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27.1.09

Triple Helix at the Corcoran

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Triple Helix Piano Trio, A Sense of Place (Shostakovich, Ravel, Bright Sheng)

The Triple Helix Piano Trio, since its founding in 1995, has made contemporary music for this combination of instruments its focus, and that was the best part of their concert at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon. Of several performances of Shostakovich's second piano trio (E minor, op. 67) recently in our ears -- by Natalia Gutman and colleagues, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the Amadeus Trio -- this was the most viciously savage and bloodthirsty rendition (also featured on Triple Helix's 2004 recording, A Sense of Place, from MSR Classics). The ironically Pollyanna-ish tune of the first movement had an acerbic tone biting behind it, and there was nothing humorous about the danse macabre had nothing remotely funny about it, marked by machine-gun motifs and martial trumpet calls. The harmonics that placed Rhonda Rider's cello above the violin line in the surreal opening passage of this work were a little brittle and unsure, as was the E string playing of violinist Bayla Keyes, although her opening lament in the third movement was gorgeous.

Pianist Lois Shapiro struggled to shoehorn the music on this program into a theme that tied it to the Corcoran's exhibit of Richard Avedon's photographs, identifying the theme as "Voices from the Flames: Music That Reaches toward Transcendence." This worked in the second half of the concert, because the Shostakovich E minor trio was composed as a reaction to the death of the composer's friend at Treblinka, tying in to the theme of powerlessness as the obverse of Avedon's theme of Portraits of Power. It tied in well with the work that opened the second half, too, Abu Ghraib, a 2006 duo for cello and piano composed by John Harbison (b. 1938) for Rhonda Rider. The work opens with the cello and piano in heterophonic dissonance, and much of its two movements is focused on the lamenting wail of the cello, which opens the second half, or Prayer, of each movement. Harbison's style is often dissonant but not stridently or exclusively so, with a music box-like use of the piano in the first movement and the sing-songy adaptation of an Iraqi folk song and percussive strikes on the keyboard cover in the second. It is a worthwhile piece of music, a profound statement in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, and hopefully the group will record it soon.

That is where the theme broke down, as the first half was completely unconnected, in spite of Shapiro's attempts to make connections. Arno Babadjanian's 1953 piano trio made some general references to, not citations of, Armenian folk song, but it mostly sounded like a folksy version of Rachmaninov, sugary harmonies with a few flat sevenths and flat thirds thrown in. It would have probably been enough for the first half, since it ran long to my ears and could have benefited from some judicious cutting. Shapiro's hammering touch at the piano worked well in the modo barbaro 5/4 last movement of the Babadjanian trio, as it did in the Harbison and Shostakovich, but it was far too harsh in the opening Mozart selection, the G minor piano quartet, K. 478, as in the first movement's development section, where its part has so little interest. There were some technical issues, too, a slight gumminess in the right hand figuration at points (some of the tempo choices were overly ambitious). It made one think that the program would have been improved by omitting the Mozart altogether, but that would have obviated the need to invite an Ionarts favorite, violist Roger Tapping, to join the group. Not only was his contribution to the Mozart valuable, but as it turned out, another expertise of his was required when, in the second half, he was called on to replace a disastrous page-turner.

The next concert in the Corcoran's Musical Afternoon Series will feature the Auryn Quartet in an all-Beethoven program (February 8, 4 pm).

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