The Chicagoans, originally scheduled to open last year's series, did not disappoint. Violinist Desiree Ruhstraht, cellist David Cunliffe and pianist Marta Aznavoorian lived up to expectations. The Lincoln Trio displayed strong rapport in music of Beethoven, Higdon, Garrop and, with the addition of series host and violist Michael Strauss, Turina.
|Desiree Ruhstraht, David Cunliffe, Marta Azavoorian|
They were particularly skillful in asserting themselves as individuals without nicking the ensemble unity. That balance has something to with the zest you impart to the music on the stand or rack before you; the hard-to-define firmness of group identity comes from experience (the Lincoln has a 10-year history) and using your ears moment-to-moment in concert.
To take the 21st-century works first: Jennifer Higdon's "Fiery Red" made a spectacular program-closer. Typical of this prolific composer, "Fiery Red" is not shy about projecting its essence from the start. Higdon writes as though accessibility can be assumed in new music, not coyly held at arm's length. "Fiery Red" lives up to its title, too, with brief, aggressive phrases tossed around the trio, striking sparks as they go.
Like the other new work, Stacy Garrop's "Silver Dagger," the Tower piece (with its companion, "Pale Yellow") is part of the Lincoln Trio discography. Garrop, a friend of the trio, has been well-represented in its Cedille Records catalogue: "Silver Dagger" plays eerily upon an old Appalachian folk song, opening with a haunting drone (embedded in inside-the-piano playing) undergirding the keening violin. Its short duration in no way leads the composer to bring off a facile bit of Americana. "Silver Dagger" has elements of eldritch fantasy and betrayal woven into it, and while honoring the tune, isn't deferential to the original, except atmospherically.
Performances of these two works rested Monday on a foundation provided by Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat major, op. 11 ("Gassenhauer"), which opened the program. Aznavoorian's facility and spirit animated the opening movement, and here is where it was immediately evident that her colleagues were doing more than making their contributions fit neatly. There was that, of course, but there was also brightness and spunk in the cello and violin voices throughout the performance, ending with a buoyant theme-and-variations finale on a tune that was a hit in Beethoven's Vienna.
Strauss joined the trio for a the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina's Piano Quartet in A minor, a work rich in "local color," but also beautifully constructed for the ensemble as a piece of absolute chamber music. Strauss and Ruhstraht put unanimity behind their often parallel lines, and individual moments in the spotlight for all four added to the enchantment. (The viola has some conspicuous phrases, which must have made programming this work especially attractive to Strauss.) The moody opening movement set the tone, and by the time an impassioned violin recitative opened the finale, the quartet had the Shaarey Tefilla audience in the palm of its hand.
For an encore, the trio drew on a remote part of the Spanish tradition in playing a characteristically spirited short work by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.