Friday evening’s concert at the Goethe Institut-Boston, entitled “Some Thoughts on Good and Evil”, comprised a trio of piano trios, performed by an all-star ensemble of violinist Gabriela Diaz, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Elizabeth Schumann under the imprimatur of the Word Song. Two new pieces, by Howard Frazin and Adam Simon, were followed by the monumental second piano trio by Felix Mendelssohn. Although on paper the concert seemed like an odd pairing of new and old, I was struck by how cohesive it felt in execution.
Frazin’s Some Thoughts on Good and Evil was premiered in Dallas five years ago by the Claremont Trio, and has received much acclaim (Michael Rocha’s review here). Thoughts is an instrumental setting of poems by Langston Hughes and William Blake, though we will have to take the composer’s word for it since no texts or explications were offered. It also manages to be thematically terse, sparing in its melodic scope even while based on the rich harmonies evocative of Hughes’s Jazz Age or Blake’s romanticism; the overall effect is stunningly dramatic and evocative, seeming communicating Frazin’s ardent response to the poetry that inspired him. Although the slower second movement seemed a little overzealous, all three musicians played with a unified sensitivity and understanding.
How fitting that Adam Simon’s first piano trio followed. That he studied composition under Frazin was apparent in many ways: parallels in their tonality and instrumentation were most obvious. But Simon’s writing was also striking in its own right, especially in its utilization of a more standard sonata-allegro form, apparent in practically every one of the movements. Overall it was swept with a Mercurial traversal of emotions, flitting from a passionate first movement to mock-academic contrapuntal lines marked the Scherzo second movement. While a meditative Largo in the third movement follows, a rambunctious fourth movement revels in a wicked sense of humor. Macroscopically, this piece couldn’t be more different from Frazin’s trio. While the former was intensely focused on the good and evil of Hughes’s and Blake’s poetry, Simon’s composition is full of youthful energy that, although dipping into moments of intense introspection, always managed to resolve with a smile. As a result, what manifested itself as pushed tempi in Frazin’s piece seemed perfectly natural here. Particularly memorable was the ensemble’s traversal of the treacherous fourth movement, which benefitted from the fleet tempi. Despite its obvious difficulty, the movement continually resounded with its inherent humor.
Simon’s piece, with its Romantic insinuations, provided a perfect prelude to the conclusion of the evening in Mendelssohn’s second piano trio. Although Mendelssohn favors the violin quite strongly (the trio was dedicated to violinist Louis Spohr), he also incorporates extended passages that prominently highlight the cello, all solidly based on an almost orchestral accompaniment in the piano. In addition to its remarkable balance and structure, most notable in the trio is the use of the hymn tune Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit from the Genevan psalter (Old Hundred in English) in the final movement. Though the violin is clearly the star, and was intelligently read by Gabriella Diaz, I was struck by the rich lyric line coaxed out of Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello. His fluid, vocal tone was a particular highlight during the second movement.
Despite my enthusiasm for Friday evening’s concert and my feeling that it was musically cohesive, I should admit that the thematic conceit of “Good and Evil” was lost on me. Aside from the obvious implications in Frazer’s composition and the passing reference to liturgical music in Mendelssohn’s trio, I was confused as to how this could be the unifying theme for these three well-received works.