On my way to hear the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio’s Celebrity Series appearance on Sunday the 24th in Jordan Hall, I happened to catch part of a discussion on NPR of the changing harmonic and tempo trends of pop music (verdict: beats are getting faster and minor modes have become predominant). At one point, Harvard music professor Suzanne Clark drew a parallel between Mozart and “Barbie Girl,” the 90s hit by Aqua. In a nutshell, she argued that one of Mozart’s game-changing operatic innovations was the way in which he designed arias to reflect complex and shifting emotional states instead of the Baroque manner of adherence to a single affect; likewise, it’s the musical elements of “Barbie Girl” that clue the listener into the fact that the singers have a complicated relationship with their subject and what it represents in society.
Yes, it was kind of silly, but both Mozart and “Barbie Girl” have lodged in my own musical memory, and Clark’s point remained in my mind as I sat down for the ensemble’s opener, Mozart’s Trio No. 3 in B-flat, K.502. The bottom line, I think, is emotional interest and the efficacy of its conveyance. Violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Sharon Robinson, and pianist Joseph Kalichstein are all acclaimed soloists, but one can tell that they are also committed to being part of a chamber group—an attitude that is not always the case with those termed celebrities. The unwieldy union of voices and timbres that a piano trio comprises necessitates a slavish amount of compromise and blend. These three artists have proved their mettle as a group, and the result was purposeful, nuanced, and moving.
The trio’s rendition of Mozart was thoughtful, avoiding the pitfalls of both glibness and forced virtuosity. Steven Ledbetter’s program notes emphasized the trio’s piano concerto-esque qualities, and Kalichstein made the most of his unaccompanied bits with finely calibrated boosts of extroversion and wit. All three gave prime consideration to phrasing in the opening Allegro, the string players occasionally risking inaudibility in the delicate side of their sculpting. Laredo’s bowing proved to be a further risk in the name of expression: creative in distribution and attack, but sometimes less than pristine. The real payoff came, however, in the singing Larghetto, in which Laredo crafted a riveting melodic line—always evolving, never static—with his uniquely angular but flowing bowstrokes. The closing Allegretto displayed the most delicacy of detail and robust lushness of sound both. Robinson, by necessity the least obtrusive voice in the Mozart, still managed to infuse her sustained pedal tones with excitement.
Mozart was followed by a commission/premiere of André Previn’s Trio No. 2. Kalichstein described the work as being “above all about wit, especially in the final movement.” My personal experience did not include very many “aha!” moments, consisting instead of a rather pastel series of aural images. To my ear, Previn’s influences as a film composer were most prominent: the first movement seemed to be delivered through the equivalent of a soft-focus lens, with an opening reminiscent of rainy, smoky alleyways. Imitative lines punctuated by jazzy harmonies in the piano gave way to more forceful, Shostakovich-like moments. The second movement opened with a cello solo which, while finally giving Robinson a chance to hold forth, became more interesting under the influence of counterpoint. Here the feeling of cinema scenes was even stronger, atmospheric but sometimes directionless. The wit of the third movement proved to manifest itself mainly through metric shifts and asymmetrical rhythmic layering. Jazz quotes and sassy col legno were fun, but wisely, the movement was short and flippant, over almost as soon as it had begun.
The second half of the program consisted of Tchaikovsky’s emotionally epic A minor Trio, opus 50, the very antithesis of short and flippant. Finally getting the chance to flex her muscle, Robinson fluttered her flowing sleeves as she powered through anguished countermelodies and stormy barriolage. Neither she nor Laredo is an especially showy player, but their mutual engagement was evident. Kalichstein again proved himself equally adept at bombast and in the role of restrained supporter. His presentation of the theme of the massive variation set which comprises the greater part of the work was sensitive, a well-calculated beginning for the exhaustive exploration to follow. Infused with a wistful, heartachey quality, flatted notes giving a hint of jazziness, the theme briefly brought back a whiff of Previn. Wit of a different brand was present in the high piano variation and the subsequent transition into a slightly menacing waltz in the cello. Kalichstein delivered powerful, crashing fanfares too while maintaining cleanliness. Over the long journey of variations, the three players unfolded an increasing range of colors, bringing sustained applause at the work’s cathartic conclusion.
As Laredo noted, Tchaikovsky is hard to follow with an encore; the work they chose, an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” was transcendentally schmaltzy, potently and directly expressive, and a perfect balm to weary ears and hearts.