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It Takes Three

Date: Sun April 5, 2009 4:00pm

While visiting artists often draw the crowds, many fine musicians live in the Bay Area and perform here on occasion. The Noe Valley Chamber Music series presents three of them in “Piano Trio Milestones,” a chamber concert by three unparalleled musicians — violinist Axel Strauss, cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and pianist Jeffrey Sykes — all players on the international scene, while living here.

The three are dedicated educators (Strauss and Fonteneau are professors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sykes at Cal State University East Bay and at the Madison, Wisc.–based Opera for the Young); they also maintain busy performing and recording schedules. When I attempted to reach Strauss (a native of Germany) for a comment about this upcoming concert, he was in Berlin doing a stint as guest concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. French-born Fonteneau regularly tours in South Korea and just issued a CD on Albany Records, playing new works by Korean composer Hi Kyung Kim. Sykes also has an impressive discography to his credit and performs chamber music throughout North America and Europe.

The concert in the intimate Noe Valley Ministry shares some significant signposts in the repertoire. It opens with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1/1, not technically his first composition, but one he thought worthy enough for that tag. It was premiered by Prince Karl von Lichnowsky’s resident string quartet at one of Lichnowsky’s weekly soirées in 1794. The sound of the piece is still much indebted to Haydn, whom Beethoven admired a great deal, and shows Beethoven’s full mastery of the late Classical style. Axel Strauss quipped: “His admiration didn’t stop him from trying to outdo the master, at the same time. The piece is extremely quick and witty and bristles with energy.”

The next milestone presented is Piano Trio No. 1 by American composer Leon Kirchner, who celebrated his 90th birthday in January. Kirchner wrote the piece in 1954, one year after winning the Naumburg Award (won by Axel Strauss in 1998). Kirchner studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Ernest Bloch at UCLA and with Roger Sessions in New York. In this piano trio his musical language is closely related to Schoenberg’s, sans his 12-tone method. Kirchner’s music is quite dissonant at times, but always rhythmically engaging and highly expressive.

Closing the program will be Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor (1914), a piece requiring a high level of virtuosity for all instruments and widely regarded as technically brilliant. Ravel derived musical inspiration for this trio from numerous sources, including Basque dance and Malaysian poetry. Says Strauss, “The variety of tone colors and textures he gets out of a piano trio is just staggering. You can hear beautifully elegant melodies that seem to literally float through the air; in other places (the ending, for example), the music becomes downright orchestral. Even by Ravel’s highest standards, this is a masterpiece.”

Might we hear more from this trio in the future? We can only hope.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.