In its benefit concert for the Concord Orchestra on Sunday at 51 Walden, Triple Helix Trio presented “Under the Influence: music ‘looking’ beyond itself for inspiration.” The Helices—violinist Bayla Keyes, cellist Rhonda Rider, and pianist Lois Shapiro, piano—performed works by Ives, Ravel and Beethoven, all in some way influenced by external sources. All three works also demand a very high level of technical proficiency from the performers.
Beethoven’s Trio Op. 121a, commonly known as the “Kakadu Variations”, may have been originally composed as early as 1803 as a set of variations on a comical tune “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” from a popular operetta by Müller. According to Lewis Lockwood the 1816 autograph, which was not accepted for publication, represented a substantial reworking of the original. The work finally was published in 1824, probably after additional reworking. The final product can be interpreted to have a Proustian character in which, as Lockwood describes, the aging and impaired Beethoven “looks back with nostalgia on a simple work from his youth, and seeks to bring it out in the world, having clothed it with just enough complexity to balance its naïveté and directness with the wisdom of his later years.”
In her introductory remarks Lois Shapiro implied that the variations themselves are rather ordinary and we should focus on “the hair and the shoes,” meaning the introduction and the concluding section. Fortunately, they didn’t play them that way and the piece overall was impressive, with the maestoso introduction followed by a jaunty rendering of the Kakadu theme. The delicate fifth and seventh variations, which often come across poorly in recordings, were especially pleasing here, while the final variation came off as a maturation and natural lead-in to the masterful extended concluding allegretto. The Proustian element was, however, not brought out.
The Piano Trio by Ives is subtitled in part “Trio Yalensia & Americana” reflecting both its origins in Ives’ days at Yale and its extensive use of American hymns and folk songs. As with the Beethoven Kakadu Trio, the Ives work spans nearly the entire professional life of its composer. It ends with a work composed for the Yale Glee Club as early as 1896 (but never performed). Written mostly in 1904 and reworked in 1911, it was not publicly performed until 1948, late in the composer’s life. Shapiro described the three movements as representing, respectively, the difficulty of thought, the life of the body and the life of the spirit. Perhaps the intent was to make the audience feel comfortable with Ives’ modernism, but I believe that Ives didn’t want us to feel comfortable with his music, and in any event the modernist edge was rather missing from the first movement. The most successful moment in the piece was the serene emergence of “Rock of Ages” at the end of the third movement.
Ravel felt a deep connection to his Basque heritage, and his Trio is permeated with Basque influence. The scherzo-like second movement is designated pantoum, an intricate Malay verse form that Ravel incorporates into the structure of the movement with exceptional skill (for a clear summary see the brief article by Brian Newbould in The Musical Times, Vol. 116, No. 1585, March, 1975). Shapiro described this as one of the great 20th-century chamber works, and the trio’s performance conveyed that conviction, most notably when the tone shifted fluidly between late impressionist in the 3-2-3 Basque rhythm of the first movement and in a decidedly modernist pantoum, with a complex interweaving of thematic cross-currents. A grave and somber passacaille flowed directly into a silky, gossamer finale that built to a forceful, dynamic and powerful coda.
On October 18 and 19, Triple Helix will perform the world premiere of Eric Sawyer’s Fantasy Concerto: Concord Conversations with the Concord Orchestra.