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Season openers: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.

Brahms Upstaged

By B.A. Nilsson

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

Spa Little Theatre, Aug. 2


The series began 20 years ago, and artistic director Chantal Juillet preceded Monday’s concert with what no doubt will be the first of many goodbyes as she and new husband Charles Dutoit take their talents elsewhere.

Having this world-class trio kick off the summer chamber music season is testimony to her vision and influence. Programming has always been a mix of new sounds and standards, and if the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio’s program (Beethoven-Brahms-Shostakovich) adhered to the latter, it reminded us why such pieces persevere.

Although Brahms’s big Trio in B Major should be the fulcrum of any program it inhabits, its thunder was swiped by the Shostakovich piece that ended the first half. The Russian composer wrote his Trio No. 2 in E Minor in 1944, after learning of both the death of a close friend and the horrific revelations of Nazi death camps.

Shostakovich wore his pain on his artistic sleeve, and this piece pulses with pain. It’s not unrelenting—he had a wide range of expressive devices at hand, and even in the seemingly spare context of a musical threesome he painted textures Brahms and Beethoven never went near.

It trivializes Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat Major not at all to note that its finale, a theme and variations, is as frivolous as the passacaglia variations in Shostakovich’s trio are heartbreaking.

The performers pushed the piece into the Romantic era with a number of interpretive techniques, such as the pause before the first movement’s exposition repeat and the extreme fortissimo with which they whupped the start of the recapitulation. Unlike the other two works on the program, this one puts violin (Jaime Laredo) and cello (Sharon Robinson) in a separate but fairly equal relationship with the piano, and the string players work together as one, beautifully matched.

The start of the Shostakovich is technically brutal, calling for tough-to-play false harmonics from the muted strings as the work eases through a haunting beginning. Here the trio was united, with pianist Joseph Kalichstein completely at home in Shostakovich’s plangent piano language.

And they’re all proficient enough to take the second movement, an allegro non troppo, not quite so non troppo as I’ve heard elsewhere without sacrificing accuracy and playing up its sardonic nature. As noted, the passacaglia that follows was sculpted magnificently, and the piece concluded with a savage allegretto that ran a gamut of texture and tone.

And so to Brahms. Here the intensity of performance flagged somewhat. A few missed notes, a slight sense of weariness. Perhaps it should have been piece number two. Again, the ensemble informed it with interpretive touches like a slight pause just after the opening theme’s pick-up note, touches I find unnecessary. I fear that the past couple of performer generations feels a need to personalize the works they play, which I believe can be done with a closer ear on the metronome.

Nevertheless, it was a passionate performance of a satisfying piece. Brahms wrote what are probably the most engaging pi ano parts in chamber-music literature, and Kalichstein made them transparent. Likewise, Laredo and Robinson added a level of accomplishment that only comes from combining technical excellence with a longtime performing relationship.

The program’s encore, appropriate to the season, was jazz violinist Andy Stein’s trio arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”


Drum Line

Steve Reich and Musicians, NEXUS, So Percussion 19th Annual Woodstock Beat

Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, July 31

Despite music’s designation as a time-based art, space is often the dimension in which (and upon which) great music operates. This is something Hervey White understood when he set out to build the Maverick Concert Hall on his Woodstock farm in the 1910s. Today, the raw timber structure, built around living trees with gorgeous antique windows, nestled into a fairy-tale pocket of the Catskills, remains the remarkable “chapel” that White dreamed and plays host to one the most unique chamber music series in the area. The cultivation of musical space has also been a driving concern of composer Steve Reich, whose minimalist rhythmic constructions work insofar as they stunt the listener’s perception of forward temporal motion and create a percolating sonic space in which to dwell. On a warm summer night, with the venue’s barn doors rolled open and stage full of some of the most accomplished avant percussionists in the world, the two visions couldn’t have been better married.

Such was the setting for the 19th annual Woodstock Beat, a benefit performance for the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Present this evening was a clean lineage of the percussion ensemble: NEXUS musicians who have been performing with Reich since his start 40 years ago, and So Percussion, a young quartet that has pushed the genre into popular territory, and, as the MC joked, “stole NEXUS’ work.” It was fitting, then, that the program featured a collection of Reich’s most celebrated compositions, seminal material for the contemporary percussion ensemble.

To open the show, NEXUS performed Music for Pieces of Wood, one of Reich’s more concise rhythmic constructions, scored for five claves. Jason Treuting of So Percussion maintained a brisk pulse while the four NEXUS musicians systematically contributed interlocking polyrhythms on claves of different pitch. The concept is (almost maddeningly) simple—a piece built entirely on syncopation, with only the vaguest sense of a tone poem being produced by the five separate pitches—but the effect was (almost maddeningly) profound. Overlapping patterns of 12, eight, and six beats created a hypnotic pocket that threatened to come undone were it not for the central pulse. It exhibited a degree of focus that would persist throughout the show.

Unlike the first piece, where separate parts were easily discernible, Nagoya Marimbas, a marimba duet, became impossible at times to follow who was playing what. The effect was blissfully disorienting.

Jumping chronologically backward in Reich’s catalog, but forward in the sophistication of his arrangements, the first set closed with Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ from 1973. Like a well-coordinated assembly line, the mallet players cobbled two separate rhythmic processes together on marimba and glockenspiel, triggering harmonic swells from the organ and vocalists when the parts came in and out of phase. Astonishingly, only the vocalists and organist followed charts, as the mallet players performed, modulated and traded ostinato figures with hardly a glance between them.

If one of Reich’s greatest themes is the cultivation of order on the macroscopic plane despite volatility and conflict between individual voices, a peculiar resonance came at intermission. The trees around the concert hall echoed the music within as a chorus of crickets chattered in complex polyrhythms.

For the second set, Reich joined his musicians, sporting his ever-present black baseball hat. With Russell Hartenberger, he first performed Clapping Music, a deceptively challenging round of flamenco hand claps, and then with all hands on deck, Drumming, one of Reich’s most celebrated percussion epics. For upwards of 30 minutes, the musicians cycled through mallet figures and tuned bongo parts, creating an oceanic wash of phasing patterns that defied the listener to identify a downbeat.

Inspired by the sounds inside and outside the hall, the subsequent raucous applause took on a fittingly rhythmic character.

—Josh Potter

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