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The venerable Raleigh Chamber Music Guild closed its seventy-third Masters Series concert season in the sanctuary of the slightly more venerable Hayes Barton United Methodist Church. The attraction for that closing was a trio from the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, a newer but no less honored organization which also happened to be closing out its own fifteenth season.
Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich – can you imagine a more substantial lineup? Complementing that trio was yet a different trio of stellar musicians. Violinist Ara Gregorian, a former student of Robert Mann, is the founder and artistic director of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival. Cellist Marcy Rosen, having studied with Sandor Vegh, is Professor of Cello at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Pianist Thomas Sauer has studied with Jorge Bolet. He is on the music faculty of Vassar College, and he is founder and director of the Mannes Beethoven Institute.
The first half of the program featured the somber side of the greatest in chamber music. Rachmaninoff’s Trio Élégiaque No. 1 depicts the composer’s grief over the death of his friend and mentor, Tchaikovsky. Played as one movement, it nevertheless consists of some twelve programmatic “episodes,” leading with the descriptive “Lento lugubre.” This irresistible melody is revisited again and again during the fifteen-minute work. The masterly “Alla Marcia funebre” at length ushers the honoree on to his eternal rest. The players here seemed to be totally in charge of this most accessible masterwork.
Maybe less accessible but no less elegiac was the Piano Trio No. 2 of Rachmaninoff’s later countryman, Shostakovich. From 1944, this piece is said to mourn the death of the composer’s longtime friend. It clearly morphs into a lamentation for the victims of the atrocities committed at Treblinka and like places. The mood varies during the first two movements. But the Largo opens with dramatic and thunderous piano chords. The violin joins, followed by the cello in a dirge of great intensity. The ending Allegretto is a dance of death, as fierce as the unthinkable violence that it mourns.
After intermission, it was time to banish the somber mood of the rainy Sunday afternoon with the sunny glow of Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7, Op. 97. Also called the “Archduke” and certainly one of the composer’s most famous, its opening main theme is familiar to all chamber music partisans. The Scherzo features a playful exchange between the cello and the violin, lighthearted throughout. Beethoven would have rejected the idea that he ever wrote “beautiful” music. But few passages are more charming than the Andante cantabile, highlighted by an extended piano solo with string accompaniment.
For an ad hoc ensemble, these players exhibited an astonishing degree of unity. As a fascinating hypothetical for those of a certain age, close your eyes and drift back to, say, 1980. There on the stage are Menahem Pressler, Isidore Cohen and Bernard Greenhouse, the universally-acclaimed Beaux Arts Trio. What noteworthy differences are you able to perceive?