Trio Solisti – pianist Jon Klibanoff, violinist Maria Bachmann, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach – has been performing annually at Maverick Concerts for most of the past decade. At this year’s concert on Sunday, July 17, 4 p.m., at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, the group gave the opening performance in a mini-series called “Bernstein and Friends.”
That title was appropriate for the first half of the concert. Aaron Copland was Bernstein’s mentor for a time and his lifelong friend and colleague. Bright Sheng was Bernstein’s last student. Sheng came all the way from Michigan, where he teaches, to give a pre-concert “lecture/demonstration” with Trio Solisti. He talked largely about his background and his studies with Bernstein (who, Sheng related, promised that as a teacher he would give Sheng the same “hard time” that Copland had given him decades earlier). He and the Trio also demonstrated some passages from his Four Movements for Piano Trio.
The program began with Bernstein’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, a very early work (1937, when the composer was 19), which I had never heard before. It’s an uncharacteristic, highly romantic work, evidently intended to show off some of the young composer’s abilities. The piano part is highly virtuosic, reminding us of what a fine pianist Bernstein was. And the second movement ends with some outright humor, reminding us of another Bernstein characteristic. This big, expressive performance made a fine case for the music, which is unmemorable but diverting.
Copland’s Vitebsk is one of that composer’s masterpieces, and hearing it was a useful reminder that Copland’s music isn’t all easy-on-the-ears Americana. Appalachian Spring and similar works are superb music, but they don’t tell the whole story about Copland, who was an unpopular avant-garde composer in his early years and continued to alternate challenging music (like Connotations) with euphonious works (like the final Duo for Flute and Piano) throughout his career. Named for a town in Belarus, Vitebsk conveys the inflections of Eastern European Yiddish music with microtones and startling dissonances. Trio Solisti made no attempt to soften the music’s contours in a very powerful and vivid performance that left in the dissonant sting.
Interestingly enough, the Chinese folk elements in Sheng’s Four Movements sometimes sounded remarkably similar to the folk elements of Vitebsk. Sheng’s set, which lasts about thirteen minutes, is intriguingly exotic music, highly changeable from one movement to the next and overall quite enthralling. It was brave of the composer to end his work with such quiet, slow music, but the audience’s attention remained intense. Some portions of this work seemed extremely demanding for the performers. Not being familiar with the music, I have to presume the performance served it well. The composer was certainly smiling enthusiastically enough when he took his bows along with the performers.
From now on, I’m going to complain every time a chamber ensemble plays either Dvorák’s “American” Quartet or his “Dumky” Trio. They are both masterpieces and I still enjoy hearing them. But their quality doesn’t excuse the neglect of Dvorák’s other quartets and trios, most of which are very much worth playing. To be fair, Trio Solisti gave us a rousing version of the “Dumky,” playing in throbbing high romantic style with lots of the proper idiomatic flexibility. Klibanoff, playing with the lid up, was fearlessly powerful and the strings were still audible and present throughout, persevering through daunting heat. But Bachmann mentioned to the audience that the ensemble is releasing a new CD shortly with two Dvorák Trios on it. They owe us the other one next season!