps it was just the love of this glorious work that awakened this trait that seemed to be missing earlier.
A big notice and bravo should be given to the persons responsible for something often overlooked: quality program notes. These were well-written without being pedantic and provided just enough information to give some background on the composer and the work. There was nearly a full house and the popularity of chamber music in our area is thriving. Let's get some younger people attending these also. You don't have to be over 50 to enjoy this great music!