IN: Reviews

To Theme or Not To Theme

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We had something of an epiphany while listening to the performance Sunday by the Merz Trio (Lee Dionne, piano; Bridgid Coleridge, violin; Julia Yang, cello) on the Ashmont Hill Chamber Music series, but we’ll get to that later. This rapidly emerging young ensemble, as is its wont, imaginatively constructed a theme, “night,” meant to expose various facets of nocturnal experience. We won’t attempt to repeat or even summarize the elaborate explanations offered by Dionne and Coleridge for how and why each of the pieces fit into the framework (the sort of thing, together with the convoluted story of how the ensemble got its German-pronounced name, for which the expression TLDR was born), other than to say that the threesome clearly demonstrated the exquisitely detailed thought process that went into its deliberations; some of the explanations persuaded us than others.

The structure of the program was one of its most interesting features. The first half, consisting primarily of short pieces, many of them arrangements by the group, served as a single-set collage without much, or sometimes any, pause between them (and in at least one case with a purpose-composed bridge). The set consisted of (1) “Nacht” from Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs; (2) the second movement, “Misterioso” from Peteris Vasks’s 1985 Episodi e canto perpetuo; (3) Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight”; (4) Stefano Landi’s Augellin; (5) the third movement, “Unisoni” from the Vasks piece; (6) Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig”; (7) Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” from his Gypsy Songs, op. 53; (8) Florence Price’s 1945 song “Night”; and finally (9) the Schubert Notturno, D.897, thought by some to be a discarded slow movement from his B-flat Major piano trio. All but the Vasks and the Notturno were arrangements, with the Dvořák based on the violin arrangement by Kreisler and the Monk on one by someone whose name we didn’t catch. The order of the pieces was in many instances thematic, though how this played out was obscured by the fact that for the transcribed vocal works by Berg, Landi, Schubert’s Erlkönig, Dvořák, and Price, neither the texts nor a summary of them were included in the booklet (okay, everybody knows Erlkönig).

Brigid Coleridge, Lee Dionne, and Julia Yang

The playing here was admirable. Except for the Monk, which we absolutely could not make out as jazz or as anything like what Monk wrote, the highly effective arrangements (except as aforesaid) were clever—we were impressed with the use of string harmonics to represent the bird in the Landi (1587-1639), and the avoidance of the duality of vocal and piano lines in the songs. Vasks, the eminent Latvian composer (b. 1946), is little represented on concerts hereabouts, and the “Misterioso” movement from the suite is a fine example of extended technique put in the service of a basically lyrical sensibility. He has a proper piano trio as well, which one is strongly tempted to seek out. Why the “Unisoni” movement (which does exactly as it says on the tin) was there is unclear other than that it gave the Merzes (Merzen?) a link to unisons in their arrangements of the surrounding pieces. The Price, a lovely and frequently performed work, is far more conservative in idiom than the Berg that it brackets. The most substantial element of this collage is, of course, the Notturno, and the trio’s rendering left nothing to be desired.

The (long) opening section meant to contextualize the single item on the second part, Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 899, whose slow movement, simply marked “Andante con moto,” struck the Merz’s members as nocturnal (maybe a sense of night terrors, as the march-like principal theme constitutes one of Schubert’s darkest utterances). Listening to the Merz’s finely wrought rendition of this pillar of the chamber music edifice, with well-thought-through dynamic shaping and phrasing, well-chosen tempi, technical prowess, Romantic ardor, and even Yang’s highly communicative facial expressions and body English, suddenly suggested an answer to our long-festering question about younger performers’ thematic programs. Whereas in the past musicians could trot out three or four sometimes plausibly linked or complementary pieces and just play them superbly, the products of top conservatories and university music departments have become so skilled that the old dispensation can foster a soul-destroying, return-diminishing virtuoso-eat-virtuoso rat race. But ever-graying audiences were comfortable with the system that generates that result, so audience expansion, it is thought, requires alternatives. The most common alternative now is the obsessively thematic, theatrical, or otherwise elaborate form of outside-the-music-box intentionality, usually featuring political or social commentary and/or studiously inclusive content. Coleridge’s introductory remarks even half apologized for having “only” music on offer this time. In the event, the results were quite good, if not perfect, and we were grateful for their consisting “only” of music, though the overwrought rationale for it could have been either condensed or omitted. Audience-building is ever a challenge; and while all available seats in Peabody Hall were appreciatively taken, if anybody thought the style of presentation was going to bring out droves of young acolytes, well it’s a good thing that God mints new senior citizens by the millions all the time.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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  1. I did not attend this performance so will not comment on anything but the final sentence, which strikes me as exactly right and well worth internalizing. The effort devoted over decades to entice young listeners into the concert hall has clearly seen tepid (at best) results. While acknowledging we want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, it may well be worth appreciating that older patrons have comprised the core classical audience for a very long time. There is always a cohort of “new old people” journeying through life – if we expended even half the effort to reach them as the younger ones, we just might see far more success in maintaining and even growing our base. Just a thought….

    Comment by David Rowe — September 20, 2022 at 9:56 pm

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