Trios Sound Off at the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival

Balderston and Swan Swagger. Photo courtesy of the Bienen School of Music

Stephen Balderston and Andrea Swan combine for Beethoven. Photo courtesy of the Bienen School of Music.

Chamber music continued to flow out of Evanston’s Pick-Staiger Hall on Sunday night as Northwestern’s 21st annual Winter Chamber Music Festival presented guest artists and Bienen School of Music faculty. The program featured trios of varying combinations of instruments, spanning two centuries.

Steven Cohen hit the notes. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Steven Cohen hit the notes. Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Beethoven’s Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello, op. 11, the so-called Gassenhauer Trio, led things off. This early work, written in 1798, has gone down in history as a salon crowd pleaser because of the finale, a set of variations on a tune borrowed from a Joseph Weigl opera that was popular at the time in Vienna. While not a particularly weighty piece, the mannerly style of the opening movement looks forward to some of Beethoven’s more refined works from his middle period. It also explores unusual harmonies in the transition to the secondary theme and contains an extended ending of the opening and closing sections.

Faculty clarinetist Steven Cohen was joined by Chicago pianist Andrea Swan and DePaul faculty cellist Stephen Balderston for a lively and clean rendition. In the opening Allegro con brio, Cohen and Swan sharply traded the main melody back and forth, but the rapid piano passages at the end of the first section and the middle section were especially effective. Balderston had more of a supporting role in the opening movement, but his full range emerged in the second movement, a slow Adagio, which he opened with warmth and feeling.

Gail Williams on horn. photo courtesy of the artist and the Bienen School of Music.

Gail Williams plays Harbison. Photo courtesy of the artist and the Bienen School of Music.

Up next was John Harbison’s Twilight Music, a Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano, written in 1985. To my ears, this work has the feeling of a full day, where a pensive sunrise is followed by a flourishing dint of industry, a calmer unwinding, and, finally, a lengthy day-ending reflection. Twilight is felt before sunrise, but the feelings are more fully explored after sunset.

Bienen School faculty members Gerardo Ribeiro on violin, Gail Williams on horn, and James Giles on piano gave a spirited rendition, especially noteworthy for the way Ribeiro and Wlliams interacted. Their violin and horn, with very distinct sounds and ranges, provided excellent contrast when paying separately, but blended wonderfully well when playing together. The piano is the glue that holds it all together, and Giles was restrained when backing up the violin and horn. When he had the musical spotlight, however, he played with bravado.

James Giles on piano. Photo courtesy of the artist and Biened School of Music.

James Giles on piano. Photo courtesy of the artist and Biened School of Music.

This was followed by Giles, Ribeiro, and Balderston giving a thoughtful rendition of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Trio in d-minor, op. 120—totally appropriate for his thought-provoking late work from 1922. The opening fast paced Allegro ma non troppo is very wistful, only fleetingly in the minor key. Giles provided an airy yet exact touch on the piano, while Balderston played pure, clear tones on his cello. Both offered excellent backing for Ribeiro’s more textured violin sound. The same feeling, if slower tempo, comes through in the Andantino, which is centered on a beautiful melody traded between the cello and violin.

Faure saves the tension for the darker finale, which starts with the violin and cello playing together, while the piano intercedes. Then, out of the chaos, a lovely, bucolic theme emerges. The music shifts between gloom and hope, but optimism prevails at the end. Giles, Ribeiro, and Balderston provided excellent contrast between the very distinct moods.

After the intermission, violinist Ribeiro and cellist Balderston were joined by violist and Bienen School faculty member Helen Callus for Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat Major, K. 563. If anyone were to ask me to name a work that best illustrates Mozart’s genius, this piece for violin, viola, and cello, the only string trio Mozart ever wrote, would be it. In addition to culling out a wide variety of musical textures from this sparse musical arrangement, Mozart used the opportunity of writing for a trio of instruments to explore the trio of notes that comprise a major chord. These notes, known as a major triad, are as basic to music as Do, re, mi. They form the thematic kernels of much of this six-movement Divertimento.

Gerardo Ribeiro on violin. Photo courtesy of the artist and Bienen School of Music.

Gerardo Ribeiro on violin. Photo courtesy of the artist and Bienen School of Music.

Although labeled a fast Allegro, the opening movement centers on the descending major chord and requires certain nuance and finesse that belies its faster tempo. Ribeiro, Callus, and Balderston played with passion and feeling. Individually they captured the demands of the piece; the challenge was a lack of balance and blend with the viola at times overpowering the other instruments. This was especially pronounced in the long second movement, a slow Adagio, which, in contrast to the opening movement, starts with an ascending major chord formed by the triad.

This Divertimento has two minuets, both labeled Menuetto: Allegretto. The first features a dancing theme around the major triad; the second has a simpler three note melody that descends, ascends, and descends again. Both minuets relieve tension from the preceding movements. Blending problems aside, Ribeiro, Callus, and Balderson brought out the most excitement one can possibly expect from these three instruments.

Sandwiched between the minuets is an extended set of variations that, within a single movement, extend a wide breadth of feelings and emotions. Each variation highlights the individual instruments, and Ribeiro, Callus, and Balderson made the most of it.

Helen Callus plays Mozart. Photo courtesy of the artist and Bienen School of Music.

Helen Callus plays Mozart. Photo courtesy of the artist and Bienen School of Music.

From the rush of the second minuet, the divertimento concludes with another thought provoking Allegro, more playful and rollicking than the opening movement. It opens with the violin playing the main melody, with the cello providing a contrapuntal contrast. Meanwhile, the viola underpins everything with—what else?—major chord triads rapidly played. Violinist Ribeiro shined here, carefully playing the melodic flourishes in the secondary theme and creating the right level of tension and drama.

The Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival wraps up this weekend with a performance by the St. Lawrence Quartet on Friday, January 27, and a trio of guest artists Simone Lamsma, Andrew Armstrong, and Kenneth Olsen on Sunday, January 29. Both concerts are at Evanston’s Pick-Staiger Hall at 7:30 pm. For more information, check out Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival.


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