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14.2.04

Díaz Trio at the Library of Congress

The string trio combination of violin, viola, and cello is not all that common, and the Díaz Trio is unusual among performing chamber music ensembles in that they have chosen to focus on the rather narrow range of music composed for it. After a hiatus since the end of December, the series of free concerts from the Library of Congress resumed Friday night with a program presented by the Díaz Trio. The concert began with a piece that did not inspire me and appeared not to have inspired the players either, Ludwig van Beethoven's String Trio in G Major, op. 9, no. 1. Composed in 1797 to 1798, this is the work of a young Beethoven who, after moving on to the string quartet genre after the three trios of op. 9, never wrote another string trio. There are moments of great beauty, and the performers gave an impressive performance, but something about their rendition left me cold. Perhaps it was the overzealous con brio on the part of cellist Andrés Díaz: maybe there are a lot of sforzandi in the score, but from where I sat I heard more percussive bowstrikes than pure tone more often than I would have liked.

My slight disappointment with the Beethoven was quickly overcome by the next piece on the program, the world premiere of a new piece by Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. Kandinsky is a suite of eleven movements for various combinations of violin, viola, cello, and piano, commissioned by the McKim Fund. For this work, the Díaz Trio was joined by a guest artist, Chilean pianist Luz Manríquez, who like the group's violinist, Andrés Cárdenes, teaches music at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This piece was inspired by three paintings by abstract painter Vasily Kandinsky. On the left below, Lyrisches [Lyrical] painted in 1911, and on the right, Launisches [Capricious], from 1930, are both now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam, The Netherlands). In the center, Schwarze Striche I [Black Strokes I] dates from 1913 and is now owned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Kandinsky, Lyrisches, 1911, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen</a>, RotterdamVasily Kandinsky, Schwarze Striche I, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkKandinsky, Launisches, 1930, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen</a>, Rotterdam

Sierra has drawn inspiration from painting before, in a piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano called Turner. In his program notes on Kandinsky, the composer writes, "The bold strokes, colors, and capricious nature of the paintings are translated in the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of my work." I have read good things about Sierra's music, which has been rather popular with audiences. What I loved about this piece is that it embraced many idioms, such as a dissonant and Webernesque pointillism in the first movement ("Lyrisches," for violin and piano, inspired by the first painting above); strange instrumental effects familiar from the music of Bartók in the second movement ("Improvisation 19," for violin, piano, and cello; see Kandinsky's Improvisation 19 from 1911); ultrafast runs, harmonics, and other harsher sounds in the daring viola solo of the third movement ("Bild mit schwarzem Bogen" [Picture with a black arch]; see Kandinsky's painting Mit dem schwarzen Bogen), played excellently by violist Roberto Díaz, who seemed to me the surest and best of this excellent group's members. Happily, Sierra believes that even modern music can be fun and even pleasant listening, as he showed in the sixth movement ("Schwarze Striche I," for violin and piano, inspired by the painting in the center above), which had both a cool sound, inspired by jazz and Latin music, and a delicate, pretty grace that could have come from Debussy. I think the most successful composers of the early part of this century, like Sierra, will be willing to use the many styles available to us now, not ignoring more "modern" or harsh sounds but not limited to them either.

The most successful movements in the piece were the two featuring all four performers, the fifth movement ("Kleine Freuden" [Small pleasures]; see Kandinsky's delightfully vivid Kleine Freuden from 1913) and the final movement ("Buntes Ensemble" [Colorful ensemble]; see Kandinsky's Buntes Ensemble from 1938). The former is marked "ritmico" and the latter "Con sabor latino." It is that Latin rhythmic element, which pervades these movements, that made them so pleasant to listen to, music that sounded like it was part Heitor Villa-Lobos and part Sergei Prokofiev. This was especially true of the final movement, which was in 7/8, not the frantic Precipioso of the last movement of Prokofiev's seventh piano sonata, but the late-night experiment of a cool-headed dance band. The constant piano ostinato, a beboppy chromatic line in the bass (sol-sol-si-la-la-li-ti-ti-te-la-la-le-sol, in the pattern of dotted quarter-quarter-quarter), is gradually undermined and knocked off its stride by the addition of extra beats. The effect is not unsettling but freeing. It was truly a fun listening experience.

The Kandinsky paintings that correspond to the other movements are Improvisation 26 (Oars) (1912) (fourth movement), Weisser Strich (White Stroke, 1920) (seventh movement), Kleine Welten III (Small worlds III, 1922) (eighth movement), and Composition VIII (1923) (ninth movement).

After intermission, the concert concluded with a piece that is naturally the bread and butter of this group, Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat Major, K. 563, the only piece for this combination of instruments that can be reliably attributed to that composer. It is a challenging and rewarding work that belies its title, since it is not typical of the light, diverting music written under the name of divertimento: it is a sort of extended four-movement sonata, just with two menuetti and two slow movements to make a total of six movements. Composed in 1788, this work shows Mozart at the height of his powers, just after completing his last symphony. It was dedicated to Mozart's friend from the Masons, Michael von Puchberg, in gratitude for the large amounts of money he had loaned to the composer, whose financial situation was deteriorating rapidly. In this piece that Mozart himself premiered and performed more than once, playing the viola part, the composer displays all of his skills in creating a joyous German dance (4th movement), writing joking but graceful melodies (for himself on the viola in the fifth movement), in breaking apart and developing melodic motifs (sixth movement), and in conceiving contrapuntal complexity (first and fourth movements).

Finally, I was reminded of why we need more concert series like this in the United States. At the end of the concert, a young woman, who I think was a music student, gave the three performers bouquets of flowers and was obviously moved by what she had heard. Even more touching, a young man perhaps in the eighth or ninth grade went up to the stage at the intermission and collected a stray piece of bowhair that had been left on the floor there by one of the players. Perhaps a dream was born or encouraged in a young person last night, and that is an important thing. If you don't live in Washington and you would like to be able to hear these concerts, you should join me in writing to the Library of Congress or to a radio network like NPR to ask that someone make all of these concerts, which are recorded, available in recorded form either over the radio or by Internet.

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