Three years ago, three young string players from the Virginia Symphony – violinist Yun Zhang, violist Jennifer Snyder and cellist Rebecca Gilmore – teamed up to form the Ambrosia String Trio, and next month they will be heading for a tour of China. On their way they side-tripped here to Raleigh, lured by the father of one of the members, clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore of the NCS who joined them in one of the works performed.
As was to be expected from a somewhat uncommon ensemble, the program was replete with seldom heard works as well. It opened with one of Schubert’s many unfinished projects, the String Trio in B-flat, which he composed in 1816 and never progressing beyond the Allegro first movement. It was clear from the opening bars that all three players were excellent musicians, with impeccable intonation and balance. But even they could not make this early Schubert particularly exciting. The composer’s insecurity at the time, and his deference to Mozart and Haydn, stifled his gift for melody; only his penchant for unexpected modulations remained.
Then came a novelty. The name Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1995) is not a household name among the general public. A French composer, pianist and composition teacher, he wrote works for many unusual instrument combinations, including works for four trombones, a saxophone quartet, a trio for flute, piano and sax, another trio for two oboes and tambourine, etc. His Suite en trio de cordes of 1988 is a five movement humorous work, where every movement owes something to one of Dubois’s musical heroes, starting with Stravinsky in the Vigoroux first movement and including Bartók, Prokofiev, Elgar and Jean Françaix. In the middle of the fifth movement Dubois gives instructions to play “in a rough and dissonant manner.” The musicians got into the spirit.
After intermission came a real surprise. Jimmy Gilmore joined the Trio to perform Mozart’s Quartet No.1 in B-flat for Clarinet and Strings. Mozart’s what?? It turns out that after Mozart's death his widow Constanze came to an agreement with the publisher Johann André, who in 1799 bought the remaining Mozart manuscripts. Shortly thereafter André published Trois Quatuors pour Clarinette, Violon / Alto & Violoncelle composés par W. A. Mozart Oeuvre 79me. Of these three quartets the first two are based on the sonatas for violin and piano K.317d and K.374f and the third on the Piano Trio K.496. These arrangements are probably not by Mozart, but by André himself. Whoever did the transcription did a creditable job, adding a nice variety to the repertoire. However, as is often the case with transcription, there is always something that doesn’t quite fit, in this case what to do with the first violin, who now has to relinquish center stage to the clarinet. Gilmore joined the high spirits of the Ambrosia Trio, but got carried away a little, frequently overpowering Zhang. There is a good reason why in an orchestra, two clarinets are matched against about 20-plus violins.
The last work on the program was the Serenade in C, Op.10 by Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960). This is an uneven piece, but it deserves a rehearing, especially its two slow movements. Snyder’s playing of the viola solo that dominates the first of these movements was warm and sensitive. The fourth movement, a modal piece that seems to be based on a Hungarian folk tune is, however, the emotional core of the work.
As encore, the Ambrosia Trio played a gentle arrangement of “Deep River” by Virginia Beach composer (originally from London) John S. Dixon (b.1957)
After coming away from playing of this quality, we could not help musing on the wealth of talent buried in the rank and file of our country’s orchestras. Many of them chose not to lead the rarified and hectic life of a soloist; others may have come in a hair under the winners of the big competitions that can make or break young musicians’ dreams of glory. Yet here they are enriching the musical life of their communities every bit as much as the big guns.