The cold didn’t bother the ecstatic and lively crowd that trudged through the chilled winds to hear “French Music for Valentines Day” as performed by the Espina-Browne-Shteinberg Trio. With the support of students, families, and couples who crowded into the Watson Recital Hall, UNC School of the Arts faculty members Oskar Espina-Ruiz, clarinet, Sheila Browne, viola, and Dmitri Shteinberg, piano, offered a variety of French repertoire with enough gusto and excitement to match the speeding winds outside the hall. The program featured pieces old and new, highlighting clarinetist Espina-Ruiz, though allowing for each instrumentalist to display wide ranges of talent and expertise.

Beginning with Kalevi Aho‘s 2006 Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, the performers proved right off the bat that the evening’s adjective was going to be “control.” Together, the trio conquered tightly written rhythms and passages that seemed to demand from them the utmost trust in one another’s performing, not to mention a mastery of the modern style.

Following the first piece was a brief introduction to the second piece, Bruno Mantovani’s “Bug,” in which Espina-Ruiz explained that the typo in the program was meant to say that the piece was written in 1999, not 2000. This made the work all the more special as “Bug” refers to Mantovani’s exploration of the fears of Y2K and the then-approaching millennium. The listener could hear the influence of avant-garde jazz within the work. Espina-Ruiz played the piece with a comic, biting flair, effortlessly throwing stratospheric high notes out of the instrument like he had been doing it since grade school.

The remainder of the program was comprised of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and Francis Poulenc’s rhapsodic Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, performed by Espina-Ruiz and Shteinberg. The concluding work of the evening was Nicola Bacri’s American Letters, which reunited the trio. Browne proved to be a model of restraint in the “Elegy for A.C.” movement, while Shteinberg accompanied every work on the program (sans Espina-Ruiz’s “Bug” solo) with passion.

The evening not only proved the importance of French music repertoire but also displayed the three artists’ mastery of technique, style, and control. The playing allowed for a space for quiet pondering of love’s biggest mysteries. A magnifique night, indeed.