Concert review: Trio Con Brio Copenhagen offers pleasant surprises

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen performed at Portland State University.

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen performed at Portland State University.

Even though March went out like a lamb, the Lincoln Hall audience at Portland State University on the month’s final evening might have felt some trepidation before Trio con Brio Copenhagen strode on stage. True, the composer of the first work on the Friends of Chamber Music program, Per Nørgård, is probably Denmark’s most well-known living composer, and the work, Spell, is one of his standards. Yet I’ll wager the vast majority, like me, had never happened to hear it. A Denmark-based group bringing a gift of “Danish modern” from 1973 – mightn’t this be like the proverbial gift from a very different part of Europe, something to be feared?

Not a bit of it. No bleeps, bloops, shrieks or scrapes here. Instead, violin, cello, and piano each started off with a minimalist tap-tap-tap, but then rhythm kept shifting in ways intriguingly different from typical American minimalism. The harmonic palette was much richer too, unabashedly embracing the sweet and the pungent, instead of the standard issue that concentrates attention on rhythmic process. Rather than zoning out on slowly shifting patterns, we enjoyed one delightful surprise after another. It was, in fact, utterly charming, even without the added color of the original instrumentation’s clarinet in place of violin. If Spell were a woman, I’d be moved to ask in all wide-eyed seriousness, where have you been all my life?

In contrast, I was sure what the next work, seminal Czech nationalist composer Bedrich Smetana’s G minor Piano Trio from 1855, would sound like, even though I’d never heard that one either. Haven’t we all heard The Moldau? The overture from his opera The Bartered Bride?

Again, surprise! And again a delightful one musically, even though it was inspired by the tragic childhood death of Smetana’s favorite daughter. An anguished yet defiant violin solo launched a complex narrative that nonetheless remained easy to follow through unexpected key changes, dense imitative passages, florid Lisztian asides and soulful presentations of what sounded like an age-old folk tune, thanks to the balance of passion and judgement that thoroughly informed the Trio’s performance. The pianist, Jens Elvekjaer, was especially impressive, balancing the full and virtuosic piano part with the violin and cello while still seeming to play full out.

A skittering passage in octaves sounding like the ghost of that violin solo led to a minor-key dancelike strain as the second movement began. But just when one was tempted to remark, “Finally the Smetana I know,” or “Now we’re in for it” depending on one’s tastes, the scene shifted. A confiding and harmonically fickle tune seemed to flash back to happier times. Maybe it was even a portrait of the composer’s lost daughter. After a short restless return to the dance, the scene quickly shifted again, to a solemn processional. Not mourning, not defiant, it was as if the composer was on a pilgrimage to devoutly yet forthrightly engage his God on the subject of his daughter’s fate. But in the end, all he was left with was the dance, the ghost, and perhaps the merest breath of comfort.

In the final movement, Smetana seemed to have worked through a few stages of grief, as he alternated a harried minor-key dance in triplets with a frankly sentimental song for violin and cello in turn. But on the final return to the dance, we were yanked back into the depths of despair, as it slowed dramatically and dragged itself forward over mysterious harmonies, turning into a full-on funeral procession. The song returned one last time as a broad hymn of hope for the future, but there was a certain desperation about it, and it ran out of gas. Finally it sputtered into a few brief flings of the minor-key dance, then flashed peremptorily into the prescribed major-key ending. It all seemed to say, life is hard but it must go on.

There were few surprises in the final work of the evening, Beethoven’s iconic “Archduke” Trio, first performed 200 years ago this month. It’s a timeless work that never fails to delight even when you have a pretty good idea what’s coming next. Trio con Brio Copenhagen did a beautifully shaped and articulated job, but after the two rarely heard wild things that preceded it, I felt a slight desire for something a little edgy, a little feral, something extra in the interpretation. Beethoven’s cordial relationship with his patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria, glowed through it all, but I missed the commoner’s gruffer side, his confidence in his essential equality with the nobility.

I would encourage the group to keep up the pressure all the way to the end of the program. They sure have the chops to do it. Like the evening’s audience facing Nørgård’s Spell for the first time, they’ve got nothing to fear.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.
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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    yes, that norgard work is quite fine. i’ve thought about programing it for years in the original version with clarinet.

    norgard has LOTS of wonderful music that rarely gets played in the states. he’s very prolific & out of the 30-40 or so works of his i’ve heard, his “symphony II” is my standout fave. if i had an orchestra @ my disposal, this terrific piece would be one of the very first i’d offer up.

    d-bob sez, check it out!

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