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Claremont Trio

April 5, 2006

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We Appreciate

Company Manners

By David Bratman

The Claremont Trio want you to know that they're not that other piano trio of three young women, the one known for their alluring glamour photos. The Claremont Web page has a severe mission statement: "We think classical music is exhilarating, heart-wrenching, and ultimately life-changing… After all this preparation, we can't leave people to notice wardrobe. ... We want our performances to come alive." But the same Web page offers photos — especially the one for the cover of their CD of Mendelssohn — with the trio looking as endearingly waiflike as possible.

They don't look like waifs on stage. Though young, they exude confidence and self-assurance. But one still can't help noticing their wardrobe. For Wednesday's concert at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, they were elegantly clothed in strapless silk gowns in pastel colors, like Barbie in her best dress. The student page-turner in black T-shirt and pants has never looked more out of place.

Polite playing

If the dresses were pastel, so was the performance. The concert offered three high points of the piano trio repertoire: the high classicism of Joseph Haydn, the high romanticism of Robert Schumann, and the high modernism of Leon Kirchner. The performances were as polite as the proper behavior of any young lady in her gown, and as elegant as her clothes. The Trio have an excellent sense of ensemble, and they communicate with each other well (they'd never have been able to get through the Kirchner without this skill). But, though full of commitment, they lack both a certain degree of passion and the seasoning of maturity. The concert was alive, yes; but exhilarating or heart-wrenching, no.

Claremont Trio

Haydn's Trio in C Major, Hob. XV: 27, fared best under this treatment, for, like most works of his later years, it is charming as well as elegant. It's not so much a piano trio as a work for piano with unobtrusive violin and cello accompaniment (although some of his earlier works for this ensemble lean still further in that direction). Pianist Donna Kwong led with a light staccato touch. The development section of the finale does toss some motifs back and forth. The players handled these well, and throughout the work they showed fine understanding of Haydn's phrasing and his occasional odd pauses, employing these more for light dramatic effect than to display the wit in his music.

Schumann wrote a pair of trios in 1847, of which Op. 80 in F major is the more warm and lively. Though its coequal lines and romantic idiom make for a much thicker texture than Haydn's, this performance was clean and light to the point of being thin. There is room to be searing and forceful in this music, but even the emotional falling violin themes in the slow movement were plain and polite in Emily Bruskin's performance. She also revealed that her intonation was not always flawless. Her twin sister, Julia, on cello, has a warm, reedy tone. Both sisters were at their best in the double-stops of the third movement coda, which brought a welcome coy warmth to the piece.

A problematic choice

Between the two older works, Kirchner's Trio No. 1 (1954) gave a sense of mental whiplash. One can say, as the program notes did, that the Haydn was "difficult, daring, and original" for its time, but the implied comparison with Kirchner's atonal expressionism is absurd. Kirchner, who taught at Mills College and USC in the 1950s before moving to Harvard, is the model of what used to be called an "academic" composer. Though not strictly dodecaphonic, his music is close in style and intensity to the work of Schoenberg and Berg.

Julia Bruskin, introducing the piece, described it as interesting and involving. It must be so to the players, who displayed confidence over its tricky rhythms and entrances, but that doesn't make it interesting to the listeners, particularly those to whom it was new. This is a work of solid content and craft, and it's worth hearing. But it requires a different mode of listening than Haydn and Schumann, and if one held an entire concert of works like this, hardly anyone would attend. So there may be no ideal solution.

Julia Bruskin described the second and final movement of the Kirchner as moving from a childlike simplicity inspired by Schumann (an influence mentioned to her by the composer himself) to something terrifying at the end. Terrifying in this performance it was not. The string tremolos and trills which are the movement's most striking feature were gentle here. Bass thumps on the piano were without force. Only some sudden col legno raps on the strings really made the audience jump. Toward the end, the music began to sound creepier, though it never achieved terror.

For an encore, the evening ended with the Allegro first movement of Paul Schoenfield's Cafe Music. This is postmodern music: not at all retrograde, but tonal and jazz-influenced, oriented to the audience instead of to its own complexities. For once, the Claremont Trio let fly with a full appreciation of wit in music.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved