The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet at Bard

Last Saturday evening I attended a truly rapturing concert at Bard College. It was as though two powerful performances were combined into one, for performing were both the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet. The program was as follows:

Franz Joseph Haydn
Piano Trio No. 25 in E Minor, Hoboken XV:12
Allegro Moderato
Andante
Rondo: Presto

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet
Introductions
Quasi una passacaglia
Games
Au revoir

Joan Tower
String Quartet No. 4, “Angels”

Robert Schumann
Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Allegro brillante
In modo d’una marcia: Un poco largamente
Scherzo: Molto vivace
Finale: Allegro ma non troppo

Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 25 opens somewhat delicately, but with underlying force — a force that doesn’t come out in its entirety until a later movement. The music swells with a majestic air, although largely with a lightness, and piano trills, running up and down through notes. The trio played the movement with immense charm and it was wonderful to hear. The second movement opens gently with piano and plucked strings. Notes in cello resound with a deep throatiness, while violin sings in a beautiful soprano-like voice. The music unfolds like a gentle fog on a moist summer morning and continues in a similar fashion, as though floating through the air on vapors, as though a mist that will evaporate if you try to touch it. The third movement is flighty and dashing. Violin gallops along, as does piano, and cello dashes through notes but provides a more grounding force than the other two instruments. Midway through the music becomes more intense, the passion that was introduced in the first movement resurfacing in a fully developed form. Yet again, however, the music retains control, never losing itself in emotion. With a flourish the piece comes to an end.

It was exciting to see seven musicians take the stage for the next piece, and I sat in anticipation of what was to come as they sat down. “Constant imagination” is what Joseph Kalichstein said of Zwilich’s work, and that is exactly what is found in it. It was fun to see such an interesting piece — which really is classical, yet at the same time isn’t — be played at a concert by musicians whose music and personalities are full of character. The trio opens first, the quartet soon joining in. The music is incredibly dark and ominous, creating a deep unease in the listener yet thrilling them. Repeated high notes played by first and second violin of the quartet drive into your head until piano abruptly silences them. There are immeasurable textures in the music, which retains a sense of unease throughout. The last notes are forceful and unsettling, paving the way for the more subdued mysteriousness of the second movement. Violin — from the trio — slides from one note into the next, seamlessly transitioning in a way that cuts through the air as though it were water. Although like the first movement the second is quite dark, it does contain passages of great beauty that rise to the heavens before returning to darkness once more. Those passages that do rise are exceptionally moving, for even they seem bound by a shadow but rise in a heart wrenching glory. The sounds produced tear at the soul, resounding with a greatness that only that many stringed instruments can. The movement ends with several plucked notes until there is silence. The third movement is bluesy and modern, piano the most obviously influenced by contemporary rhythms and style. All of the instruments have a contemporary edge, however, but even so the movement fit right into the others. Unexpected turns are abundant in the fourth movement; it never quite goes where you expect it to and therefore keeps you on your toes. Although the music doesn’t always go where you expect it to, when you hear where it does go everything suddenly makes sense. The music is startling though, very dramatic and involved. You forget that two separate ensembles are playing and easily get lost in the piece as a whole — a compliment to Zwilich’s genius. Never do you stop to think about who’s doing what. Actually, you don’t think about anything except for the sounds themself. You find yourself unconsciously absorbed in the music and the secrets it contains. The piece ends unexpectedly as well, slowly dissolving into nothing more than a memory.

The opening piece of the second half of the program showcased the Miami String Quartet and also the work of a local composer, Joan Tower. The music starts out as if on flight, but goes around in circles for a short time before moving on. There are slides that are reminiscent of sirens to me and, like the piece before it, Tower’s contains an unease. That said, Tower’s piece is less dramatic but more anxious. The first movement in particular progresses slowly and is full of anxiety. The music is a bit sparse and is shifty, suitable given that the work was in fact inspired by the composer’s brother who suffered a stroke that left him half paralyzed. At one point the instruments are played without much force, and the lack of pressure on the strings creates a sound similar to cymbals. There are several obsessive patterns that are insistent, and the music moodily progresses onward until the end, which is surprisingly triumphant.

In my opinion the most brilliant work on the program, Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major closed the evening’s program. Lyrical, passionate, and charming, the work is truly a wonder to behold — especially when performed by Jaime Laredo, Joseph Kalichstein, Sharon Robinson, Cathy Meng Robinson, and Yu Jin. The opening is gently flowing, and cello has some divine passages, the gloriousness of its tone really shining through among the other instruments. Viola and cello play in beautiful harmony, joined by first and second violin, before all play as equals — including the piano, which has a much more prominent presence than in Haydn’s work. The presence of the piano aids enormously in the force of the music, and the piece would not have the same power without it. The melody of the first movement is calm but bold, and the legato of the piece was executed flawlessly by the “quintet,” creating one endless stream of sound. The second movement is more halting, with many pauses where all sounds cease save for a few notes still resounding in the air. Plucked strings end one section of music which leads into another that is more flowing. The music of the latter section saturates the air with beautiful harmonies flowing from the instruments as if waves on a river, before the music returns to its hesitance. It is then inflated with a fury, increasing in dynamics and tempo. Viola gets showcased and matches the deep tone of the piano’s low notes. The hesitant theme undergoes many transitions, ending finally with sheer, angelic chords. The third movement, the scherzo, is energetic from its start. There is delightful interplay between the instruments, and nearly constant sound. The scherzo is somewhat dark, yet ultimately cheerful. It’s frantic yet controlled, wild yet contained. It’s constantly in motion and once the wheels of the movement get turning they don’t stop until the grand end. The last movement does its title of “finale” proud. It has a little of everything, pulling all the aspects found in previous movements together and unifying them, and there are new things to discover and savor as well. As the movement nears the end, triumphant chords are played before all sound stops. When the music resumes, it is more pointedly than before. The music is never stagnant and becomes more and more fantastic as it reaches the climax that is the end.

It was truly exciting to see both the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet play not only by themselves but with each other. Additionally, as much as I love composers from all eras it was  great have the opportunity to hear pieces by contemporary composers. Even though all of the pieces were varying in style, time period, and mood, the program was stellar — as was the music created by each musician.

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