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JCT Trio Fabulous in Shalin Liu

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Nearing my 200th review for the Intelligencer, I have heard my share of mind-bogglingly good pianists, several at Rockport Music. Yesterday the 24-year-old pianist/composer Conrad Tao entered my piano pantheon as someone I really want to hear again, soon. He appeared in a new trio, an acronym of his last name with violinist Stefan Jackiw’s and hot-ticket-cellist Jay Campbell— the JCT Trio.  An unappealing name for a fabulous trio, which features one of my most admired violinists, but beauty and thrills there came aplenty.

Jackiw is well-known to Boston audiences, having grown up here, gone to college here, and completed an Artist Diploma at NEC. This past January, he appeared on the Celebrity Series with pianist Jeremy Denk (and the all-male vocal quartet, Hudson Shad) playing Ives four piano and violin sonatas. This listener found it one of the most exciting concerts of the year (they will be recording it). Tao won, among other honors, eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. He is a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a Davidson Fellow Laureate, and a Gilmore Foundation Young Artist, the only classical artist named by Forbes magazine in 2011 as one of the “30 Under 30” in the music industry. (He was 17 at the time.). Cellist Jay Campbell, like Jackiw and Tao, took the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. He also serves as cellist of the JACK Quartet which the Boston Globe called “superheroes of the new music world.”

Christopher Trapani (b.1980), who wrote his seven-minute, colorful and atmospheric two-part trio, Passing Through, Staying Put in 20, noted that it took its title from Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.”  The first half, “Passing Through,” is all about motion and change; a long chain of consonant four-note chords… calculated to correspond to a set of meticulous voice-leading principles—unfolds throughout, while snippets of material in the strings move in and out of phase in charisma patterns inspired by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow. By contrast, the second part, “Staying Put,” deals with settling and stasis, a sense of arrival.” We heard a lot of snazzy slides and pinpoint accuracy—a hallmark, it seems, of this trio which would come in handy in the Ives Trio that followed. The inspired opener got and held everyone’s attention from the first notes.

JCT Trio (Shervin Lainez photo)

Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (ca. 1909-1910, rev. ca. 1914-1915) came across with brilliance, (brilliantly reviewed in these pages by Vance Koven HERE). In that same review, Koven remarked about how difficult it is to speak from the stage. This issue has long bothered this reviewer as well, but on Sunday, Jackiw rose charismatically to the occasion and provided the audience with intelligent background on Ives, “…the father of modern-day estate planning.” I don’t expect to hear anything more exciting this summer than the JCT Trio’s astounding interpretation, especially the second movement which left me giggling with joy. The third movement sounded simply glorious—so evocative that it seemed these players had the power to change the weather; suddenly the sun started peeking through after a long spell of rain.

There is nothing like hearing — and seeing — electrifying performers work their magic live. This top-notch trio stands at the top of its game. They made this treacherously difficult music sound entirely natural and fun, while still inspiring awe. The range of compositional devices Ives used — polytonality, atonality, complex multi-rhythms, tone clusters, 12-tone rows, metrical modulation, and microtonality — disturbed or bewildered nearly all of his contemporaries. The composer was frustrated by indifferent audiences and ambivalent critics throughout his career. Now, it would seem, due to spectacular performances like this trio’s, Ives is, well, hot.

The describe themselves as “three visionary artists of the next generation (who) have joined forces to form a compelling, forward thinking piano trio.” So, where does the familiar Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3, in F Minor fit into this vision? Well, I’m not sure, except that this 41-minute chestnut came across with world-class passion. The composer himself participated in the first performance in 1883. He would have been stirred by this traversal, especially the deeply emotional slow movement, delivered with perfection.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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