Montrose Trio review: passion restrained

Chamber Music Northwest concert offers surprisingly refined approach to youthful works by Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich


Pianist Jon Kimura Parker has been on my favorites list ever since he came to Portland Piano International’s 2004 summer festival and roared through his custom-built solo arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s legendary orchestral score, The Rite of Spring, encoring with an equally manic performance of Danny Elfman’s theme for the TV show The Simpsons. Even onstage with the august Oregon Symphony some years ago, he interpolated a catchy tune from their opening number into his cadenza while performing a Mozart piano concerto.

The man is clearly passionate about his work and his audience, so it was no surprise he was tapped to introduce the final concert of Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 winter festival “Passion in Winter,” by the Montrose Trio – Parker plus the two non-retired members of the former Tokyo String Quartet, Martin Beaver and Clive Greensmith – the last Sunday in January. He was completely natural, more like a man spinning a tale in a bar than expounding on classical music to a darkened, packed concert hall. Passion was the theme binding together the three works they played, all initial essays in chamber music by lusty (and lustful) young men at the beginnings of their careers.

Montrose Trio performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s Winter Festival. Photo: Tom Emerson.

So it was surprising that what was immediately apparent, as they slipped into the seductive (or leering) opening phrases of the teenage Dmitri Shostakovich’s op. 8 piano trio, was Parker’s smooth and nuanced delivery, blending effortlessly with the violin and cello parts. When an unmistakable love song broke out in the strings partway through, the piano’s accompanying chordal stream was like ice crystals delicately wafted on a breeze. Even the contrasting fast sections, stormy and erratic by turns, were unexpectedly restrained.

The wisdom of this approach was borne out in the end. The work’s apparent grand climax is worthy of a noir B-movie in which the gritty hero, having barely vanquished the heavy in the nick of time, plants a fierce smooch on the damsel in distress behind a bold THE END as the orchestra quickly swells in triumph. By holding back just a little here, the players moderated such corniness just enough to shift attention to the final climax, furious and much more ambiguous emotionally.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s very first published work (op. 1) was a set of three piano trios, the third in the key of C minor, from his earliest composing days his favorite key for his stormiest works, including his iconic fifth symphony with its opening “dah-dah-dah-DAH.” Two centuries later, maybe only specialists can appreciate why his sometime teacher Joseph Haydn was so bothered by its testosterone-fueled innovations that he advised his student to hold it back for later publication. (Beethoven didn’t take kindly to the suggestion.)

The Montrose certainly didn’t overplay it, but it was passionate enough. One innovation that would become a Beethoven trademark surprises even today. Near the very end of the work, where composers of earlier generations wouldn’t have dreamed of deviating from its C minor key, the music briefly slips down a half-step to B minor. The piano dominates the passage, and it seemed as if Parker had depressed a “darkness” pedal, turning noir to deepest midnight.

It’s easy to hear Johannes Brahms’s youthful love for Clara Schumann in his first published small ensemble work, also an op. 8 piano trio, whether he intended it to show or not. He revised the work late in life, especially the first of its four movements, but he left its soaring melodies and stormy piano passagework untouched, if anything setting them off more strongly against outwardly simple but achingly sensuous new material. There are many opportunities for the performers, especially the pianist, to really cut loose, but somewhat to my disappointment, the Montrose didn’t take them. The melodies did soar and the piano did storm, but I missed the feeling of desperation that often seems to lurk just underneath Brahms’s exquisitely crafted surface. In a word, I wanted more passion.

On the other hand, the sublime slow movement, about as far as one can get from the manic energy of Stravinsky or The Simpsons, seemed to stop time and hang in the heavens like a vision from an unimagined world. On the piano especially, the most subtle and delicate motions are needed to give this impression while nonetheless moving the music forward – otherwise timelessness easily bogs down and turns into boredom. The Montrose played slowly, so slowly, but they had all the right moves and made magic.

Nobody from the Montrose Trio will be appearing in CMNW’s 2017 summer festival, just underway this week, but as always, the festival features a wide array of such high-caliber performers. Of special interest, and in fascinating counterpoint with the masculinity-saturated program the Montrose played, all but one work during the entire third week of the festival will be by women composers (the only exception is by Maurice Ravel, hardly the model of a gritty film noir hero). Not that I believe you’ll be able to identify any obvious or consistent musical differences, but why don’t you come hear for yourself?

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. A Brahms aficionado since young adulthood, he somehow managed to overlook the op. 8 piano trio until his 50’s, which just shows that if you play your ignorance cards right, you can enjoy extraordinary musical revelations your whole life long.

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4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Two Canadians in this group & no Canadian music on the program?

    • And in the Canadian sesquicentennial year no less! O Canada!

      • bob priest says:

        BTW, during the 5-6 years that Elaine Calder worked for the OSO, I don’t believe one single Canadian composer was ever programmed. Given that Calder is Canadian, I always wondered why she didn’t try to sneak “one of her own” aboard at least once.
        Oh, wait a Canuckle minute, I think that a token chamber work might have appeared on one of the OSO outreach concerts. Is that the case?

  2. KMW says:

    Thank you for the Brahms recording. The Montrose Trio is superb.

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