in: Reviews

August 10, 2012

Claremont Shines with Shepherd’s Trio in Cotuit


The Claremont Trio — Emily Bruskin, violin, Julia Bruskin, cello, and Andrea Lam, piano, offered three fine performances on August 7th  at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, as part of this year’s Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The concert was particularly wonderful for me because it gave me a second opportunity to hear Sean Shepherd’s Trio (2012), commissioned for the opening of the new Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I wrote an extensive article here about my experiences at that concert.

The concert opened with the delightful Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in C Major, K. 548, by Mozart, the same piece that opened the Calderwood. Written about the same time as his last three symphonies, the trio shares many elements with the Jupiter Symphony, including a witty Andante Cantabile second movement and a jaunty “hunting” theme that opens the first movement. Mozart was under great financial distress at the time, but the music does not show any of it. The performance by the Claremont was charming and perfectly balanced.

With hardly any pause the trio walked back on stage for the Sean Shepherd composition. The piece was introduced by one of the Bruskins with the acknowledgment that that Sean Shepherd was a classmate of theirs at Julliard who has gone on to write many successful commissions for major orchestras. “We knew him then . . .  ,” she said. Since that premier the Claremont has apparently fallen in love with the Trio and has performed it in concert six times.

Nothing like performance experience to bring out the best of a new composition! What I heard in Cotuit bore little resemblance to what I heard at the Gardner. One problem with the premier was the peculiar hall. I was in the first balcony looking down at the cello, which sitting back in my chair I could see through the glass balcony front but could barely hear. Sitting forward, I was able to hear all three instruments most of the time, but the piano dominated the sound. Music loses a lot of its intensity and meaning when one must strain to hear it. The balance problems were not overly significant in the first two movements of the Shepherd trio, as the instruments play alternately, or with just one having the major voice. The first movement, “florid hopscotch,” has relatively simple flourishes bouncing between the various instruments. The second, “Calderwood,” begins with a long cello solo, and ends with a long violin solo with ethereal melodies joining the two. The last movement, “slow waltz of the robots,” is more complex and requires good balance. Here the acoustics are important, and the situation in Cotuit was quite satisfying whereas at the Calderwood Hall premiere it was unfortunate.

The hall at the Cotuit Center for the Arts is about as different from the Calderwood as it is possible to get. The Cotuit hall is rectangular, with a stage area in the center of one of the long walls. The audience surrounds the stage in expanding semicircles.  The floor was set up for cabaret, with little tables here and there for food and drink. (None was on offer.) There were thick curtains behind the performers, and on the walls beside and above them. The reverberation time with the audience in place was about 0.8 seconds, much dryer than the Calderwood hall. I found a seat at the last minute in nearly the same position with respect to the trio as I had in the Gardner. The sound in Cotuit was dry, crisp, and clear. I could hear every note, all the time, no matter who played it or who was playing at the same time. What a delight!

But the biggest difference between the Gardner performance and the one in Cotuit was the playing. I heard for the first time just how jazzy the Shepherd composition is. The hopscotch of the first movement demands perfect timing, and in Cotuit that timing was there in spades. In addition, each little turn had exciting variations in dynamics. Sounds bounced between the musicians with great energy, and a sense of excitement kept building and building. The other two movements were similarly good, and  as I said, I could hear every note. The Claremont put into the piece the work that it needs — work that modern compositions seldom get.

The Brahms B-Major trio that followed intermission built on the energy that the Shepherd had demonstrated. What a joy to hear two fine musicians who have played together almost all their lives, and are identical twins to boot! Andrea Lam, who joined them first for the Gardner concert, has fully integrated her playing into theirs. She was aggressive when she needed to be, but she never covered the strings. In the Adagio movement her long piano solo was slow, deliberate, and full of heart. When the strings joined her it was as if they had been playing all along, and we had just noticed them.

Although the audience response to the Shepherd was a bit lukewarm, their response to the Brahms was deservedly overwhelming. The Claremont closed the concert with a delightful encore by Piazzolla.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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