Old Friends, Getting It Right Again

Michael Zwiebach on March 17, 2009
You often hear chamber music described as a conversation, but really it’s like a meeting of friends. Back in the old days, chamber music was one way to pass the time with friends, and also to indulge a love of music (since there were no radios or stereos to turn on).

Think about that as you listen to the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in their concert for Chamber Music San Francisco. Here’s a group of world-renowned soloists, yet they have performed as a piano trio for 32 years now and show no signs of slowing down; if anything, their egoless connection to each other keeps growing. It helps, probably, that violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson are married to each other, but the connection comes through the music. “The day we take making music for granted or get complacent is the day I pack up my fiddle,” Laredo told an interviewer for The Strad magazine, during their 30th anniversary year. So far, if reviews can be believed, that hasn’t happened.

Professionals of all stripes like to play chamber music because it is so much about interaction. Some people get really good at it. Chamber musicians are the kind of people who can read people’s emotional cues, the inflections in a voice, a body’s posture. You can watch Kalichstein, Laredo, and Robinson react to each other — both to what they hear and to what they see in each other’s countenance.

Not surprisingly, each of them is also an excellent teacher. Joseph Kalichstein has taught piano at Juilliard for many years, where he now has an endowed chair in chamber music. Jaime Laredo holds an endowed chair in violin at Indiana University, where Robinson also teaches. Their master classes are highly esteemed.

These experienced friends have also gotten to know their repertory well over the course of three decades, so that the music emanates from them easily and naturally. In their San Francisco program, they bring together the dark intensity of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), written in the midst of World War II and dedicated to a recently deceased friend, and the lyrical, often playful “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97, by Beethoven, one of a number of works dedicated to his longtime student and staunch supporter/patron, the Archduke Rudolph of the Austrian royal family. The Shostakovich requires virtuosity and steely determination. The Beethoven is more genial and spontaneous, requiring a whiff of aristocratic, classical style.

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio has recorded both pieces, but, like many good musicians, they’re always tinkering with and often changing their approach to music they know. As Kalichstein says, when asked about the group’s longevity, “We just keep trying to get it right.” That seems like an odd statement from a group that so often gets it right.