Appropriately enough for a museum, the most recent installment of the Music at the Gardner series at Calderwood Hall, featuring the resident Claremont Trio, featured a strong visual component. The sleek architectural display case of the hall, the ladies’ signature satiny jewel-tone gowns, and the highlighting of three pieces from the museum’s collection as inspiration for Helen Grime’s commission all contributed to an afternoon that demanded a synesthetic approach (even from those whose brains, like mine, can lay no neurological claim to such artistry).
Experiencing Calderwood for the first time, I chose the most traditionally-located seats, facing the performers on the ground floor, so I can’t expound on quirks of the hall’s construction except to say that it struck me as a very social space. It’s the sort of room which one wants to enter looking chic, well-composed, and ready for a couple hours of attentive and knowledgeable listening, just in case one spies an impressionable colleague or long-lost friend across the way. Remarks about the gorgeousness of the hall abounded as audience members mingled beforehand; personally, I can’t wait to experience the venue’s edgy side, the vertigo-inducing top balconies, in future concerts. (David Griesinger provides an astute acoustical analysis of an earlier concert by the Claremonts in Calderwood here)
Self-implicative see-and-be-seen qualities aside, the trio responded to the 360-degree attention with warmth and enthusiasm. Their first selection, Mozart’s Piano Trio in B-flat, K. 502, likely due to its familiarity best displayed the freedom gained by departing from the traditionally limited dimensions of staged performance. Violinist Emily Bruskin in particular seemed to relish the range of physical motion, frequently leaving contact with her chair as she turned left towards pianist Andrea Lam, leaned forward towards cellist Julia Bruskin, or rose rapturously out and upwards on soloistic melodies. Theirs was definitely a high-octane interpretation of Mozart: no cool and gracious salon hostesses here, but rather passionate, tightly coiled sprites ready to rebound their kinetic energy through the three points of their triangle and thence into every corner of the hall. Their sound was bold and for the most part crisp; I experienced few balance problems after some piano-heavy runs in the first movement which obliterated the doubling violin. However, the space seemed least kind to Emily — though she matched the power of the other instruments with a rich, full-bodied tone and wide vibrato, she never achieved the range of color that Julia coaxed from her cello. Instrumental color and blend were especially striking in the Larghetto, during which the cello set the base coat for a lullaby-like second theme and provided a warm pedal point glow in the coda, over which Lam was able to sooth the uncovered beast of her instrument into a responding soft murmur. The final movement again displayed agile contrasts, Lam’s understated introduction giving way to an explosive chorus, though Emily again disappeared in some of the passagework.
Composer Helen Grime entitled her piece, commissioned for the Claremont Trio in honor of Calderwood Hall, Three Whistler Miniatures after a set of muted miniatures, chalk and pastel on cardboard, by James McNeill Whistler. The three images were reproduced in the program, and although inspiration is a very personal thing, this was where the relationship between imagery, sound, and performance drama broke down for me. The three portraits of women, in muted shades of brown, gold, and violet, seem to evoke all the swathed, inferred sensitivities of the Victorian era, a wistful ache tenuously coaxed out of subject and materials. As for the Claremonts — well, one has only to look at one of their publicity shots to see what kind of image they project. Nothing, for me, could more powerfully illustrate the juxtaposition of 21st-century versus 19th-century femininity than comparing the glamour girls of the Claremont Trio with Whistler’s subjects. As for Grime, she seemed to tailor her writing mostly to the trio and the hall, with brief, elusive passages that seemed truly in tune with the dichrome of the pictures.
Despite the disparity of the source pictures and their sonic realizations, Grime’s pieces and their performance were tasteful, engaging, and accessible. Their limited scope and economy of gesture were in tune with her stated objective to capture an intimate world and atmosphere appropriate for the venue. Lam opened “The Little Note in Yellow and Gold” with clear, luminously spare arpeggiations that instantly brought to mind the raindrops against the glass of the entrance hall, the strings sneaking in with gossamer glissandi which soon gave way to more assertively attacked tremolandi, ponticello rumbles, and overlapping swoops. The second movement, “Lapis Lazuli,” captured a propulsive exoticism suggested by the title but lacking in the image itself. Whistler’s nude, reclining on a couch with a fan against an amorphous lavender backdrop, is certainly not Manet’s Olympia, though it postdates that then-shocking painting by about 20 years; to me Whistler’s lady, her body delineated by a few curves, her face demurely smudged, suggests a sort of shy post-coital tristesse. But that’s the beauty of reservation: it leaves room for interpretation, which for Grime and the trio included masterful shifts in tempo, a very stylish effect in the strings achieved by unisons and subsequent divergences, and a memorable closing flourish for piano. The third miniature, “The Violet Note,” further explored the palettes established in the first two, sometimes austere but mostly dramatic.
The trio rounded out its program with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11. Finally given a chance to let loose with all the romantic fervor it could muster, the trio’s ensemble work came over as quite forceful, a little competitive, and a little muddy in the beginning. The piece itself is definitely a keeper: lush and poignant, with moments of suspense and restraint. I wished, in fact, that the performance had exhibited a bit more restraint in order to present more powerful climaxes — there are only so many degrees of enhancement that hair-flinging and eyebrow-knitting that can bring. Suspended, ethereal passages were few and far between; however, the lull of a simple walking quarter note line in the cello before the final wail of the opening Allegro molto vivace was one of my favorite moments. On the other end of the spectrum, Lam displayed an impressive amount of stamina with her double handfuls of notes, and her thundering theme against the united fortissimo backdrop of the strings certainly did convey an unquestionable amount of potency.
The Andante espressivo opened with more high-powered, operatic melodies, but the players proved that they were indeed capable of subtlety in a gently arpeggiated, Italian serenade-style B section and a gently descending coda. The Lied: Allegretto had more of the feel of an intermezzo than a song — a brief interlude before the Finale arrived with an uneven, slightly tango-ish bass rhythm in the piano. The last movement was full of witty inter-instrumental dialogue and mischievous character changes, but perhaps due to comfort or perhaps to fatigue, the players seemed to have lost some of their outward communicative showiness to fall back on an obvious mutual familiarity.
The Claremonts offered Piazzola as an encore, which elicited some chuckles: what better for a trio of highly emotive, fashionable, virtuosic young women eager to share their passion and talent with their surrounding admirers?
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She currently also is the BMInt intern.