IN: Reviews

Celebrity Trio’s Hour and a Half of Power

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Stella Chen lets down her hair. (Chung Cheng photo)

Several of the many string connoisseurs in the house expressed agreement with this reviewer that the gorgeous tones with refined, engaged, powerful, and deeply musical interpretations from the young celebrity string trio appearing last night at Jordan Hall on behalf of the Foundation for Chinese Perfroming Arts would long reverberate in our memories. Stella Chen, first prize winner of the 2019 Queen Elizabeth competition, along with poetic cello competitor Brannon Cho, and the winsome violist, Matthew Lipman, the possessor of a million-dollar smile and rarefied chops, have been playing together for many years.

We are enthusiastic about the formation of our string trio, and absolutely plan to be a continuous ensemble. The three of us have been close friends since we were teenagers, and we see our instrumentation as an opportunity. While not blessed with as rich a repertoire as the piano trio or string quartet, the members of a string trio must shine individually as well as blend seamlessly into supportive roles. Simply put, there are fewer instruments with more musical responsibilities — a challenge that intrigues us! 

Beyond the years of friendship, the joint imbibing of some powerful elixir must have united them in a big-hearted embrace of their chosen repertoire and the admiring audience. Or was it a secret rosin that produced such room-filling tone and rendered them immune to the scratches and scrapes that lesser players fall heir to? These artists probably could have impressed us on four-string cigar boxes, but we were privileged to hear them on very important instruments. And beyond that, what you saw was what you got: freshness, eloquence, joyfulness, and depth.

This program is one we absolutely adore. It would be impossible to deny that one of the biggest draws of forming a string trio is getting to truly live with the Mozart Divertimento ― a piece so grand, loved, and profound. We’ve paired it with three seldom played works that are full of spirit, character, and every bit as lovable.

“Loveable,” a surprising word for the first half, turned out aptly to describe what on paper looked like downer holocaust music. Of course even Gideon Klein, who would die as a slave laborer for the Third Reich, penned his final work, at the “showplace” Terezin Camp in a vein of optimism and agreeable polytonality, that would please his fellow inmates and captors and avoid any of the forbidden 12-tone techniques that would have perhaps hastened his death.

The Allegro of Klein’s three-movement String Trio begins with tremolos and pizzes in open harmonies suggestive of cavorting Dybbuks. Only the Variations on a Moravian Folksong: Lento came to us as some boldly tortured dirge of regret. Cho lamented elegiacally, leading his partners into density and depth of feeling. Violist Lippman discussed with us afterwards the importance of careful tuning in this movement. The polytonality (each part is in a different key) needs to be expressed without suffering from exaggerated stress. The players realized their intentions with full artistic force. The Molto vivace gypsy dance closed the work and the first half with joyful fire.

According to the program annotator Jannie Burdeti, Leo Weiner (1885-1960),

…the Hungarian Mendelssohn’s output included opera, ballet, symphonic poems, divertimentos, dance suites, a piano concertino, two violin concertos, three string quartets, and numerous piano pieces and orchestrations. Unfortunately, with the increasing shift towards twelve-tone composition within his cultural milieu, he no longer felt he understood the “modern trends” of music, leading to his resignation from the department of composition as he redirected his focus towards chamber music. Eventually, though being apolitical all his life, he could not escape the onset of fascism in Hungary in 1944: he lost his job, lived in hiding due to his Jewish heritage, lost his home and manuscripts to bombings, and was taken to a forced labor camp.

Brannon Cho in warm embrace (Chung Cheng photo)

The Allegro opened with warm and effusive expression, almost Brahmsian in its beeriness, the exquisitely pleading tones of violinist Chen inspired a shared fiery advocacy. Fully realized melodic gestures in complete equality of string writing and player advocacy told the tale early on that we would hear nothing dainty from the threesome. Serpentine and sinuous, the movement ended with a sigh. A Vivace dance, interrupted by a sad aria from the viola, quickly became livelier. The unanimity of expression, pulse and breath swept all away. An Andantino ‘music of the spheres’ trio spun up to a dangerous conflagration, combining heat and heart. We welcomed the Allegro con fuoco, a Mendelssohnian scherzo on this night, as whirling dominance, and submission among smiling extroverts. Fleet but also moonstruck with wonder, the interpretation left us feeling well and truly romanced.

Emmy Frensel Wegener’s (1901-1973) Suite for Violin, Viola, and Cello from 1925 “…consists of five very short parts, largely of a light-hearted nature and the whole has therefore the character of a divertimento. Only the Andante has a slightly more serious tone,” the composer wrote. “With most of [the movements] being only a little over one minute long, Frensel-Wegener imbues the suite with a fresh and compelling neo-classical style,” according to Burdeti.

Inleiding: Moderato chiara (Debussian pizzes and tremolos sounds like a single big guitar)
II. Fugato: Rigoroso  (fugal, dignified through smiles)
III. Scherzo: Scherzo Leggiero e
presto (fleet and Mendelssohnian big closing ritard)
IV. Andante: Dolce (innig yearning- a short cantata of despair, gorgeous violin aria)
V. Finale: Vivace. Rigoroso possibile
(folkish fast dance with interruptions for partner changes)

Matthew Lipman humors this writer. (Chung Chegn photo)

Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat Major K. 563, a desert island companion to be sure, inspired this the ensemble sine nominee to revel in inextinguishably glorious and varied tone and color. The combined freshness and joy seemingly emanated from inborn musicality, signaling affection for the score, one another, and their votaries.  Well plotted, yet spontaneous, the journey rewarded us with many fine niceties of interpretation. We couldn’t take our ears off of Lipman, who with his energy and warmth of expression, remained ever in the foreground. Did his frequent double stops signal an impersonation of the absent second violin?

The senza vibrato opening of the Adagio, coming to us with intense perfection of intonation, began with the cellist’s almost painfully poignant first statement of the tune, leading to artful reflections and intense counter statements from his colleagues…the last word in refinement and emotional investment. III Menuetto Allegretto & Trio danced with unalloyed joy. The Andante began with perfect unisons and octaves and lovely handling of the repeated note phrase; as harmonies richened, Chen, Cho, and Lipman conducted a masterclass in chord voicing. In gentle slides and timbral emergences, the conversations unfolded with propound philosophical dimensions where lesser artists may have resorted to mere note-spinning. Another Menuetto, No. V, discoursed more sunny colorations with irresistible sway. In the closing Allegro, the three outgoing instrumental masters brought to the rousing rondo more power and excitement than an entire stageful of early music strings could ever have mustered.

Many thanks to the trio of for selecting and gratifyingly putting across a selection of worthy works warranted to please from beginning to end. Truly we experienced a musically evangelistic hour-and-a half of power.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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