The Eroica Trio, one of the hottest piano trios making the concert circuit, ended the 28th season of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival with an unforgettable performance. The Festival ran for approximately five weeks and offered a delectable mix of musical events and gourmet meals or picnics and musical events. Concert underwriters were Earle Mauldin and Debbie Davidoff. William Ransom, Artistic Director, announced that veteran chamber player Charles Wadsworth would appear at next year's Festival.
The glamorous and fabulously dressed Eroica Trio now consists of Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello, Erika Nickrenz, piano, and Susie Park, violin. They have won Grammy nominations and, in 1991, the Naumburg Award, which brought them a Lincoln Center debut. They tour internationally and record for Angel/EMI Classic Records. They are famous for their aggressive playing, and at the small Performing Arts Center in Highlands, which seats only several hundred, I felt they simply overplayed the hall. The volume was, in general, excessively loud, with the hammered piano too frequently overshadowing the other instruments. There was also such an exaggeration in mannerisms — head shaking, hair in the face, bow strokes, swaying — that the performance seemed too close to parody, and more about them than the music. Why then all the distracting histrionics, when clearly these are exceptional musicians at the peaks of their careers?
First on the program was Gaspar Cassadó's (1897-1966) only Piano Trio, in C (1926/29). A native of Barcelona, he studied cello with Pablo Casals and composition with Manuel de Falla and Ravel in Paris. The work in three movements — "Allegro risoluto-Allegro ma non troppo," "Tempo moderato e pesante-Allegro giusto-Tempo I," and "Recitativo-Moderato ed appassionato-Rondo (Allegro vivo)" — well suited the Trio's extroverted playing style. Exotic flourishes, extended rhapsodic solo passages, strident ostinati, and colorful string glissandi and strummings characterized the impassioned work.
Next was Édouard Lalo's Piano Trio No. 1, in C minor, Op. 7. Composed in 1850, the work had fallen into obscurity until Sara Sant'Ambrogio tracked down the music; due to their frequent performances, the score has since been reissued. Formally, the work resembles the German model of four movements — "Allegro moderato," "Romance: Andante," "Scherzo: Allegretto," and "Finale: Allegro" — but, internally, French and Spanish influences are also heard. The standout movements were the "Romance," a song without words begun first in the piano and the "Scherzo," with its humorous tricky, tripping main theme, where there was some of the best ensemble playing of the evening.
The concert proceeded without intermission to the final piece, a suite of three movements arranged by Brazilian-born New Yorker Raimundo Penaforte from Bernstein's West Side Story. Like the transcriptions of the Carmen suites featuring solo violin, this, too, is an exploration of what is technically possible on each instrument, using "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," and "America" as the display vehicles. We heard scales off the chart, harmonics, double stops, ripped glissandi, extremes of register and, in the last movement, a general romping, merry cacophony. The middle movement afforded a rare moment of quiet playing featuring a gorgeous solo high in the violin. The encore was a Raimundo Penaforte arrangement of Grieg's Piano Prelude No. 3.
Note: The 2009 season of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival ends Saturday October 10 with a performance by the Vega String Quartet and distinguished readers of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ our Savior. The venue is the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Highlands, and the time is 5:00 p.m. For more information, call 828/526-9060 or visit http://www.h-cmusicfestival.org/.