Review: Horszowski Trio Wows at the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival

Centered on the music of Robert Schumann, the Horszowski Trio gave a dynamite performance at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston on Friday night. Based in New York, this ensemble of Jesse Mills on violin, Ole Akahoshi on cello, and Rieko Aizawa on piano played with so much gel, the sounds seemed to be coming from a single person. Friday’s concert was part of the annual Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival, which ends this weekend. 

The concert opened with an infrequently performed piano trio by Bedřich Smetana in g-minor, op. 15. A pioneering Czech composer from the mid-late 19th century, Smetana’s influence extended to Antonin Dvořák and beyond. The second movement includes an early use of the Dumka folk style that Dvořák would later turn to on many occasions.

Smetena wrote this trio after the death of his young daughter. It opens with a sad melody on the violin that is characteristically Slavic. Mills gave it just the right feeling on Friday night; Akahoshi and Aizawa soon joined in with perfect proportions. Akahoshi was tight in his solo passages and duets with the others. This work has an unusual cadenza on piano where Aizawa displayed total refinement. She was animated in throwing her small frame into the keyboard as her fingers massaged the notes.

Horszowski Trio. Photo by Louis Harris.

Up next was the Fantasiestücke Project, three short works that the Horszowski Trio commissioned friends to compose. Their intention was to create a piece in the manner of Robert Schumann, whose trios they had recorded. Fantasiestücke is a name this romantic composer used for several of his works, and Mills explained how they sought music by contemporary composers to recreate Schumann’s effect.

Of the three pieces, Eldorado by David Fulmer was the most interesting, although it bore the least resemblance to Schumann. Bowing on the strings’ bridges, Mills and Akahoshi produced sounds of quarter tone increments to create a very unusual aural palette. On the piano Aizawa played disparate flourishes on both ends of the keyboard. The effect was dramatic.

Remembrance by Derek Bermel started with a lovely tune that he stretched in all kinds of different ways and modern tonalities. The piece seemed more reminiscent of another romantic composer, Frédéric Chopin, than Robert Schumann.

For Little Red Dragonfly, Japanese American Paul Chihara borrowed an actual Schumann melody that Kosaku Yamada used in AKA Tombo (Red Dragonfly), a Japanese song from 1927. Schumann used this melody in his Concert Allegro Op 134. It was nice to hear it reframed.

Horszowski Trio. Photo by Louis Harris.

A full piece by Robert Schumann made an appearance after intermission. That the Horszowsi Trio has an intimate relationship with the Piano Trio No. 1 in d-minor, op 63, came through in many ways. The opening is unusual in that it does not start with a robust melody. Instead, sounds build like an undulating wave from notes on the piano, which oozed from Aizawa’s fingers. Mills’ and Akahoshi’s bowing brought out the aural ebbs and flows to create something special.

Contrast was proved in the second movement, a scherzo romp, which they clearly enjoyed playing. Following a slow movement interlude, they broke into the sunny finale, which, like the opening movement, also has undulated passages from the piano. This time, however, there is a lovely melody in the D-major. All in all, an excellent performance of this classical chestnut.

Following the Northwestern Winter Chamber Music Festival, which concluded this weekend, the Bienen School of Music continues its concert series on the university campus. Most noteworthy is the Dover Quartet, scheduled for Wednesday, February 15.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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