With the demise of the Foothills Chamber Music Festival, August presents few fixes for those who are addicted to classical music in live performances. Given the cultural doldrums, the concert given by the Carolina Piano Trio in Reynolda House’s Babcock Auditorium on August 11 was irresistible. Far from being a makeshift concert, the trio’s alert musicianship was engaging and deeply satisfying. The lovely new hall, which seats some 190, is the perfect size for the intimacy of chamber music. Acoustical curtains on the windows have tamed the slight reverberation problem when a piano is used (as was noted at the inaugural concert for the hall).

The Carolina Piano Trio was formed in 1998 as the resident ensemble for the American Music Festival and the Chamber Music Society of Wilmington. Triangle music lovers have heard the trio as guests at Duke University’s summer festival and on the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Sights & Sounds on Sundays series. This Reynolda House visit introduced the ensemble to the Triad. The 2006-7 season will find the musicians appearing on the Fearrington Concert Series and at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines. They have been praised for their creative programming and this August 11 performance was a choice example. After a successful European career, pianist and NC native Barbara McKenzie founded the Chamber Music Society of Wilmington and co-founded the Carolina Piano Trio as part of her stint as artist-in-residence. Long-time Spoleto Festival USA fans will remember cellist Elizabeth Anderson as a founding member of the Meliora String Quartet while many Triad concert goers will recall her seasons on the UNCG faculty. Wake Forest University-based violinist Jacqui Carrasco is well-known for her wide versatility in commercial music, jazz, and classical.

Classical forms and subtle wit characterized the Carolina Piano Trio’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Trio No. 5 in D, Op. 70/1 (“Ghost”). In brief remarks from the stage, McKenzie recalled Beethoven’s dislike for giving pieces names, which he felt limited the imagination of the listener. She said the name “ghost” came from the critic ETA Hoffmann and derived from the eerie piano tremolos in the slow movement. The other three movements are quite lively with considerable wit as motifs are tossed from player to player. Reynolda House’s Steinway seems a size or two below a 9′ grand, but McKenzie secured a good, evenly voiced sound from it. She kept the keyboard perfectly balanced with the lid fully raised. Anderson’s cello has a burnished tone with a rich and solid low end. Carrasco’s intonation was immaculate as she played with carefully gauged dynamics and phrasing.

A high point of the last season was an April 18 concert of music by Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964) that was part of a 21st-century residency at the NC School of the Arts. Thomas’ fascinating use of instrumental sounds and colors immediately appealed to this Francophile’s tastes.

The scheduled Reynolda House program was “…a circle around the sun…” (2000) and “Moon Jig” (2005), which the composer’s online program notes indicate “…can be played independently or in either order.” Alas, however, Carrasco announced that “…a circle around the sun…” was being dropped from the program. She then gave a brief summary of Thomas’s program notes for “Moon Jig.” The composer defines “jig” as “a lively dance with leaping movements, comprised of two sections, each repeated.” “Moon Jig” is by turns jazzy – after the styles of Monk, Coltrain, and Tatum – and classical – with elements as divergent as Bartók, Brahms, and Stravinsky. The five-minute work packs a world of variety. It begins with an asymmetrical jig in the piano’s lower register. This is repeated four times with the strings taking up the rhythm. The second section, also repeated four times, begins with lively long lines played by the strings. Toward the end, the two sections blend together and the chaos settles, creating what Carrasco called a “soaring effect.” The trios’ sensitive performance would have pleased Thomas, and I look forward to another chance to hear the inventive work.

Three piano trios never wear out their welcome: Beethoven’s “Archduke,” Ravel’s Trio, and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in e minor, Op. 67. With its overt allusions to Nazi genocide and a sub-text of Stalin’s reign of terror, the Shostakovich trio epitomizes the horrors of the 20th century. Shostakovich composed his second trio as a eulogy for the unexpected death of his closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had been an invaluable sounding board for new compositions. Laurel E. Fay, in Shostakovich: A Life, reports that the Jewish folk elements used in the trio reflect Shostakovich’s deep opposition to anti-Semitism and his predilection for modes with flattened scale degrees. The extraordinary and unforgettable opening begins with haunting extreme high harmonics played on the muted strings of the cello alone. The violin enters with muted strings in its low register, followed by stark low chords from the piano. The rest of the first movement mixes folk-like melodies with raw, sardonic passages. The brazen second movement is by turns lurching and wildly swirling. On an immediate level a threnody on Sollertinsky’s death, the largo is a chaconne consisting of a set of variations on the eight desolate chords played by the pianist to open the movement. Cellist Anderson referred to the direct quote of a Jewish melody in the wild last movement, saying it was an actual tune that Nazi guards made their victims use as they were forced to dig their own graves. Ian MacDonald, in The New Shostakovich, records that the fast portion was inspired “…by stories that SS guards had made their victims dance beside their own graves.” Its origins are certainly macabre.

The Carolina Trio balanced solid technique with highly charged emotions. A slight moment of vibrato aside, Anderson’s bowing and fingering of the eerie opening was excellent. Carrasco’s and Anderson’s playing was outstanding throughout, with exactly judged intonation and terrific execution of the shattering pizzicato episodes. The rhythms were unrelenting where appropriate. All three musicians kept in lockstep as they followed every sudden twist and turn. McKenzie’s gauging of the dynamics was outstanding. The piece ends quietly and is emotionally wrenching. A stunned silence was followed by multiple recalls of the trio. Such a searing piece cannot be followed by an encore.

Note: An online search still turns up CDs containing mid-1940s Russian recordings of the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio with the composer at the keyboard. These are fascinating due to his presence and interpretation and the recordings’ proximity to the 1944 premiere. Check out the Carolina Piano Trio’s website, too, at http://www.americanmusicfestival.org/CPT-bio.html.