\It's a simple recipe: thousands of hours locked in a small room practicing your instrument, admission to a prestigious music conservatory, first prize in a major competition or two and bam, before you know it you're traveling the world, staying in Hilton hotels on every continent. Although major awards and international competitions have existed for quite a long time for individual performers, a chamber music ensemble coming under scrutiny from judge and jury is a relatively new phenomenon. One of the youngest beneficiaries of this is the piano trio named Trio con Brio Copenhagen. They arrived at Duke University's Reynolds Auditorium with an impressive resume of top prizes too numerous to list. The most coveted of that list is the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award which put the final nudge over the top for a busy international career.*
This particular "Trio con Brio" is Jens Elvekjaer, piano, and sisters Soo-Jin Hong, violin, and Soo-Kyung Hong, cello. Familiarity breeds dollars as their traditional program drew a full house nearly 30 minutes before the first note even sounded. I usually find it sexually chauvinistic to comment only on the artists' appearance, but the sisters' matching Carolina blue gowns was a faux pas in Duke territory. OK, on with the music!*
Like the string quartet, we owe the development of modern-day piano trios to Haydn. There are an estimated 44 of these works credited to him although even the most advanced are still primarily vehicles for the pianist. This trio chose one in the user-friendly key of C, and it served as a perfect launch for the evening. Unfortunately, much of what was being played was obscured by loud snoring nearby. Buy your ticket, drive to Duke, fight and pay for parking, sit down and go to sleep. Anyway, I did emerge enough from my rage over Sleeping Beauty to enjoy the sublime virtuosity of the final Presto movement. Pianist Elvekjaer showed the results of what practicing your scales can do. Although it would have been musically absurd, his command was so effortless that the tempo could have been doubled with no loss of accuracy and grace. Finally, I moved to another seat.
Not to be confused with an earlier student-written piano trio in the same key, Shostakovich's Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 67, is considered one of the gems of this genre. It is similar to his Fifth Symphony in that it combines in the same work moments of nearly unbearable pathos and torment with sections that can reasonably be described as flippant and almost buffoonish. The work famously begins with slow, haunting harmonics played alone by the cellist. Soo-Kyung Hong was steady, bell-like and effective in setting an elegiac mood. The second movement has become a favorite as an encore with its circus-like abandon and technical fireworks. This performance was one of those where you can actually feel the audience being drawn in — you could hear them listening. Trio con Brio Copenhagen was focused, emotionally connected with each other and the listener, and on top of their game, technically.
Unfortunately, there was a huge deflation after intermission, and everything that the Shostakovich was, the Brahms B major trio wasn't. It was as if they had sold their souls during the break. Although there was generally no decline in mechanical ability, the life was gone from what is an exquisite work that aches for a total emotional commitment. My biggest disappointment was in the pedestrian way the cellist played the heavenly theme in the adagio movement. There were also some problems with the difficult spiccato bowing in the Scherzo movement. This was certainly not a bad performance, but it could and should have been so much better.
I may be alone in this opinion (not a new position) since the majority bounded up for a standing ovation. It did not take much coaxing for them to return to play the lovely and delicate slow movement of Felix Mendelssohn's D minor piano trio.
*Edited 1/21/07 in response to comments and suggestions from readers.