Chamber Music Amici preview: A trio of trios

Three is better than four in concert of music by Brahms, Bernstein and Haydn.

“There’s a million string quartets,” David Bernstein says. “Why do I need to add another one?”

String quartets do seem to draw the lion’s share of chamber performances and commissions, and as flexible as they are — just ask Kronos Quartet, which plays just about anything imaginable — to Bernstein and others, they can’t match the smaller triple threat of piano, cello, violin. “I have been to many, many concerts that feature famous string quartet groups,” the St. Helens-based founder of Cascadia Composers says. “As a composer and listener, I find a piano trio to be a much more satisfying ensemble to listen to and write for. The piano offers a very compelling and powerful voice to the overall sound structure of the group. And yet it is very supporting of the strings as well. So you have the contrasting timbre, a huge range, and something that melts beautifully into the string timbre but is yet different enough from them. This is quite unlike a string quartet, at least for me. You have the best of everything with the piano as a foundation. And, perhaps unlike string quartets (although this depends on the piece) the violinist and cellist have a much greater musical and virtuoso role that they can play in a piano trio than many a string quartet that I know of.”

Bernstein was therefore thrilled to be asked to write a piano trio when the Gabrielli Trio came calling a few years ago. His trio, along with classics by Brahms and Haydn, heads the program performed by Chamber Music Amici at Springfield’s Wildish Theatre when the ensemble opens its sixth season on Monday, October 27.

Chamber Music Amici rehearses Bernstein's trio:  Kathryn Lucktenberg, violin, Steven Pologe, cello;  and Asya Gulua piano. Photo: Sharon Schuman.

Chamber Music Amici rehearses Bernstein’s trio: Kathryn Lucktenberg, violin; Steven Pologe, cello; and Asya Gulua,  piano. Photo: Sharon Schuman.

The first movement of Bernstein’s 1990 piano trio, Late Autumn Moods and Images, includes phrases from the Protestant hymn tune “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” while the second incorporates dance tunes from Jewish and Hebrew songs and dances. The third and final movements embrace a range of styles and techniques.

The program also includes one Haydn’s many sparkling trios, this one for two violins and cello, and Brahms’s first piano trio. “The op. 8 trio is a miracle of artistic integrity,” says ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow about a work published when Brahms was a young man and left untouched for 35 years. “He extensively revised it at the end of his life, bringing all his accumulated ability and judgement to it, but somehow he managed to retain its youthful inspiration.”

Founding Cascadia Composers president David Bernstein

The piano trio configuration floats founding Cascadia Composers president David Bernstein’s boat.

Amici artistic director Sharon Schuman says piano trios are as rewarding for audiences as they are for composers. “In trios there is nowhere to hide,” she explains. “The playing is very exposed. There are also times when duets take place, and different combinations of two instruments emerge, in the case of Bernstein and Brahms violin and cello, violin and piano, or cello and piano–with either instrument in the lead. Or any of the three instruments can have a solo–playing alone or with support from the others. Thus there are at least seven possibilities within the piano trio format.

“In the case of the Haydn trio for two violins and cello,” Schuman continues, “the possible combinations are different… it’s like a string quartet without viola. That means the cello gets to do a lot more, although there are also many duet moments for the two violins. It is always interesting as a listener in a live concert to watch these various combinations take place and look for who is leading.”

For Bernstein, the piano trio configuration will always be more appealing than that other famous chamber music format. “The first work I ever did was a string quartet but I never did another one,” he says. “I find the timbre of this group too homogeneous. And let’s face it, after Bartok’s six incredible quartets for this medium, I don’t think I or anyone else could add much. To me the piano trio is much more challenging and satisfying to write for. I finally got around to doing a second one. I would do a third one if the occasion arose.” Any piano-violin-cello threesomes out there seeking new Oregon music: give Bernstein a call.

Chamber Music Amici performs trios by David Bernstein, Johannes Brahms and Josef Haydn Monday at Springfield’s Wildish Theatre.

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2 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    congratulations, David – wish I could get down there to hear it – good to see that Springfield’s finally got a fine arts venue – while living in Eugene some 35 years ago, Springfield was where one went for the best thrift-store deals, the cheapest gas and little else – good for them

    btw David’s 2010 CD release of chamber works is one of the very best on the NPM label –

  2. bob priest says:

    well, i’d say that SQs by Ligeti, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Schafer, Mason & a few others are fairly solid contributions to the genre since Bartok’s canonical six.

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