After a year and a half-long ballet of negotiations, the Eroica Trio returned to the Porter Center for the Performing Arts at Brevard College. Its members, Erika Nickrenz (piano), Susie Park (violin), and Sara Sant’Ambrogio (cello) are some of the strongest players of their instruments, and collectively the Trio has garnered Grammy nominations and, in 1991, the Naumburg Award which brought them a Lincoln Center debut. They tour internationally and record for Angel/EMI Classic Records. Their program was markedly different from their previous appearance, embracing in the first half the music of contemporary American composers. Nickrenz has said, “There is something about the ‘melting pot’ that is America that has inspired an explosion of original musical styles so uniquely reflected in the music of the composers we choose. It’s hard to define what these styles are.. yet, when people hear this music, they know it is American.”

The program opener was the Fantasy for Violin, Cello and Piano after Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by Kenji Bunch, an established composer of works for large and small media. The fantasy was a riveting and kaleidoscopic panoply of some key tunes in Gershwin’s work — “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” — and yet, like all great works, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The Trio performed with its trademark sparkle and fire, but there were a few out-of-tune notes in the cello. In fact, the cellist seemed to be fighting with her instrument through the first half of the program, frequently retuning.

The second work was Mark O’Connor’s Piano Trio No. 1, “Poets and Prophets,” written for the ensemble in 2003 as the result of a commission by Katherine Gould for the Montalvo Center for the Performing Arts in Saratoga, CA and premiered in 2004. One week after the death of Johnny Cash in 1993, O’Connor mourned his death in a letter to the Trio: “Johnny was a boyhood hero of mine, I used to sing his songs when I was 8, 9 and 10 years old, and played the guitar like him (sometimes down the fretboard, strumming away). My mom used to help me transcribe all the lyrics off the albums, and also thought he hung the moon.” Furthermore, O’Connor knew Cash, worked with him a number of times and invited him to appear on O’Connor’s Heroes album, “to bring back the great story of the devil coming to Georgia to challenge young Johnny for the golden fiddle.”

The resulting tribute to Cash was a four movement programmatic suite, its movements (“Man in Black,””The Tennessee Two,””My June,” and “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”) a complex net of references to the ethos of the man without using direct quotes of his music (save for the overt “boom chicka” bass style in the second movement). There were train sounds, and in general what James Manheim has called “extended Appalachian pentatonicism,” a folky-fiddlish idiom. The Trio’s ensemble was flawless throughout, but the highlight was the third movement (“My June”). An intense love ballad, it was performed with a transcendent sensitivity and pathos.

After intermission came the remaining work, Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, D. 929 (Op. 100). Written in 1827 and published in 1828, the year of his death, Schubert was following in the giant footsteps of Beethoven, composing in a medium in which Beethoven excelled, and in a key associated with Beethoven’s great Eroica Symphony.  By any measure, it is one of the standard pieces in the piano trio repertory. The opening movement featured the presentation of themes in octaves, a signature Schubert trait, with incessant cascading arpeggios in the piano. The second movement “Andante” is a rondo based on the Swedish song “Se solen sjunker” (“The sun is going down”), its opening more like a funeral march, thus tying the piece again to the second movement of the Eroica Symphony. The trio excelled in portraying the vast emotional scope of this movement, from inward grief to cries of pain. The motivic interplay in the third movement’s scherzo was well-defined, and its raucous trio just plain fun. The finale, again in sonata form, features as its second theme a curious, repeated-note melody that some have said imitates the Hungarian cimbalon, a type of hammered dulcimer. The theme of the second movement returns in the cello like a wistful, backward glance, before the movement concludes in a furioso display. The Trio performed as an encore an arrangement of “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.

It was a superlative night of music making, to be sure. Despite this, I felt a little disconnected, as the program notes were all about The Trio and almost nothing about the evening’s music. This could have been remedied with remarks from the stage, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen either. Audiences welcome the chance to connect with the music in ways that only the artists can facilitate. It no longer seems enough to play well and look fabulous.