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Amadeus Trio at Clarice Smith Center

One of the impacts of the opening of the new Music Center at Strathmore, to which I had not given much thought, is that it may draw away some portion of the audience that otherwise might go to hear concerts at that other suburban performance space, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. This came to mind as, with District of Columbia passport in hand, I went through Checkpoint Charlie and far beyond to get to College Park last night, April 9, to see the Amadeus Trio there. I was somewhat surprised to see how sparse the audience was for this concert: was it that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing at Strathmore at the same time? (Ionarts music critic Jens F. Laurson was there, to hear them play his dear Mahler.) Was it that the weather was particularly fine? Was it the program of Russian trios, leaning heavily toward minor keys and mournful elegy? (It is true that the chosen title for this concert, Russian Romance and Anguish, does not make one think spring thoughts, and truly the program was maybe one part romance and nine parts anguish.)

Amadeus TrioWell, no matter, because the Amadeus Trio was there to play, and play they did. Cellist Jeffrey Solow first made a brief announcement, to reiterate what he himself had written in the program notes about the opening piece, the Trio in D Minor, op. 32. Its composer, Anton Arensky (1861–1906), dedicated this piece to the memory of the great Russian cellist Karl Davidoff (d. 1889), who was Director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Arensky was a student there. As it turns out, Davidoff's student's student's student (or something like that) was Solow's teacher. (This sort of pedagogical genealogy is a fun sort of Six Degrees of Separation game for many musicians. I like to think of my own nebulous connection, only through past teachers, to Alfredo Casella and Leon Fleischer. I am certainly not worthy.) With the spoken introductions and the trio's relaxed attire (mostly just simple black, and Solow and violinist Timothy Baker wear glasses), the concert had the feel of a university master class, and indeed I overheard several young audience members speaking, who were their students. Both pianist Marian Hahn and Solow are university professors, at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and Temple University, respectively.

The Arensky trio is a gorgeous piece by a composer whose star has unjustly fallen somewhat in the day-to-day chamber repertoire. Considering that the work was dedicated to a cellist, the cello part does not stand out to my ear, and it was the soaring sounds of Timothy Baker's exceptionally resonant "Guitar" Stradivarius instrument, made in 1718, that I noticed most. It has an agitated and then somewhat somber first movement (Allegro moderato), and a playful scherzo second movement with a swaggering waltz trio. I'm sure, however, that most people come back to this piece for its third movement (Elegia: Adagio), in which the cello does introduce the theme that is then developed in a series of drop-dead gorgeous variations. It was all performed quite well, especially when the Elegia theme returns briefly in the fast final movement.

Elegy was the major theme of the evening, which is the Anguish part of the concert's title. The first half concluded with a piece that I adore, the Trio No. 2 in E Minor, op. 67, by Dmitri Shostakovich. (I last heard it performed by the Beaux Arts Trio at the Library of Congress, which I reviewed on December 15, 2004. The idea of the elegy or lament, so strong in Russian and eastern European music, was found on that concert in Dvořák's "Dumky" Trio, based on the Ukrainian folk lament.) As Marian Hahn explained before they began, the "Jewish theme" of the trio's fourth movement (the piece was inspired by the death of the composer's closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, in a concentration camp in 1944) was also used by Shostakovich in the eighth string quartet and a song cycle. Mr. Solow did a fine job with the difficult harmonics of the opening, where his fragile melody lies above the very low violin. This performance brought an interesting percussive sound to the strong second movement (Allegro con brio), and a horribly sad and stark character in the third movement (Largo), which the composer might as well have called Elegia. As Ms. Hahn explained in her comments, this piece about the horrors of war is indeed "as relevant today as when it was written."

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's substantial Trio in A Minor, op. 50, no. 1, from 1882. Here, the death mourned was that of pianist Nicholas Rubinstein, who founded the Moscow Conservatory and obtained a position there for Tchaikovsky. Marian Hahn played very well and with great confidence throughout this concert, but it was in this work that she really shone, because of the extremely difficult piano part. The first movement is an extended Pezzo Elegiaco (elegiac piece), with a lot of heroic melody framing a tragic Adagio con duolo section. The second (and last) movement, however, is the high point, a theme introduced by piano alone at first, with eleven grand variations and coda. After two rather standard variations, where the melody is passed to violin and then cello, Tchaikovsky the mimic comes to the fore. In the third variation, the tune is treated as a scherzo, with lots of arpeggios and pizzicato strings.

The fourth is a more contrapuntal movement, with a folk (or gypsy, as Mr. Solow put it in his notes) character. In the sixth we hear an elegant Viennese waltz, the church bells of Moscow in the seventh, and a Bach fugue in the eighth (complete with lots of sequences in the episodes, a stretto section, and an augmented statement of the theme in the violin). In the ninth variation we hear the melody transformed in minor, with the piano pretending to be a harp, and in the tenth (Tempo di mazurka), which begins with piano alone, Tchaikovsky remembers Rubinstein playing Chopin, or Tchaikovsky pretending to be Chopin (Schumann did it, too, in Carnaval). The theme is rendered as an extended march in the twelfth variation before it dies away quietly in the coda. It's a great piece, and this was a very good performance of it. Sadly, the meager applause of the audience's diminished numbers was not enough to induce the Amadeus Trio to play an encore.

The Amadeus Trio takes the same program to the University of Utah this Wednesday, after playing a slightly different concert in California today.

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