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What is it about Duke? The Chamber Arts Society's offerings are little different from chamber music programs elsewhere in the Triangle* or elsewhere in NC. The group imports artists and ensembles of considerable renown and offers them to subscribers and the general public in programs that contain appealing mixes of mainstream and new music. Ticket prices are reasonable. The program booklets are attractive and nicely documented — this year containing notes by our colleagues Joe and Elizabeth Kahn, proprietors of WordPros, Inc. The audiences are large — the concerts are often sold out, as was the case on this occasion — and reasonably responsive — not effusively so, like the NC Symphony crowd, but there's often considerable enthusiasm.
On January 8, the Chamber Arts Society brought the Eroica Trio back to the Triangle for the first of two concerts, each offering different programs. This is a snazzy ensemble, one whose members are often marketed as much for their sex appeal as for their musicianship. It's considered passé to comment on the appearances of musicians, but since the Eroica's marketing package emphasizes slinky, form-fitting gowns and décolletage, it must be noted that the ladies were all in red and they dazzled the geezers among the crowd in ways that old fat guys in penguin suits simply don't. It was also mildly amusing to watch couples in the audience and to note the generally more passionate applause from the gents than from their spouses.... But Eroica is a first-class — nay, world-class — ensemble, so there's real musical substance there, along with the glitz. And this has been proven, consistently, by the remarkable sales of their several CDs, which contain attractive cover art but which endure — and enjoy repeated playings — because of their superior artistic contents.
In Reynolds Theatre, the ensemble performed a mixed program of classic and new works. The concert began with early Beethoven — the first Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 1, in D Flat. It's a substantial work that in lesser hands can seem almost too much of a good thing, a piece that might have benefited from, say, a good editor with a sharp red pencil. As played by pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Adela Peña, and cellist Sara Sant' Ambrogio, the work unfolded before our ears as if we were hearing it for the first time, with the ink still wet. Its many twists and turns were magnificently illuminated, and the artists' involvement in the music was palpable and constantly apparent to listeners — and to observers, too.
Piazzolla's Four Seasons was heard in full at the same hour, in Raleigh, in a concert by the NC Symphony — see a review by the Kahns elsewhere in this issue; in Durham, the Eroica Trio played three tangos arranged by José Bragato, items they have recorded. The group captured the passion and fire in these short works admirably, taking the audience on a whirlwind ride through the dives of Buenos Aires, thanks to the idiomatic transcriptions by a former member of the composer's own band.
Piano trios have relatively few blockbusters to play — Beethoven's is the one well-known triple concerto, although the Eroica Trio has done others — so it's not surprising that one of the usual suspects turns up in nearly every Eroica program. On this occasion, it was Schubert's Trio No. 1, in B-Flat, D.898 (Op. 99), a work that is surely imprinted in the musical memories of nearly everyone who was present, perhaps starting on old 78 r.p.m. records. This work and its comparably familiar companion are substantial pieces — it's not for nothing that Schubert's Ninth Symphony is known as "The Symphony of heavenly length," a term that could apply to the trios, too. In less than splendid hands, these chamber works can seem eternal and somewhat less than heavenly, but the visitors in Reynolds had a secure grip on the expansive music and managed to make every measure — and every repeat — tell. The place erupted with applause at the end, and the audience was rewarded with a charming arrangement of one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances, which elevated the bubble factor to near champagne levels.
*For a list of upcoming chamber music concerts in the Triangle, see our special chamber music page. Many of these events are not sold out, and seats are often available at the last minute.