Chamber Music Review Print

NewMusic@ECU Festival's Finale: Triple Helix Piano Trio

March 27, 2004 - Greenville, NC:

The seventh and final concert of the weeklong NewMusic@ECU Festival was in the able hands of the Triple Helix Piano Trio, whose program of challenging music roughly focused on "A Sense of Time and Place." The ensemble garnered good reviews from CVNC for traditional mixed programs on the Newman Series in a past season and for the RCMG's Masters Series earlier this season. Pianist Lois Shapiro, violinist Bayla Keyes, and cellist Rhonda Rider are artists-in-residence at Wellesley College. They are dedicated to the works of living composers and are known for their innovative and engaging lecture-recitals, one of which provided invaluable preparation for the five advanced pieces they played on the evening of March 27 in the intimate A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall.

Composer Mario Davidovsky (b.1934) was in residence for the entire festival. He studied with Aaron Copland during a summer at Tanglewood, where he met Milton Babbitt, with whom he was to become deeply involved in electronic music. Davidovsky said that his Chaconna (1972) marked his "transition back to traditional instruments." The work begins with dense scoring for strings alone but about midway the piano "sneaks in," as the composer described it, and comes to dominate the work as the strings grow quiet. The title is metaphorical, according to his comments in the earlier lecture-demonstration. Chaconna is a complex work, ideal for music students but unlikely to appeal to audiences of traditional series.

I was very favorably impressed when the trio introduced the "Triquetta" Trio (1999) by Wellesley-based Arlene Zallman (b.1934) during their 2002 Hill Hall concert. The composer was inspired by the piano trios of Haydn and Beethoven and composed the piece for Triple Helix. The title refers to an architectural ornament: a symmetrical intertwining of three arches. In welcome changes from grossly dissonant squeaks, shrieks, and scratches, each instrument has beautifully scored parts. A high-lying violin melody contrasts with a full-throated cello song set against piano chords and arpeggios. There is a wide variety of bowing and pizzicatos for the strings. The first movement bursts with disjointed sections of melody. Marked "Lament," the second movement opens with a deep, mournful cello solo soon joined by light comments from the piano and followed by bell-like piano notes set against a "p" violin melody using extremely high positions. The last movement is a playful scherzo that begins with a repetitious figure being tossed about and featuring intriguing string harmonies and further exploitation of high string notes. This is an almost Romantic-style trio.

Bright Sheng (b.1955) is one of our most successful contemporary composers whose large works and chamber music have been featured on successive Spoleto Festival U.S.A. seasons. (The composer played piano in his Trio during the 2000 Festival.) His Four Movements for Piano Trio were composed in 1990 and feature many of characteristics of his attempt to create a fusion of Eastern and Western styles by combining Chinese melodies with Western phrasing and compositional techniques. He uses heterophony to create a prelude that sounds like a Chinese folksong. The second movement is based on a humorous and joyful folksong from Se-Tsuan. The third movement is a "savage dance" in which a motive's duration is lengthened and its range is widened with each repetition. This was immediately appealing. A mood of lonely nostalgia dominates the last movement. Sheng's scoring has the Trio mimic the sound of traditional Chinese instruments by using special slides, non-vibrato techniques, and high violin positions. At one point the cello makes "meowing" sounds while the bass strings of the piano are plucked.

The "Book of Hours" (2002-3) by Wellesley-based Martin Brody (b.1949) is very much a work in progress. Complex light changes during the course of a day in Tuscany were the source of inspiration. "Dawn" arises almost imperceptibly from silence. The program note was confusingly labeled but the middle piece, "Meridian" received its world premiere at the March 27 performance. It is a scherzo full of nervous energy, permeated with what the composer's note calls "fragmentary" snatches and "off-kilter quotations" from such things as Brahms' Piano Quintet, "Rock of Ages," a "hit song by Bill Withers entitled 'Ain't No Sunshine,'" and Webern's Piano Variations. There are great swashes of instrumental colors with extended melodies for the violin and cello. The energy builds up with dramatic piano chords and string flourishes. In mirror image to the beginning, "Dusk" ends with a dwindling into silence.

Clearly indicative of just how "cutting edge" his compositions still are, the Trio (1896-1907) of Charles Ives (1874-1954) easily held its own on this program of contemporary music. Triple Helix turned in a brilliant and dynamic performance that was a delight in every way. This work is a perfect short introduction to the composer since its layering of material is easy to follow. Richest of all is the second movement, a scherzo labeled "TSIAJ," which stands for "This Scherzo is a Joke." Among the many popular songs quoted with considerable license are "Band of Brothers," "Marching Through Georgia" (which features a seemingly drunken cello dragging the tune), "When the Worms Crawl In," a ponderous rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," a completely offset version of "Sailor's Pipe," and a magnificent climax that sounds like "the local church pianist gone completely crazy!," as Shapiro said during the seminar.

At that earlier lecture-demonstration, focused on "What Music Tells Us of a Composer's World," excerpts of all five pieces on the evening's concert were played and explained by Shapiro, Keyes, and Rider. Davidovsky was present to exchange views and approaches with the Trio and student composers and faculty.