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If the Chamber Arts Society's 2005-6 Season continues to "hit'm outa the park," the superlatives in Rodale's The Synonym Finder, my favorite crutch, will get threadbare. There was nothing humdrum in the program of the opening concert by the masterful Zephyros Winds. In the second concert, the Emerson String Quartet played with a renewed fire along with their accustomed precision, a welcome contrast to their uninspired concert last season. The January 14 concert served to introduce a "new" piano trio, Sequenza.
Pianist Yael Weiss, a 2002 Naumburg International Piano Competition winner and a student of Richard Goode, played with a golden touch that could do no wrong. What refined nuances of color and dynamics! With its lid in the highest extension, the Steinway was flawlessly balanced with her colleagues. Violinist Mark Kaplan is long familiar to Triangle music lovers from his years with the fine Golub-Kaplan-Carr Piano Trio, which disbanded with the passing of pianist David Golub. Indeed Sequenza has arisen phoenix-like from that trio, having only recently replaced Colin Carr with cellist Adrian Brendel, whose father is the great pianist Alfred Brendel. He comes heralded by glowing Gramophone reviews of his set of the complete sonatas for cello and piano by Beethoven, accompanied by his father. His musicianship and technique are formidable. Short "touring marriages" of individual virtuosi do not always result in great chamber music but the dovetailing of give-and-take among the members of Sequenza was seamless, and their playing swept up the listener. Their program was as unhackneyed as it was rewarding.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) invented or standardized many of the forms of classical music, including the string quartet, the piano trio, and the symphony. His prolific works abound in fanciful and ingenious touches such as those of the "Surprise" Symphony, the "Lark" or "Rider" String Quartets, or the often-programmed Trio No. 25, with its racing "Rondo all'Ongarese" finale. Sequenza chose an even more whimsical example, the Piano Trio No. 28 in E, Hob. XV:28. It begins with a simple melody played by the piano and with pizzicato strings; this episode returns some five times in the course of the movement. In the second movement, after an opening with the piano and violin singing a somber theme, the piano takes up the melody as a walking bass for a long contrapuntal solo. During the last half, the cello and violin enter in turn with contrapuntal lines against the melody that began the Allegretto. It concludes with a light and sunny fast movement in which a figure first heard in the violin plays a prominent role. Weiss' hands seemed to conjure the keyboard part magically as she instantly responded to her fellow musicians. String intonation was excellent. Kaplan's violin tone managed to be both sweet and chaste, while Brendel's was burnished and rich, whether played quietly or bowed with his heaviest touch. This performance was delightful in every respect.
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) spent much of the first twelve years of his life in the bell tower of the Church of Saint James in the Bohemian town of Policka. Some biographers attribute a sense of being an outsider or a quality of being at one remove in the composer's music to this childhood isolation. After early musical training locally and in Prague, he left for Paris in 1923, where he spent seventeen years absorbing many influences from its cosmopolitan cultural climate. In Bohuslav Martinu, The Man and His Music, Milos Safránek writes that the Piano Trio No. 1, titled "Cinq pieces brèves," "represents a turning-point in (the composer's) development..., us(ing) a new, direct polyphony.... creating a more uniform work than before, in which the phrases are independent of the bar-line and in which all three instruments are given an extreme polyphonic freedom." The first movement, a dissonant and very motoric march, is the least appealing. This has Martinu's first use of a number of what he called "cells." Most winning is the second movement, with its beautifully blended duet for violin and cello above a spare piano part. The third movement is a syncopated toccata, while the fourth is a fugal march. There are distant suggestions of ragtime in the many cross-rhythms of the last movement.
Franz Schubert's First Piano Trio is programmed somewhere in the Piedmont at least once every year, so Sequenza's choice of the composer's Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, D.929, was most welcome. This lovely melodic piece was "one of the few of his major works to have been published during his lifetime," according to our colleagues' (WordPros') fine program notes for the Durham series. While Schubert seemed to be an inexhaustible font of singing melodies, he does repeat them a lot. It is a mark of the highest form of imaginative musicianship to be able to enliven these repeats, sustaining forward pulse while making them sound fresh. With ethereal pianissimos, lockstep ensemble, and heart-felt phrasing, Sequenza gave one of the most completely convincing interpretations of this sprawling jewel that I have heard.