CVNC covered the promising September 3, 2009 debut of Elon University‘s Phoenix Piano Trio. There was a very enthusiastic audience on hand for the ensemble’s third annual concert in the intimate, jewel box-like Whitley Auditorium. Their enterprising program consisted of a very early Beethoven piece, a Romantic nineteenth century rarity, and a choice example of Spanish Impressionism. Faculty members of the trio are violinist Daniel Skidmore, cellist Meaghan Skogen, and pianist Victoria Fischer Faw. Besides teaching at Elon and at Catawba College, Skidmore is concertmaster of the Salisbury Symphony, assistant concertmaster of the Winston-Salem Symphony, and a section violinist in both the Greensboro Symphony and the Eastern Music Festival’s professional orchestra. Besides her faculty duties, cellist Skogen is active statewide and just recently received her Ph.D. In addition to her extensive professional activities, Pianist Fischer Faw has made a specialty of the music of Béla Bartók.

Although Beethoven had composed a number of pieces before his first published Opus 1, a set of three piano trios, these works rise well above the piano sonata with string accompaniment format. While his teacher Franz Joseph Haydn’s sophisticated piano trios served as models, there is little derivative about Beethoven’s as evidenced in Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat. Extra brilliance is added by opening the work with “upward-rushing broken chords known as ‘Mannheim Rockets” according to Melvin Berger in Guide to Chamber Music. The second gentle and lovely subject is in strong contrast. All four movements have more repetition than is characteristic of the composer. The well-crafted slow movement has a heartfelt melody explored by each instrument in turn. The scherzo is a lively romp with the strings taking on the drone of a bagpipe at one point. The presto finale is by turns playfully hesitant and full of carefree high spirits. Haydn was present at the premiere of the trios in the house of Beethoven’s patron Prince Carl Lichnovsky in Vienna in 1793. The Phoenix Trio gave a solid, well-conceived interpretation of this trio. Fischer Faw played with Elon’s fabulous restored 1923D Steinway piano’s lid fully raised but gauged her dynamics so as to never cover her colleagues. Skidmore and Skogen played with very good intonation, beautifully blending when appropriate and projecting well when their line was exposed. String pizzicatos were incisive and the give-and-take between the strings in the second movement was striking.

Fischer Faw’s introductory comments about how rewarding were the Phoenix Trio’s exploration of works by the little-known German composer Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) were certainly true. Omitted from shorter reference books, Kirchner was born at Neukirchen and was a member of Felix Mendelssohn’s and Robert Schumann’s circle. From Kirchner’s set of characteristic pieces 12 Noveletten, Op. 59, the Phoenix Trio played the “heroic” No. 1, a gorgeous No. 2 Cantabile, and No. 4, a sort of Hungarian Rhapsody. The ensemble brought out the martial air of No. 1 while both Skidmore and Skogin were given ample opportunity to display their fine tone in No. 2 which ought to get wide exposure. The players brought out plenty of swagger and national rhythms in fiery No. 4.

Spanish composer Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) studied in France and his Piano Trio No. 2 in B minor, Op. 76 often evokes the Impressionist sounds of Debussy and Ravel. Fischer Faw’s crystalline keyboard sound often reminded me of Debussy’s piano sound while the beautifully blended muted strings suggested sound of the French composer’s String Quartet. Distinctive Spanish rhythms helped bring out Turina’s individuality. This score exploited the violin’s higher register while bringing out the full, rich sound of the cello. Fischer Faw said this had been a repeat selection from their Fall 2010 concert. It was a pleasant treat indeed.