There was a time when piano trios were the stepchild of chamber music. While musicians came together to perform trios, permanent ensembles were uncommon. No more. With the advent of the Beaux Arts Trio about half a century ago, such ensembles have become a mainstay of chamber music performance. And last Sunday, October 14, for the second time in a week, a well-known Piano Trio performed here. The Eroica Trio – pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Adela Peña and cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio – performed in the A.J. Fletcher Theater in the BTI Center under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

Now over a decade old, the Eroica Trio has carved for itself an enviable position in the field-including a Grammy nomination-with their exemplary precision and balance, coupled with a care for detail and exciting musicianship. Their performance here by and large lived up to this high standard.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.11, usually heard in the version with clarinet, rather than violin, opened the program. Nicknamed in Germany the Gassenhauer Trio (Street ballad trio), this work was composed at a time when Beethoven had only a limited familiarity with the clarinet, and consequently the writing for the instrument is not very idiomatic. Beethoven suggested substituting a violin for the clarinet without any alteration in the music (Try doing the same thing with Mozart’s Clarinet Trio or Clarinet Quintet!) It strikes a light-hearted tone, and the Eroica got into the spirit, especially in the last movement, a set of variations on what Beethoven thought was a street ballad, but which actually came from an aria of a popular comic opera of the time.

The Guild, celebrating its 60th season, commissioned for the occasion a new trio from Chapel Hill composer Scott Warner. Warner, Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at UNC-CH, has broad experience in both classical and jazz fields, and both influences were audible in the composition, titled All Blessings to the Goddess, a tribute to all the remarkable women he was privileged to know. Each of the movements bore a title: the Mother, the Empress and the Lover respectively, with the program notes providing a not terribly illuminating “program” for each movement.

Armed with the composer’s extra-musical associations plus his suggestion that we seek our own meanings based on these archetypes, we found it counterproductive listening for our own interpretation when we were only hearing the work for the first time. Trying to follow Warner’s road map – for example interpreting musical contrasts representing the dual feminine nature (“yin and yang”) – distracted us from the music itself. Musically, Blessings was often quite effective and emotional-although not necessarily in the way the composer suggests. To sum it all up, familiarity with a composer’s muse is a nice-to-know, but by no means essential for an appreciation of the music.

The style of All Blessings to the Goddess hovers between tonal, free atonal and serial writing. Despite Warner’s expertise as a jazz musician, however, the piece owes more to classical roots. The second movement, for example, is a passacaglia in d sharp minor. Throughout the work, there is a special affinity for the cello, which carries the structural and motivic elements in two out of three of the movements. Sant’Ambrogio’s intensely lyrical performance fit the role perfectly.

The program ended with one of the grand romantic works of the repertoire, Brahms Piano Trio in B, Op. 8. The Eroica milked it for all the emotion it was worth, easily carrying the audience with them. Unfortunately, in the slow movement they made a serious professional faux pas. In the middle of the movement the C string on Sant’Ambrogio’s cello broke, and when she returned to the stage with a new string, the Trio picked up at the rehearsal number nearest to where they had stopped, rather than starting the movement again. Not starting from the beginning broke the spell of one of the great slow movements in the literature. [Other performers reading this paragraph, take note.]

As encore, the Eroica played a tango by Astor Piazzola. Piazzola encores have become something of a fad. Let’s give Piazzola a rest.