Before the Lincoln Trio began its fascinating if somewhat unbalanced French and American program at Maverick Concerts Sunday, the music director Alexander Platt, his brother Russell Platt, and the Trio’s violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, conversed on stage about Ned Rorem. Platt and Ruhstrat discussed the experience of studying with the composer, whom they described as a very practical teacher; Ruhstrat also read some comments sent her by American composer Daron Hagen. A typical Rorem comment would be something like, “You have four different ideas in this piece. You should choose one or at most two of them.”
We also learned about “mystery juice.” After Rorem stopped drinking, he would serve his pupils a fruit juice mix which varied from day to day depending on what leftover fruit Rorem had in the refrigerator. The juice was processed in a machine given to Rorem by his cousin, Jack LaLanne, the TV fitness guru. There’s a great piece of music-related trivia for you!
In the opener, Fauré’s Trio in D Minor, Op. 120, pianist Marta Aznavoorian often seemed to be overbalancing, although not blotting out, her string-playing colleagues. The interpretation sounded more aggressive and sometimes just louder than it should, although the central Andantino went well. The loud, edgy piano tone, especially in the last movement seemed inappropriate. This introduction to the Lincoln Trio impressed in some respects but not quite satisfy.
Nor did I fall in love with the work of either Rorem pupil. For some reason, Jennifer Higdon seems to be becoming one of the most popular of current American composers. When I’ve heard her music previously, it has seemed like bland stuff, ingeniously crafted but without anything distinctive to hang onto. That was exactly my impression of the opening movement of her two-movement Piano Trio No. 1. “Pale Yellow” would serve as fine movie music because there’s nothing in it to distract viewers’ attention away from the action. The second movement, “Fiery Red,” is a lot louder and more vehement than the first, but it lacked the requisite content, sounding like synthesized excitement—Prokofiev mixed in a blender.
Trio No. 4, “Angel Band,” from Daron Hagen, the other Rorem student, is precisely twice as long as Higdon’s trio (22 minutes). Its five movements are based on the bluegrass gospel tune used as its subtitle. They mostly sounded like variously decorated and elaborated versions of the tune, which itself sounds rather like “I Ride an Old Paint.” The Rondo was fast and loud. I suspect the performance was first rate.
We did a lot better, though, with the concluding Ravel Trio in A Minor. While the piano was still sometimes excessive in climaxes, the playing was mostly well-balanced and stylish, the virtuoso demands of the music easily met. The second movement was elegant, the third quite touching. And the vivid colors of the finale impressed. indicating what this ensemble can do at its best. We even got an encore, Chicago composer Stacy Garruls’ arrangement of the folksong “Silver Dagger” popularized many years ago by Joan Baez.
Despite my reservations, I’ll look forward to hearing the Lincoln Trio again, with music I could enjoy more consistently.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.