Jordan Hall was packed with what were clearly longtime fans as well as instrument-towing student drop-ins to hear NEC’s family-band-in-residence, the Weilerstein Trio, perform on Sunday night, October 30. The trio looked cheerfully at home on the stage and with each other — naturally, since bios boast of a performance career spanning the majority of Alisa’s life! (Her most recent honor, a MacArthur Fellowship, is summarized here.) The Weilersteins’s expansively exuberant performance style made their rendition of Ives’s Piano Trio every bit as crowd-pleasing as the two Dvorák selections. If the latter sometimes came in danger of being over-romanticized, that too might be excused by the players’ extroversion and their patent desire to transmit the energy that they find in the music to the audience.
The opening piece, Dvorák’s Piano Trio in g minor, Op. 26, like many of his works, is built upon simple themes repeated in different instrumental and harmonic combinations. Certainly no one can accuse any Weilerstein of being inexpressive; I had doubts, however, as to whether the first thematic statement of the opening Allegro moderato merited the amount of passionate hair-flinging that Alisa put into it. Likewise, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein’s penchant for flinging her arms in an upward circle at the end of cadences added a theatrical flair that might have been more effective if saved for truly climactic moments. However, these are the type of quibbles that often arise from strong and soloistic musical personalities playing chamber music with a certain amount of concerto-style flair.
Donald and Alisa’s many duets and unisons were presented with a striking match of nuance and balance; and fortunately the piece often featured the cello in a solo role, in which Alisa shone much more than as a supportive bass voice. Her sound truly blossomed in the long, lyrical opening of the Largo, a good showcase for her operatic style, whereas the pizzicati of the Scherzo seemed too active and engaged and not the solid bass foundation that might have served as a better grounding for the surrounding motion. The three musicians were perfectly tuned in for the witty rubatos of the Trio — so much so, in fact, that the impeccable timing of each simple gesture began to seem micromanaged. In a welcome (and humanizing) contrast, Alisa and Donald’s articulation did not seem micromanaged: Alisa favored a crisp and spiky scherzo style whereas Donald built intensity with broader strokes, bringing a welcoming warmth to his upper register. The different colors he cultivated in the Largo, despite consistent and very mobile body motion, were unique and brought shape and subtlety to the movement. The Finale was another vehicle for clever interplay between the musicians and dramatic twists and turns; Vivian’s tumbles up and down the keyboard brought a dash of (perhaps intentional) chaos to the closing movement.
Ives’s Piano Trio, in contrast, benefited from the same extroverted gusto that the Dvorák sometimes trembled under. NEC musicologist John Heiss gave a brief and affable introduction to the piece accompanied by musical examples nicely balancing composerly pomp about an “end of the old ways and beginning of the new” with an emphasis on Ives’s sense of humor. Though Heiss described the piece as progressing through the three movements from edginess to romanticism, the Weilersteins brought cohesion to the movements with their thoroughly and consistently romantic approach. Alisa and Vivian’s emotional reading of the first movement’s opening duet brought a winningly sympathetic slant to the atonal melodies, conveying a deep understanding of music that has a certain potential for coldness. Donald’s melodic verse was satisfyingly gutsy; stridency on some of the high phrases seemed still to serve the movement’s emotional purpose. The surprising tenderness of the final major triad was sweet, deft, and unexpected.
The second movement, titled with the acronym for “This Scherzo Is A Joke,” began with a terrifyingly hectic flurry that was tighter in the lecture-example than in the actual performance. Each member of the trio had a chance to grandstand merrily during Ives’s signature peppering of Americana tunes. Donald hacked away with abandon on his, while Alisa maintained a more refined groove, including cheerful head-bobbing and foot-tapping. Vivian’s piano riffs had a serious and intentional quality that balanced the others nicely. The third movement, Moderato con moto, described by Heiss as the most romantic and backward-looking, was also the longest and the strangest. Lyrical passages in conscious homage to Ives’s influences (including Dvorák) were interrupted by patches of rough aggression. What Heiss described as a “hymn tune” in the cello, though beautifully played, lacked the austerity necessary for true hymn-like quality. The ending, however, when Alisa again took the lead with the now-familiar tune, was exquisitely balanced and paced: a gently introspective ending to a work bursting with character and energy.
The second half of the concert brought in reinforcements for the younger generation: violist Juan Miguel Hernandez of the Harlem Quartet, Professional String Quartet diploma candidate at NEC. Perhaps Dvorák’s Piano Quartet in D major, op. 23 is a more substantial piece than his trio, and perhaps the musicians injected it with some of the lightheartedness I found lacking in the previously Dvorák; altogether it was a pleasant and convincing performance. The opening melody was well shaped by all members in turn, the flourishes and ornaments crisp and clean. The group was playful at times but always ready to lapse back into gloom, tender throbbing, or transcendent soaring, cycling through these affects especially adroitly in the development of the first movement. Although Hernandez was certainly a match for the Weilersteins in charisma, unfortunately his instrument was not able to match the others in projecting power. Although his sound was lovely in exposed sections, it occasionally cracked at the top of the dynamic range while he clearly did everything in his power, including bow usage and angling outward, to not get buried in group crescendi.
The second movement’s Theme (Andantino) and Variations was one of those gentle intermezzo-style movements that shows Dvorák at his best. It gave each player a chance to rhapsodize, and Hernandez seemed to join the family seamlessly — the matching of sounds in his dialogues with Alisa was particularly well done. The Finale was fittingly high-spirited and concluded the concert on a suitably crowd-pleasing note. That the Weilersteins pleased their audience with their always ebullient, consistently emotional, occasionally ostentatious, and rarely modest approach to chamber music was undeniable.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.