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There was a heartening turnout of both old and new music lovers in the spacious sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church for the third concert of the 25th season of the Music for a Great Space series. The church has a rich history of musical activity as two of its members, Lucy Ingram and her late husband Henry, founded MFGS. Past performers on the series have been invited back to celebrate the significant milestone. Besides the concerts, artists perform considerable outreach in the local schools.
Although founded only three years ago, the Helios Piano Trio has become a significant new ensemble of considerable promise. All three players are based at the University of Wyoming. Chi-Chen Wu is a native of Taiwan and is active both as a pianist and a fortepianist. Both string players retain deep connections with the Triad. Violinist John Fadial is longtime concertmaster of the Greensboro Symphony where is wife, Beth Vanderborgh is principal cellist. Both continue lengthy associations with the Eastern Music Festival where Fadial is assistant concertmaster. Vanderborgh is the newly appointed principal cellist of the Wyoming Symphony.
This concert opened with Piano Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 80, a perfect example of the innovative Romantic style of Robert Schumann (1810-56). The composer combined a mercurial gift for deeply emotional melodies barely within classical compositional structures. The trio's constantly shifting moods reflected Schumann's creative duality.
Throughout Schumann's writings, he named his passionate nature Florestan and his introspective nature Eusebius. Schumann's recent study of counterpoint was evident throughout the trio's four movements. The ebullient first movement constantly shifts in mood and toys with harmony. The development was contrapuntally dense. A theme derived from Schumann's song "Die Bildnis wunderselig" (Your blissful image) from his Liederkreis, Op. 39 cycle is used in the first movement and carried over in the haunting, soulful slow second movement. Its striking opening begins with the violin and cello in strict canon.The third movement is not a scherzo but rather a kind of a barcarolle in a moderate tempo. Highlights include canonic imitation, first between violin and cello and then between piano and violin. The jaunty finale features a dense piano part and heavy contrapuntal development.
The Helios Trio played the Schumann with great verve and sweep, sailing through the constant shifting of mood and making ease of contrapuntal passages. Wu's piano lid was fully raised but she balanced perfectly with her string colleagues, never covering even in the most intense passage. Her musical line was always clear in the thickest passages. Ensemble between the three was exact and excellent. Fadial's and Vanderborgh's tone was warm and their intonation was splendid. The Trio's interpretation was both stylish and brought clarity to a piece that can sound dense.
According to composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947), the inspiration for his three-movement Café Music for Trio (1986) came after "sitting in one night for the pianist of the house trio at Murray's Restaurant in Minneapolis." He wanted "to write a kind of high-class dinner music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall." It's a delightful and rousing romp across a plethora of American idioms "including Blues, ragtime, African-American spirituals, and Broadway melodies." From the number of times I have reviewed this work, it is clear that Schoenfield created a hit. The Helios players dug into the piece with a will and a sense of fun. Did I hear some stride piano from Wu? Their blues was down and dirty, and Fadial and Vanderborgh laid on the schmaltz for passages worthy of Hollywood.
The Trio in A minor (1914) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is a masterpiece, distilling the composer's original treatment of harmonics, instrumental color, folk and world music, and formal structure. In four movements, the work begins with a lithe opening showing the influence of Basque music while the turbulent second movement "Pantoum" is based on the strict principles of Malaysian Pantun poetry. The third movement "Passacaille" is an old form of variations set above a repeating theme in the bass while the lively finale soars to a brilliant finish.
Ravel's is one of my favorite trios and the Helios players turned in an intense and searing performance equal to any I have heard. Their palette of color was dazzling and the string harmonics were marvelous. Their control of the third movement was riveting. The inexorable buildup of the finale swept the audience to their feet for multiple curtain calls.