The Chamber Music Society of Wilmington began the second half of its tenth anniversary season on the evening on January 30, in the ballroom of historic Thalian Hall, with a performance by the Carolina Piano Trio. Jacqui Carrasco (violin), faculty member of Wake Forest University and a new addition to the trio, joined Elizabeth Anderson (cello) and CMSW co-founder Barbara McKenzie (piano) in a concert of works by Beethoven, Arensky, and Rebecca Clarke. The event drew a substantial audience, forcing late arrivals to forage for what few seats remained.

Anticipating the first piece on the program, Beethoven’s Trio in E flat, Op. 1/1, some waiting for the concert to begin may have raised eyebrows at the sight of a 9-foot Steinway (with a fully open lid) on which McKenzie would play a keyboard part composed for a late 18th-century piano. Such concerns, however, proved largely unwarranted; to her credit, McKenzie lightened her touch and remained generally sensitive to the strings’ audibility. At times, however, the piano’s lower registers drowned out Anderson’s cello (particularly in the development section of the final movement), although such balance problems were not the norm.

Many passages of the Beethoven displayed the ensemble’s astute interpretation, such as their attention to tempo in the secondary theme of the first movement, a motive that loses its stately character if rushed. The slow movement was similarly remarkable for the players’ highly nuanced phrasing, giving the Adagio an aura of ease and simplicity that is deceptively difficult to produce. The Carolina Piano Trio should be congratulated for programming this early Beethoven trio, a work heard far less often than the later “Ghost” or “Archduke” trios. Listeners familiar with the composer’s middle-period works certainly enjoyed hearing those pre-heroic trademarks still bridled, perhaps, by Haydn’s influence.

Following the Beethoven, the audience was catapulted into the 20th century via the opening gestures of Rebecca Clarke’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, composed in 1921, yet likely heard for the first time by the majority of the audience. This three-movement work, unified through recurring motives and influenced by the harmonic explorations of Debussy and Ravel, was a refreshing sample of 20th-century modernism (sometimes scarce in these parts) that most listeners, judging by the applause, found quite accessible despite the work’s complicated tonalities. To be sure, Carrasco, Anderson, and McKenzie were the catalysts for an even greater appreciation of the piece, particularly in the second movement, during which they achieved some of their most expressive playing of the evening, and in the third movement, when they clearly were having fun. On a side note, those eager to read more about Clarke and her music will be happy to learn that A Rebecca Clarke Reader, published last year but withdrawn because of threats of legal action by the manager of Clarke’s estate, is now available through the Rebecca Clarke Society’s website, at [inactive 9/05].

The second half of the concert was devoted to a work from the late-Romantic era: Anton Arensky’s First Piano Trio, Op. 32, composed in 1894. With its well-crafted melodies and vast emotional spectrum, this work has remained the composer’s best known chamber piece for good reason. Russian artists, it seems, know a direct route to the human heart, and the Arensky trio contains the histrionics for which audiences love (or self-consciously tolerate) Romantic music. Especially notable were McKenzie’s handling of some dizzying scales in the Scherzo as well as the instrumental conversation between Carrasco and Anderson during the trio of the same movement, which resembled an operatic duet.

I find the third movement (“Elegia”) too melodramatic, so I’ll let a fellow listener’s reaction speak for the effect on the audience: someone sitting behind me whispered “Wow!” upon its conclusion. The real “wow!” moment, however, came halfway through the Finale when the violin and cello played a melancholy theme in unison pitches over rippling broken chords in the piano’s upper octaves. These were some of the most astonishing seconds of the entire work, as Carrasco and Anderson were in exact tune and in perfect balance with the piano. It was an example of technique and musicianship that exemplified the performers’ understanding of the word ensemble.

How fortunate we in the Port City are that such quality chamber music continues to be performed in the ballroom of Thalian Hall. If concerts at this level of excellence remain the standard, the Chamber Music Society will surely celebrate its 20th anniversary season a decade from now, winning over Wilmington audiences along the way with virtuosity, musicianship, and balanced programs that offer works not often heard in live settings.

Note: Portions of this program will be repeated by these artists in Raleigh on 2/1. See our Triangle calendar for details.