The best chamber music ensembles are those whose members live together, or at least live close and see each other often. One way that this can occur is if the chamber musicians are all on the faculty of the same music school. Douglas Weeks (piano), Sarah Johnson (violin) and Kenneth Law (violoncello) are all faculty members at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, so when they come together to perform as the Converse Trio, they match this requirement. They came together quite successfully at a Sunday afternoon recital in the Hendersonville Chamber Music Series.
The program was a traditional one of three piano trios, each having the traditional three or four movements. However, the program broke with tradition (or at least with conservative tradition) inasmuch as the central work of the program was composed in the 21st century. In introducing the Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano (2001) by Robert Aldridge, pianist Douglas Weeks remarked that he and Aldridge had met at the Brevard Music Center, where Aldridge has been a composer-in-residence two summers and where Weeks is Chair of Piano Studies. Our musical appetites were whetted by the sense that we would be hearing a well-informed performance.
Weeks further added that members of the trio during rehearsal had identified a number of musical quotations, which they felt mostly belonged to the 1960's television generation. Perhaps I simply don't catch allusions on the first hearing or perhaps I did not let my children watch enough television in the 1960's, but I did not hear any 1960's quotes. However, one theme in the rondo did resemble "On the Trail" from Ferde Grofé's "Grand Canyon Suite." But that was the 1930's, not the 1960's. What was unmistakable about Aldridge's style was his extensive use of syncopation, quartal harmonies (based on intervals of a fourth, originally found in classical music and then adopted into jazz by Miles Davis and John Coltrane), and other jazz harmonies. Why use a dominant seventh chord when you can go on up the keyboard for an eleventh or thirteenth chord?
We were treated to a thoughtful performance of the large 35-minute work. Virtuoso piano passages in the first movement (Allegro moderato) were executed with agility by Weeks. The second movement (Leggiero) was filled with dancing staccatos, silences followed by sudden attacks by all three players, and a lot of use of the two string instruments to provide a rhythmic accompaniment to the domineering piano. The third movement (Arioso) had a persistent triple-meter rhythmic underpinning on the piano. The fourth movement was perhaps the most interesting rhythmically, with a complex boogie-woogie bass entering at one point and a few wonderful passages for the cellist while the pianist dealt with handfuls of notes before a few piano glissandi leading into what a jazzer might term the ride out. Aldridge accomplishes the fusion of jazz with classical compositional styles in an unselfconscious style, making the fusion seem natural and inevitable.
The program began with Franz Joseph Haydn's Piano Trio Hob. XV: 25 in G Major (not D Major as stated in the program). This is perhaps the best of all Haydn trios. He uses the cello to full advantage as an independent voice rather than doubling the bass line as he so often did in the early trios intended for harpsichord. The instrumental voicing in the second movement (poco adagio) was especially good, and the final movement, the well-known "Gypsy Rondo," was executed with élan.
After intermission, the group began the Brahms Trio in B Major (an early work but extensively revised in 1889). I say "began" advisedly; five minutes into the Allegro con brio first movement cellist Kenneth Law had an equipment malfunction. His bow came unglued. Troppo brio, indeed. Fortunately violinist Sarah Johnson had two spare violin bows with her, and after experimenting with each, Law was ready to resume. The Scherzo seemed to lack complete focus, but they were back into their groove for the Adagio and Allegro. Law managed the unfamiliar bow with dignity, except in one quiet passage in the Adagio where a reversal of direction in bowing led to a brief glitch.
Three trios; three centuries. And no twentieth-century music. Good programming.