The Gemini Piano Trio from Baltimore is a true family affair. Pianist Hsiu-Hui Wang, her brother, violinist Sheng-Tsung Wang, and her husband, cellist Benjamin C. Meyers have been performing together for nine years - and it shows. They play with the zest and élan of youth, but with the outstanding balance of long-time experience. In a concert in Hill Hall under the auspices of UNC's William S. Newman Artists Series and the ArtsCenter of Carrboro, they presented a program that sampled the Classical, the Romantic and late-20th century music. The performance was enhanced by UNC's new Steinway, a great improvement.
It is easy to forget how revolutionary Beethoven's three Piano Trios Op. 1 sounded at their premiere in 1794. The strong dynamic contrasts, the expanded harmonic language, the use of the cello as an equal partner, the substitution of the standard minuet and trio with the scherzo, as well as the fact that it was the first chamber work with piano to have a fourth movement - these were totally new to audiences and critics alike.
With impeccable balance, the Gemini Trio brought out the assertiveness of the young composer in the Trio in E-flat, Op. 1, No. 1. Shen-Tsung's playing in general is clean and decidedly unschmalzy, without the ruffles and flourishes of many first violinists as they ramp up into the stratosphere of their range. Nevertheless, he can be appropriately romantic in places, especially in the slow movement, adagio cantabile, but he could fiddle away with zest in the peasant stomp of the scherzo. Hsiu-Hui kept her piano dynamics under control and never drowned out the melody-carrying instrument - a major accomplishment in Hill Hall. Meyers' cello has a beautiful singing sound throughout its entire range, to which he added body language, especially facial expression, that enhanced the performance.
Beethoven was followed by a piece of French fluff in the form of the Piano Trio by Jean Françaix, a work that sounds like Poulenc and water. It is a charming and humorous work, especially the first movement, labeled "dotted quarter = 52" just so everyone will "get it" that it's in 5/4 time. The witty movement brings to mind three men arguing around a bottle of wine; the rest of the work brings little to mind. After the performance, one of us commented that it was a shame to spend so much performing talent on so many empty calories.
For the last work on the program, Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in c, Op. 66, the ensemble members became Romantics. Again, the balance among the instruments was exemplary, with the melodic line always in the fore. Like most of Mendelssohn's compositions, this one contains one of his signature jittery scherzi, a style he first used at 17 in his Octet and frequently warmed over during his short lifetime. These are a challenge to the performer to make them sound fresh and precise, a challenge which the Gemini met.
This has been one of the most satisfying trio performances we have heard in a long time; so many fine ensembles come up wanting when it comes to balancing dynamics between the piano and the other two instruments. For whatever reason, the audience was smaller than we have come to expect for the Newman Series concerts - although, gratefully, made up of many young faces. We hope one of the other chamber music organizations in the area will bring the Gemini Trio back; young as they are, they definitely belong in the mainstream. The Gemini has two CDs out. Find out more about them at http://www.geminipianotrio.com/ [inactive 9/04].