Monday, June 15, 2009

Music review: Trillium trio persuasive in Bridge, Berwald rarities

Frank Bridge (1879-1941).


By Greg Stepanich


DELRAY BEACH -- While the orchestras and opera companies of the world were wrestling with the issue of over-familiar programming, the chamber ensembles were digging through the libraries and coming up with gems.

In a concert Sunday afternoon, a Palm Beach County-based piano trio offered three major offbeat works, the most familiar of which was one by a living American composer, which says something good about the performers who sought out the rarely heard music and the substantial audience that came out to St. Paul's Episcopal Church on a blazing-hot day to hear them.

The Trillium Piano Trio, which consists of pianist Yoko Sata Kothari, violinist Ruby Berland (filling in for regular violinist Suzanne Walter-Geissler) and cellist Benjamin Salsbury, is a decent enough group, with the potential to be even better should they find more performance opportunities. Although Kothari sounded somewhat challenged by some of the more difficult passages, and the two string players had some brief intonation missteps, overall the Trillium has a strong, attractive sound, and it gave persuasive readings of its repertoire.

The most intriguing discovery of the day was the Phantasie in C minor, written in 1907 by the English composer Frank Bridge, better-known today as a teacher of Benjamin Britten than he is for his large output. But this trio is an impressive late-Romantic work, with a lovely, brooding main theme that returns at the end of the fourth and final movement in satisfying cyclic fashion.

The Trillium was at its best in the numerous passages of this work where the violin and cello played in octaves-apart unison, singing out Bridge's long-limbed melodies while the piano surged underneath. Both Berland and Salsbury bring penetrating force to their most aggressive playing, and that helped bring across the most sharply etched moments of the piece.

What was less successful was the transition between movements. Even though this work's four sections are played without interruption, the moods of the sections are strikingly different, with the third-movement scherzo sounding almost flippant compared to the music around it. But this format also requires that the ensemble have a unified sense of line and narrative so that the listener can be prepared for each new texture; here, the sections just sort of followed one another without a sense of continuing drama, or of giving each new section a different color and shape.

Still, the Trillium did a good deed in playing this fine, neglected piece, and the same can be said for the first offering on Sunday's program, the Piano Trio in E-flat by the Swedish composer Franz Berwald. Written in 1849 and designated as No. 1, it's actually the second of five piano trios Berwald composed, and it displays the characteristics of his style on evidence in his better-known four symphonies: A pleasant fund of melody; rather conservative harmonies and Classical-style organizational structures; and a confident, appealing profile. This is direct, charming music, and well worth adding to the repertory of trio ensembles.

The Berwald also is written for its three movements to be played without a break, and here, too, the Trillium was not able to draw a sharp enough distinction between sections to make it sound other than interesting but disconnected. There was fine playing inside the movements, especially from Salsbury and Berland in the second-movement Romance, and there was a winning spirit of play in the finale. But again, each movement needed to be introduced with more focus and distinction so that the larger picture would be more apparent.

The concert closed with a good reading of Cafe Music, probably the best-known piece by American composer Paul Schoenfield, who teaches at the University of Michigan. It's been rapidly adopted by trios across the country and elsewhere, and the reasons for that are clear. It's a pastiche of American popular music styles stretching back to the rise of ragtime, and it has an immediate audience appeal.

It's also very difficult, as Kothari pointed out in remarks to the audience, but the trio acquitted itself well, perhaps best of all in the moody, full-throated slow drag that is the second movement. The finale was well-done, too, with Salsbury playing the opening theme with admirable crispness to set the stage for the rest of the movement. All three musicians threw themselves with gusto into this tempestuous, exciting movement, heating things up to the requisite level of bravura it requires.

As an encore, the Trillium continued the pop-influenced mood with Oblivion, a tango by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Berland and Salsbury were very effective here, playing Piazzolla's melancholy tune with restraint amid fullness of emotion.

The St. Paul's Episcopal Church concert series continues at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 5, with an all-American program in honor of Independence Day weekend. Featured will be music by Arthur Foote and Charles Ives, as well as African-American spirituals, ragtime and John Philip Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. For more information, call St. Paul's at 278-6003 or visit www.stpaulsdelray.org.

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