Duke University’s 2004 Summer Festival of Chamber Music keeps rolling along with a blend of the new and familiar. On June 3 in Reynolds Theater, the Carolina Piano Trio played an engaging program of trios along with one work for cello and piano. This ensemble – whose members are violinist Katie Lansdale, cellist Elizabeth Anderson, and pianist Barbara McKenzie – was formed in 1998 as ensemble-in-residence for the American Music Festival and the Chamber Music Society of Wilmington. One of the founding members, Eric Pritchard, first violinist of the Ciompi Quartet, was replaced by Lansdale in 2003.

This group has not had an especially high profile in the Triangle, so this was a good opportunity for local music lovers to experience a fine ensemble that invokes the name of our state. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the lowest turnout for any concert I have ever attended at Duke’s Reynolds Theater. There were probably about 40 people, most of them sitting in the lower left area. These few souls were treated to one of the most refreshing and upbeat piano trio programs that I can recall.

The Ciompi Quartet has a tradition of beginning each of their recital seasons with a string quartet by Haydn, recognizing him as the “father of the string quartet.” If not the very first, Haydn is also thought to be the composer who developed the piano trio to its current form and general style. I have noticed in several other piano trio recitals that programs that include mostly unfamiliar or “new” music tend to begin with Haydn trios – perhaps to show that they can also play the standards? The Haydn work given on this occasion – the Trio in G – is one of the better-known items in his huge output in this form. The work is typical of the still-subservient, continuo-type role that the cellist plays in deference to the violin and piano parts. The Finale, a gypsy style Rondo, is a quick, light duo between those two instruments and is a delightful romp.

Although I once knew a Rebecca Clarke, she was not the composer of the next trio, and I had not heard any of her music before this performance. Lansdale gave a brief background of this remarkable woman, and despite her telling us to listen for French influences, I was not prepared for what was to come. If we did not know of the existence of this work and someone suddenly “discovered” this lost piano trio and attributed it as a second trio by Maurice Ravel, I really doubt that many would doubt its authenticity. On first hearing, it has so many similarities and references to Ravel’s piano trio and his string quartet that someone might be able to make a case for copyright infringement. However, this did not detract from its beautiful impressionist style and Clarke’s own unique stamp. The performers, while not overly demonstrative, displayed a wonderful sense of group phrasing and virtuosic skills.

At this point, the grace and good-humor that pianist McKenzie displayed under very difficult conditions should be acknowledged. What was the problem? A page-turner who committed every possible faux pas – every pianist’s worse nightmare. Not turning in time, turning too soon, turning multiple pages, dropping the entire score – you name it…. It got to the point where we were wondering what could possibly happen next, every time she stood up.

I don’t know where the wildly incorrect dates in the program for Aaron Copland came from, but the arrangement, by the composer, of two selections from Billy the Kid for piano and cello was another newly-heard work. Skill in arranging existing works is sometimes an overlooked talent, and even composers adapting their own works can fall short. This is an exquisite example of this art. Copland retains the essence of his very popular ballet while using the cello’s special sound and technique, and it becomes something quite different and special. Cellist Anderson gave a spirited and technically brilliant performance, all the while making us forget about the orchestral version.

Café Music , by Paul Schoenfield, is a wild ride through much of the early jazz age; it features the distinctive American styles of that and subsequent periods. You can hear elements of ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie piano styles. The second movement evokes a late-night jazz club and gives the players a chance to appear as if they are improvising. This is a work that is almost impossible to dislike. It was especially welcome for much of the sparse audience, many of whom grew up with the music contained in this work.

The outstanding Carolina Piano Trio is every bit the equal of similar ensembles that are more widely known. Show some support and attend their concert the next time they play here – you’ll be glad you did.

Note: Duke’s Summer Festival of Chamber Music continues with concerts on 6/17, 6/20, & 6/25. See our calendar for details.