“I don’t like the ivory tower,” said Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. “When I’m writing for musicians, I can hear them in my head.”
Indeed, there was no “ivory tower” here. On Sunday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer was in the house — First Unitarian Church, home of the Linton Music Series — to hear the world premiere of her delightful “Pas de Trois,” honoring the 40th anniversary of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, to whom the piece is dedicated. It was her sixth piece for the ensemble: Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinst Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson.
Her Piano Trio marked their 10th anniversary, and she has also written a Double Concerto (violin and cello), a Triple Concerto, a Septet and a Quintet for the musicians:
Admitting that she had “butterflies,” Zwilich said “When there’s a commission, I feel like people are betting on me, and that inspires me…. This is not my piece. This is their piece. Performance breathes life into music.”
Although a brief (about 8 minutes) opener to the program that included Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, “Pas de Trois” was both engaging and sophisticated. The two movement piece began with an emphatic flourish by all players, and soon moved into a syncopated dialogue. Zwilich described her piece as inspired by the ballet, but she also was clearly inspired by the blues, with blues-inflected chords, a sensuous melody and recurring jazz licks as hallmarks of this piece.
In the second movement, entitled “”Variata e Coda,” each musician took the theme, a haunting melody, I loved the sonorous chords played by Kalichstein when his colleagues took a turn. They were in perfect sync in the lively, syncopated coda. The audience approved with a warm response.
The work was commissioned by Cincinnati arts patrons Ann and Harry Santen, and a consortium of other presenters through the International Arts Foundation. There is also a substantial future life planned for “Pas de Trois.” It is to be played in St. Paul, the Kennedy Center, Kravis Center (West Palm Beach), Miami, Chicago, Carmel (CA), at Bard College (NY) and at the La Jolla Chamber Music Society. The busy composer is at work on her next piece, still untitled, for youth orchestra and youth ballet to be premiered in collaboration with the Tallahassee Ballet by the Tallahassee Youth Symphony conducted by Alexander Jiménez on May 7, 2017.
The Shostakovich, composed in 1944, offered a stark contrast. The musicians caught the bleak, somber and tragic mood of this work, the artist’s response to the unfathomable horrors of World War II. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a brutal, harsh interpretation of the scherzo. It was relentless, driving, and bristled with sarcasm.
Relief came, somewhat, in the Largo, where the players finally allowed themselves to play with warmth. Its mournful theme was exquisitely phrased in violin and cello, over lush, somber chords in the piano. And how wonderful to hear the Klezmer tunes in the finale. It was an extraordinary, almost cinematic moment. In all, the musicians delivered a deeply felt, brilliant performance and were in absolute communion.
The Schubert, which concluded, was pure joy. These players, who have spent decades with this wonderful repertoire, played it with affection and felt each note as one. I especially loved Kalichstein’s singing tone and light touch. He tackled cascades of treacherous runs as if they were easy. (And I know they are not!)
With the crowd on their feet, I had to dash to another concert. But I heard later that the trio offered the perfect bluesy encore: Gershwin’s Summertime, arranged for them by Andy Stein, former music director of “Prairie Home Companion.”