Since their debut on the concert circuit in the early 1990’s, the Eroica Trio has been as celebrated for fashion-plate looks as for its passionate playing and high technical standards. The only surprise for the Fletcher Opera Theater audience was due to the machinations of a major airline’s baggage “service.” While Susie Park’s colleagues, pianist Erika Nickrenz and cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, came on stage in glamorous gowns, the new violinist was dressed in a top with alternating black and white stripes and jeans. Her garb made me think she would have fitted into a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Park’s concert attire had been left in Detroit! A squeaky chair aside, nothing amiss spoiled the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild‘s well-chosen program, which mixed a seldom-heard Beethoven trio, an engaging contemporary work, and a bread-and-butter Brahms piece.

Most ensembles tend to select either the Archduke or Ghost piano trios of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Eroica Trio’s choice and performance of the composer’s Trio in C minor, Op.1, No. 3, was most welcome. This set of three trios was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Prince Carl Lichnowsky and published in 1795. They date from the period of Beethoven’s study with Franz Joseph Haydn who suggested this third trio be held back. While Beethoven suspected this was due to the older composer’s jealousy, Haydn told others he had advised against its publication because of fear it would not be understood by a wider public. Nancy Lambert’s excellent and succinct RCMG program note adds that the business savvy composer held the works back longer to boost demand from the pool of amateur players. The Eroica Trio’s dynamic and fiery performance confirmed her note’s assertion that this third trio is one of the earliest to exhibit Beethoven’s distinctive musical style. Balances between instruments, sensitive application of dynamics, and musical phrasing were superb throughout.

The New Yorker magazine has hailed Joan Tower (b.1938) as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time.” Ever since I attended the residency with her De Capo Chamber Players at Duke University decades ago, her Petroushskates has been one of my favorite contemporary works. The Eroica Trio chose Tower’s Trio, for Daniel (2004) commissioned for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. The composer dedicated this work to her nephew, Daniel MacArthur, who passed away in 2003 after a long illness. Tower’s brief program note says she wanted the 17-minute work “to convey the imagined struggles associated with someone who is facing a long-term terminal illness.” It is a sort of modern “tone poem” analogous to Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration but for trio and without the older composer’s certainty of a final peace. The Eroica Trio gave full rein to Tower’s very approachable and imaginative score. Searing, violent passages were juxtaposed against delicate and serene episodes. Tower’s powerful work was warmly received by the audience.

The bread-and-butter repertoire of touring piano trios is Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, Op. 97, Brahms Trio in B, Op. 8, and the first trios of Mendelssohn and Schubert. On a previous visit to Raleigh — in 2001 — the Eroica Trio ended their concert with Brahms’ glorious chestnut.

Nobody could have complained about this rerun. Not when it received such a glowing and passionate performance as the Eroica turned in. Tempos and phrasing were ideal as were the full, rich string sounds from violinist Park and especially cellist Sant’Ambrogio. Nickrenz balanced the wonderful Bösendorfer piano perfectly with the strings, whether at a whispered pp or a tsunami-like ff. Her articulation was immaculate. This stirring performance brought the audience to its feet for enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

Sant’Ambrogio announced the Trio’s encore was her own transcription of the old salon piece, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Le Cygne” from Le Carnaval des Animaux.

In addition to its concert series, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild has a considerable educational outreach program encompassing master classes with visiting musicians and brief pre-concert recitals in the lobby before concerts featuring a wide range of young players from Triangle schools, universities and private studios. Playing on a very high level was displayed by youngsters from the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra, Yoram Youngerman, director. Two separate accomplished piano trios played movements from Mendelssohn’s Trio in D minor, Op. 49, and Shostakovich’s great Trio in E minor, Op. 67. The fine ensemble for the Mendelssohn consisted of pianist Ethan Chu, violinist Leah Bar-On Simmons, and cellist Colyer Durovich. Pianist Elana Jaffe, violinist Rebecca Telford-Marx, and cellist Emily Telford-Marx were impressive in the Shostakovich. Both groups played with good intonation, instrumental color, phrasing, and dynamics.