Chamber Music Review



Beaux Arts Trio at UNC: In a Word, "Wow"

May 3, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


There are a few artists who have achieved such universal recognition at the pinnacle of their art that their name itself has become synonymous with unrivaled excellence. It has become accepted usage to speak of someone as the "Heifetz of the _____" (fill in the blank). It wouldn't roll off the tongue as easily, but after hearing the latest incarnation of the Beaux Arts Trio, one could easily use their name to denote the absolute peak of chamber music musicianship, representing what every ensemble should strive for. The current lineup is Daniel Hope, violin, Antonio Meneses, cello, and founding member Menahem Pressler, piano. Established in 1955 by French violinist Daniel Guilet, along with cellist Bernard Greenhouse and Pressler, the trio became the recognized leaders in a competitive and very popular field in chamber music. Isidore Cohen took over the violin spot from 1969-87, after which there were many personnel changes - with Pressler remaining as the anchor of the group. Over the years, the Beaux Arts Trio has been known mainly as a fairly conservative outfit that only occasionally ventured out into the more "modern" or experimental compositions for piano trio. In early 2002, British violinist Daniel Hope replaced Young Uck Kim, at age 27 becoming the youngest-ever member of the legendary trio. He was considered such a prize catch by the other two members that Hope was able to elicit a pledge from them that they would "incorporate some element of contemporary music into every future program."

Their April 5 concert, which took place at Hill Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, was presented by the Carolina Union Performing Arts Series. It drew a fairly good-size audience, but the turnout was not quite what was expected for a performance by such a legendary group.

For those who may have thought of attending but did not, I will attempt to put into words what was missed. Put simply, this performance was a masterpiece. It has become a common practice derisively to label oft'-performed standard repertoire as "museum pieces" that pander to aging audiences and have otherwise outlived their usefulness. This was an evening that clearly demonstrated that there is no such thing as "outdated" works but only boring, play-through-the-score performances.

The order of the printed program was changed and the evening began with an example of the pledge to include "contemporary music" in the programs. Written in 2001, Lowell Liebermann's Trio No. 2, Op. 77, has already been labeled by some as "the first great work of the millennium." This is modern music for people who hate "modern music"; it is a work that instantly captivates. The central adagio movement is the highlight of the composition. It is both ancient and modern, combining chant-like figures with complex chorale settings that are at once otherworldly and comforting. The final section incorporates many elements from the previous two movements in a virtuosic display.

Beethoven's Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2, shares its opus number with the more well-known so-called "Ghost" Trio. It is always a treat to discover a work that is somewhat unfamiliar; it seems that the lack of a good subtitle for this work may be the only reason for its relative obscurity. Written in 1808 at a time when it was no longer in doubt that the composer was going to become totally deaf, Beethoven crafted an elegant and dramatic work as he declared that "I live only in my notes." This is a four-movement composition that is without the standard adagio section. Except for the slow introduction of the first movement, this work is generally upbeat. It didn't take long to realize that this was not going to be a day-at-the-office performance. There was an immediate sense of vitality and personal involvement with every phrase and nuance of the music. Despite his youth, violinist Hope was assertive when he needed to be and supportive when the piano had the prominent parts. He displayed impeccable intonation and a round, non-strident tone. When the piece ended, the audience responded with an uncharacteristic standing ovation, before intermission.

The second half was entirely taken up by one of the great chamber music masterpieces, Felix Mendelssohn's Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49. This is a mature work, written when he was 30. It was an immediate success and continues to be popular to this day. Cellist Antonio Meneses presented the broad, lush theme of the first movement with beautiful tone and phrasing that was a hallmark of his playing the whole evening. What struck me as especially memorable in this performance was the exuberance and spontaneity of pianist Pressler, who is now 80 years old. It is a safe bet to say that he has probably played this work literally hundreds of times, but he gave the impression that he was just now discovering the beauty and magic of this masterpiece. He constantly turned toward the two string players to communicate his ideas and joy in the music, and his energy was infectious. The Scherzo movement was especially phenomenal in its incredible lightness and nearly-unbelievable speed and bow-technique. A performance of such passion and skill is actually palpable; everyone present clearly felt it and knew what a truly special experience it was.

The trio returned after a tumultuous standing ovation to perform a had-to-hear-it-to-believe-it rendition of the Scherzo of the E-Minor Trio of Shostakovich. I know my words have not done justice to this incredible musical experience. It was a performance that stayed with you for days afterward.