in: Reviews

October 5, 2012

Frank’s Work Concludes Calderwood Commissions

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The Claremont Trio has a well-developed fan base in Boston, and for good reason. Its performances are both expressive and elegant, and it often presents new or relatively unknown works of the piano trio genre in addition to established masterpieces. All of this was indeed the case in last Sunday’s concert at the Calderwood Hall of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the last of three concerts in which the trio had premiered a work commissioned to celebrate the creation of the new concert space. In addition to Mozart and Mendelssohn, the program included the striking commissioned piece by Gabriela Lena Frank.

Consisting of pianist Andrea Lam and twin sisters, violinist Emily Bruskin and cellist Julia Bruskin, the trio began with a dynamic reading of Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major, K.542. The Classical language that was reaching its maturity as Mozart was reaching his allowed for sudden changes of mood and expression, even from one phrase to another. This is strikingly different from Baroque style, in which a single idea or gesture would run more or less continuously through an entire movement. The performance by the Claremont emphasized the contrasts, sometimes driven and powerful, then suddenly witty, and then again suddenly sweetly lyrical. Such an approach may not be to all tastes, but I particularly enjoyed the lively shaping from phrase to phrase, vibrant to the ear without needing to see, to take it in, the always expressive face of Julia Bruskin.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank introduced her new work, Folk Songs for Piano Trio, with an appealing account of the various ethnic heritages that are combined in hers — primarily Peruvian on her mother’s side and eastern European Jewish on her father’s side. Her parents met when her father was in Peru as part of an early wave of Peace Corps volunteers; she was born in California and makes Berkeley her home. All of this was by way of explanation that she has experienced Peru and Peruvian music largely as an outsider, though closer than most, through the mediation of her mother. But she has undertaken “folk-oriented” works rather in the manner of Bartók, a favorite composer of hers, expressing the manner more explicitly than the matter. In other words, the piece was not to be heard as a series of folk song arrangements but rather as a deep evocation of levels of culture with some elements of actual tunes, but — especially in the final movement — with an imaginative recreation of music never heard by any living person.

The opening movement, “Canto para La María Angola,” is intended to conjure the out-of-tune chime of a large cathedral in the Peruvian highlands, beginning with the piano (an obvious stand-in for bells) but with inventive use of the entire trio to suggest overtones that create bright but dissonant sonorities. “Children’s Dance” was a lively scherzo in mood, followed by a lyrical “Serenata,” with the two stringed instruments played pizzicato to suggest guitars or other plucked-string folk instruments, while the piano “sings” the serenade in long-flowing lines, often in simple octaves or parallel motion at other “sweet” intervals of thirds or sixths. The finale, “Chavín de Huantar” was an evocation of the pre-Inca past, here most “Bartókian” in converting some suggestive sonorous images into a unique sonority not at all “folkish.” Overall the work used the three instruments in a wide variety of ways, with fresh, unusual colors, rhythms, and tunes. This is a piece I look forward to hearing again.

The  concert closed with Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 66 no. 2 , a work that is far less often heard than the Trio in D-Minor no. 1, if only because the surging themes of the earlier work have long since captured listeners. But the second trio is far more dramatic and boasts some especially virtuosic keyboard writing, which Angela Lam executed with brilliant fingerwork and dynamic control. The Bach chorale that fills the last half of the finale brought a suitably heroic close that excited long ovations from a thoroughly satisfied audience.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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