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Just a few measures into the March 22 Hill Hall concert by the Triple Helix Piano Trio, given as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series, I knew I was hearing ensemble playing exactly to my taste. Pianist Lois Shapiro had the lid fully up and, with the entrances of cellist Rhonda Rider and violinist Bayla Keyes, it was clear that there weren't going to be any balance problems despite the turbulent music of middle-period Beethoven, the Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1 ("Ghost") (1808). Without ever covering her colleagues' lines, the full color and tone burst forth. In his recent master class in Hill Hall, flutist James Galway, trying to rein in a pianist, said that you don't control volume by lowering the lid--you just reduce color and tone. Both are the spices needed for vital performances. Rider had a fine, rich tone, and she and Keyes matched their string phrasing particularly closely. Wide-ranging dynamics were sensitively and expressively deployed. The first movement was fiery and tempestuous. The slow movement has a brief, heart-felt solo cello line that was deeply moving without becoming sentimental. The last movement began lightly and was full of contrasts and twists and turns of phrases, resulting in good, stormy Beethoven. According to the notes, the Trio has done the complete cycle during its Wellesley College residency.
The contemporary piece on the program was the Trio "Triquetra" (1999) of Arlene Zallman, Professor of Composition and Theory at Wellesley and, several times in the past, Chairman. A graduate of both Juilliard and the University of Pennsylvania, her principal teachers were Vincent Persichetti and George Crumb. On a Fulbright, she studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence, Italy. In her program notes, she describes her trio as classically structured and inspired by the Triple Helix's playing of Haydn and Beethoven. She writes that "The elements of classical style that [she] tried to adapt [were] harmonically governed textures, sudden shifts of character, strong sectional delineation, and above all, repetition and recapitulation." The first movement alluded to sonata form without being one, the second was a rondo, and the third, a scherzo with a trio. The title, "Triquetra," is an architectural ornament: a symmetrical intertwining of three arches. The overwhelming first impression of the trio-which is a welcome change from grossly dissonant squeaks, shrieks and scratches-was the separate writing for each of the three instruments. Often the violin has a high-lying melody contrasted with a full-throated cello song set against piano chords or arpeggios. There is a wide variety of bowing and pizzicatos for the strings. The first movement struck me as bursting with disjointed sections of melody. The second, marked "Lament," opens with a deep mournful cello solo, soon joined by light comments from the piano. Later, bell-like piano notes are set against a "p" violin melody. The extremes of high string tessitura are used. The last movement begins playfully as a repetitious figure is tossed about. There are still more intriguing string harmonies and additional use of extremes of string tessitura. The composer was present and stood to accept warm applause, always better than the short-lived, polite kind. This was a rare first hearing that invites another. I hope the group will record the work and perhaps others will take it up. More about the composer can be found at http://www.wellesley.edu/Music/zallman.html [inactive 2/05].
A superb performance of one of the greatest and most devastating 20th-century chamber works, the monumental Second Trio in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944), by Shostakovich, ended the concert. Composed about the same time that he began work on the Second String Quartet, which also makes use of Jewish music, it was dedicated to the memory of his closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had served as a sounding board as the composer tried out new works. Early reports of Nazi atrocities, such as making victims dance in their graves, played a role in the work, as in the macabre "Dance of Death" in the last movement. In Shostakovich: A Life , Laurel E. Fay notes that "the inflected modes of Jewish music went hand in hand with [Shostakovich's] own natural gravitation towards modes with flattened scale degrees. [He] was also attracted by the ambiguities in Jewish music [and] its ability to project radically different emotions simultaneously." To survive in tyranny, he had to compose works that could be read on at least two levels-one that would pass the censors, and a secret, often opposite meaning for those who could perceive it. A list of all the felicities of the Triple Helix's performance would be needlessly long. It was beautifully judged and magnificently executed. It wasn't pretty, but then neither were the mass murders and tyranny that are its subject. When it ended, there was a long stunned silence before prolonged applause that led to the group's frequent recall to the stage. The Trio's web site is http://www.triplehelixpianotrio.org/ .