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After an historic day of worldwide civil disobedience, it was time to wind down, appreciate what is profound and enduring, and contemplate what may be a very difficult future for all of the arts. While I am not necessarily attributing this sentiment to the performing artists, there was a palpable vibe throughout Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium awaiting the start of the program.
Duke Performances is now a co-sponsor with the Chamber Arts Society of Durham in this Chamber Arts Series, and tonight's presentation was a unique and welcome variation on what may be referred to as a "piano trio." Instead of the usual piano, violin, cello lineup, we had pianist Inon Barnatan, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and clarinetist Anthony McGill performing two staples of this repertoire as well as a major newly commissioned work for this ensemble.
This is truly an all-star cast. In fact, the ensemble has no real name itself and just goes by the somewhat long and cumbersome listing of their last names. Thus, the unprecedented bio information that covers nearly seven full pages of the program! Suffice it to say that these three artists are universally recognized masters of their instruments; each holds numerous honors, competition wins, and appointments with multiple music conservatories, festivals, and orchestras.
There is a school of musical thought that the works of the very young Beethoven are nearly indistinguishable from Mozart or Haydn. While that, of course, is certainly debatable, a prime example of that opinion would be his Clarinet Trio in B-flat, Op. 11. Written in Vienna in 1797, a trio for clarinet, cello and piano was an unusual combination although during this period Beethoven wrote a great deal of chamber music featuring wind instruments. This trio does provide the alternate use of violin for the clarinet part. This very bright and sprightly work is firmly entrenched in the classic Classical Style and is worlds away from the profundity and spirituality of his late chamber music. One departure from most of the chamber music of that period is that there is no real "featured" instrument. All three players have their moments to shine and are more or less equally represented. Pianist Barnatan displayed a remarkable economy of movement as he executed a sparkling technique that never overtook the others, but if you concentrated on him, you were quite dazzled. Cellist Weilerstein had a lovely soloistic part in the opening of the Adagio and displayed a full-bodied sultry tonal palette. Clarinetist McGill had a wonderfully nuanced burnished tone that almost made you feel the woodiness of the instrument. If anything, he sounded a bit too reserved, but that could have been because I was sitting on the other side of where the bell of his instrument faced, and that could make a big difference to the listener. This trio is a somewhat overlooked gem that personifies the joys of ensemble playing, particularly in the finale set of variations.
As is often the case, any contemporary piece on a program is usually sandwiched between the old comfortable sweater ones, so the audience doesn't flee en masse after intermission. Tonight, it was the five-movement work short stories by Joseph Hallman (b. 1979). Weilerstein introduced this work of her Curtis Institute classmate that was commissioned by this trio of musicians and made its world premiere just three days earlier at Princeton University. It is interesting to note that unlike the very long program notes of the other two works, while the composer Hallman himself wrote some notes, they were very brief and basically say to the listener to imagine your own stories of the very evocative movement names such as "familial memories at a funeral," "regret is for the weak," or "the path of the curve."
Even by standards of modern composition, this is an extraordinarily rhythmically complex piece that the three players performed with remarkable ease and assurance. Description of this fairly long work, taken one movement at a time, is nearly impossible but I can enthusiastically say that this is a rare first-time hearing of a new work that immediately and totally drew me in. The remarkable craftsmanship and poetic beauty blends with the extreme technical artistry needed to carry this off and makes it a unique listening experience that had me transfixed.
Clarinetists justifiably take pride in the fact that although in 1891 Johannes Brahms declared in his will that he was done composing, it was a clarinet player who made him a liar and inspired him in his last years to compose four stunning masterpieces featuring the clarinet. The Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 was the first of these, and it was premiered, along with the even more renowned Clarinet Quintet, in Berlin in December, 1891. This somewhat standard four-movement work is the epitome of what is sometimes referred to as Brahms' "autumnal" works. This is reserved, inward-looking music that mostly eschews any fireworks or even hints of extroversion. McGill's plaintive, sensitive playing gives one the impression that every note played is a paradox of clear memory and long forgotten images. It was the most perfect representation of wistfulness in music that I had ever heard. I'm not generally someone who ascribes to the "young musicians cannot really portray maturity in their playing," but this performance permeated the hall with such a sense of all the good and bad that goes into a life, that it is hard to imagine just prodigious technique being sufficient. Like a well-done prayer, this had solemnity and joy in equal measure. Glad that there was no encore to break the spell.