Overheard, upon entering downtown Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theatre on September 9, were two patrons deep in conversation while awaiting a performance by the chamber ensemble Triple Helix.
"Triple Helix? I've heard of double... but what is a triple?" I smiled, amused by that confession, especially in the realization that I wasn't alone. Traveling to the musicians' website, I read that the traditional double helix springs from the notion of a "dynamic intertwining… of spiraling energies that generate life." Therefore, it stands to reason, one assumes, that a triple helix must prove an even more powerful and inspirational force. Music is as good a place as any to draw a metaphor between art's sustaining nature and the continuity of life, and is an eminently a propos title for a classical trio.
Triple Helix was in the Capital City as the opening event of "September Prelude." This annual collaboration, inaugurated last year and involving several key local chamber music organizations – the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, Chapel Hill's William S. Newman Artists Series, Duke Performances, and the Chamber Arts Society of Durham – is to be the regular informal kick-off to the local chamber music season, Despite a few momentary lapses, Triple Helix achieved handsomely for the various promoters.
The group played two programs while in the Triangle, each involving members, past and current, of Duke University's Ciompi Quartet. The first of these programs, the September 9 event under discussion, gave violist Jonathan Bagg a chance to shine in Mozart, while George Taylor (who left the Ciompi family in 1986, to be replaced by Bagg) played Fauré with the Helix trio in Durham two days later.
Bagg's contribution, in Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478, showed him off to full advantage. The three visiting artists, however — whether as a result of not yet having adapted to a strange hall or merely experiencing performance jitters — were not up to Bagg's standard as they launched, quite briskly at that, into this quartet's famous opening bars.
Intonation, overall, was fair, with consistent troubles emanating from violinist Bayla Keyes, whose less-than-pristine showing meant coordination problems with her three colleagues. Because this composer's harmonic progressions are transparent, the slightest imperfection, therefore, is always keenly felt. Keyes, something like the proverbial racehorse let out of the gate too soon, finally settled down shortly thereafter, thus enabling her talented friends— the excellent cellist Rhonda Rider, above all— to demonstrate the full range of their respective talents.
Mozart, who was the first to write for this combination of instruments, composed this one in his beloved key, the reflective g minor, a key he reserved to express extreme emotion in some of his most heartfelt work, from the Symphonies Nos. 25 and 40, to Pamina's lament "Ach, ich fühls" in Die Zauberflöte, and this famous piano quartet. This work's second movement, marked Andante, beautifully crafted on this occasion by the four musicians now fully relaxed and spatially-aware of the hall's acoustics, spoke volumes for both their and the composer's artistry. Drifting to G Major for its finale, a joyful rondo, the quartet displays all the hallmarks of Mozart's craft as a symphonist and opera composer. The four artists interpreted it with great aplomb.
While Mozart proved innovative within the constricted format of his day, Dmitri Shostakovich would, in the twentieth century, managed to continue the tradition. His second Piano Trio, Op. 67, dating from 1944, shows him at his most tonal and accessible. This four-movement work manages deftly to convey the essence and plight of European Jewry, whose fate had become known by this time; it begins with the cello's mournful, droning solo, capturing the essence of the tragedy.
Cantorial and Klezmeric lines dart in and out amongst music of extreme delicacy and precision, captured with tremendous skill by the Helix threesome. This would, in fact, seem to be where this ensemble's truest musical strengths lie, the artists appearing most at ease here. The performance, a welcome if grim antidote to Mozart's emotional sturm und drang, carried the banner of musical exploration to an even higher level, a natural progression and clever use of programming acumen.
Following the intermission, Maurice Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor, composed three decades before the Shostakovich exercise, offered a further example of musical borrowing and, yes, innovation. Drawing upon sources as far removed as Basque folk melodies and Malayan literary idiom (translated into musical terms by the composer), Ravel's dreamy world of dusty and, in turns, tropical sound patterns envelop the listener. The myriad textures and rhythms Ravel packs into his four-movement trio sound a chord markedly different from Mozart and Shostakovich, but fascinating, all the same.
Here Helix's pianist Lois Shapiro seized her opportunity to take center-stage, leading her friends to a performance of some subtlety. Even with a minor page-turning error, Shapiro continued to press forward, twirling on like the helix from which this group has adopted its title. Keyes and Rider were with her all the way, closing this fine program— and its guest artists' equally fine showing— with remarkable poise.
With this program as the standard-bearer, the season to come should prove a memorable, enriching one.
*We are pleased to welcome Carl J. Halperin, a veteran critic with extensive credentials, to the pages of CVNC. For a brief bio, see About Us..