Thursday, February 9, 2023

Pacific Trio Play Turina, Muczynski and Smetana

The Pacific Trio: l-r John Walz, cello; Edith Orloff, piano; Roger Wilkie, violin.


The Pacific Trio, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Given the pre-eminence of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann in the piano trio genre, not to mention the predilections of South Bay performers and audiences, it was quite a surprise to see a local piano trio recital program announced that did not include works by any of these illustrious names, nor indeed anything by Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, or Dvořák.

But then, with the performers in question being the long-established Pacific Trio (Roger Wilkie, violin; John Walz, cello; Edith Orloff, piano), the breadth of whose repertoire is well known, it was not a surprise that the program they presented for the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s January concert was full enough of variety and interest for no-one to have regretted the absence of any of the above-listed masters.

Joaquín Turina.
One tends to associate the name Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) with the guitar and the piano, in music patently influenced by the traditions of his native Andalusia, but in fact after a wide-ranging musical education, notably in Paris, he went on to contribute to many genres, including opera, others that involve voices, and several within the broad scope of chamber music.

Among these are three piano trios, one (unnumbered) from his student years and two written in his maturity. In the hands of the Pacific Trio, Turina’s 1933 Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 76 proved to be an extraordinarily immediate and attractive work which managed to convey an expansive, unfettered romantic tunefulness within a remarkably concise compass, its three movements all over in around 16 minutes.

Just as concise was the First Piano Trio, Op. 24 of Robert Muczynski, composed in 1966-67, in which the sun-drenched Mediterranean sensibility of the Turina was replaced, in the first of its four movements, by jazz-inflected, hard-edged energy enclosing a brief, somber, central section. An equally energetic, gnomically brief Allegro giocoso followed, not as uncomplicatedly cheerful as the marking might suggest, ending dismissively on a seemingly sour dissonance.

Robert Muczynski.
An eloquent cello solo against stepwise piano figuration begins the Andante third movement, to be joined by the violin in unfolding textures that drift in and out of nocturnal half-lights. The cello line returns but this movement also ends suddenly, just when it feels as if there is more is to be said. The even briefer Finale returns to the spiky, vigorous soundscape of the first two movements.

Muczynski’s music is far from unknown to South Bay chamber musicians (see reviews of two previous concerts here and here), but for me the major pleasure of the concert lay in the single work that occupied the second half, Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15, composed in 1855 at the age of 31.

Any view of Smetana that is bounded by his reputation as a composer of Bohemian nationalist comic opera and romantic orchestral tone-poems gets a severe buffeting from an encounter with this astonishingly intense and personal work—his first real masterpiece, though its finale does incorporate elements of a piano sonata in the same key written some years earlier.

As the admirable downloadable program note by Saagar Asnani of UC Berleley made clear, the trio memorializes Smetana’s eldest daughter Bedřiška, who died that year at the age of four—and if ever there was an instance of tragedy sublimated into great art, this is one. All three instruments, singly and collectively, are pushed to their limits by a score laden with detailed markings from a composer visibly determined to use every resource for maximum expressiveness.

Oil portrait of Smetana in 1854. 
In all three movements Smetana takes what he wants from the conventional forms of the time and makes them his own. The first movement works perfectly well as a sonata design but the effect is of a vivid emotional journey whose progress is charted through a landscape of memorable themes and expressive contrasts that can pass from marcatissimo to dolcissimo within a handful of measures.

The second movement begins Allegro, ma non agitato with a tripping, somewhat Mendelssohnian-fairy idea, and its role as a scherzo-and-trio seems assured by the arrival of a contrasting Andante section, complete with first-half and second-half repeats, before a return to Tempo I. But this seemingly regular “trio” is also labeled Alternativo I, and just when the movement seems heading for a conventional end it plunges downward to Alternativo II, Maestoso, which amounts to an intercalated march-like slow movement that completely alters and expands the overall expressive range, before the opening tripping theme does finally return.

As for the finale, that passes from a furiously rhythmic Presto—derived from that earlier piano sonata—through various episodes, including another funeral march, which incorporate a second theme on the cello derived in part from its counterpart in the first movement. In the final climax the three instruments, straining it seems for truly orchestral weight, give this theme a positively Tchaikovskian passion and intensity, before a scurried fortissimo conclusion fools no-one into believing it any kind of “happy ending.”

The Pacific Trio fully matched the breadth and intensity of this masterpiece with their marvelously committed performance, after which no encore was needed to dispel the atmosphere they had generated for the hugely enthusiastic audience.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College/ Pacific Unitarian Church, Friday/Sunday, 27/29 January, 2023.
Images: Pacific Trio: artists' website; Turina: Seattle Chamber Music Society; Muczynski: Theodore Presser; Smetana: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Four Seraphic Voices on a First Friday

Seraphour: l-r Dana Rouse, contralto; Heidi Vass, soprano; Melissa Birch, soprano;
Emma Grace Roche, contralto.

Seraphour sing Daley, Brahms, Carrillo, Palestrina, Vass, and Thompson

Of all musical media, the human voice perhaps best evinces continuity, or at least commonality, between eras widely separated in time. This view certainly came to the fore during the February “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital, organized as ever by Classical Crossroads, Inc., at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, in which the vocal quartet Seraphour performed works ranging from the Renaissance to last year.

Eleanor Daley.
This sense of continuity was strengthened by all six pieces setting familiar Christian texts, beginning with Os Justi (The Mouth of the Just) by the prolific Canadian composer of choral music, Eleanor Daley (b. 1955). This brief and straightforwardly enjoyable opening item, dating from 1994, was introduced by Heidi Vass (soprano), the founder of the group.

Somehow, despite the German Requiem (or perhaps because of it, in view of its non-liturgical text), one does not tend to associate Brahms with sacred vocal works, accompanied or not, so the opportunity to hear his Adoramus Te (We Adore Thee) Op. 37, No. 2, one of three geistliche Chöre (Sacred choruses) for female voices written in 1859, was welcome.

This piece, somewhat strenuously contrapuntal for a little over half its two-minute length, dissolved unexpectedly into a conclusion of sustained harmonies, beautifully enunciated by Seraphour, which made me rather regret that we weren’t hearing the full set of which Adoramus Te is the centerpiece.

César Carrillo.
Seeing the name Carrillo on the roster of composers got me temporarily confused with the long-lived Mexican Julián Carrillo, author of at least one fine symphony, but no—this was the Venezuelan César Carrillo (b.1957), whose output, like that of Eleanor Daley, seems mostly to be choral music.

Judging by the number of performances on YouTube, his warmly homogeneous Ave Maria (Hail Mary)—apparently a relatively early work, dating from 1983—is a firm favorite with female choirs and smaller groups, and Seraphour’s account of it could stand proud amongst any.

Taking over as introducer, second soprano Melissa Birch then cast back four-and-a-half centuries to one of the greatest of choral scribes, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). His Magnificat quarti toni IGP817, published in Rome in 1591 and one of no less than 36 Magnificats by him, was the recital’s centerpiece and by some margin the longest item.

Sung by a large choir in a resonant cathedral, Palestrina’s music can seem at once ineffably mellifluous but somehow forbidding, as if it exists on a plane removed from and indifferent to mere human sensibility. Here, brought “down to earth” in the best possible way in a smaller but still vibrant church acoustic, this Magnificat revealed a warmth and gentleness, even fragility, that was very appealing, with gently pulsing rhythmic emphases like an eternal heartbeat.

Emma Roach, first alto, then introduced the item that represented both the recital’s extreme in temporal separation and that commonality between all. The Angele Dei (Angel of God) by 19-year-old Aidan Vass was commissioned by Seraphour, with the completed work being a surprise Christmas present to his mother, Heidi Vass.

Aidan Vass.
This proved to be as coolly contemplative as its Renaissance predecessor, though some unpredictable harmonic shifts proclaimed its modern origins, with close-packed chords and softly clashing dissonances that momentarily hinted at Gustav Holst being skillfully kept on the rails by Seraphour.

If there had been one element somewhat absent in the recital so far, it was a sense of drama, but this was amply compensated by the final listed item, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia—composed, as second alto Dana Rouse outlined (and as Thompson himself describes here), in the dark World War 2 year of 1940.

Randall Thompson.
Beginning ppp in a confiding, prayerlike, almost fearful manner, it opens out through rising dynamics and textural elaboration to an exultant fortissimo climax which then subsides, Lento, to a peaceful Amen. Thompson’s Alleluia is in its way as effective in its dramatic arc as Barber’s ultra-familiar Adagio for Strings, and Seraphour’s interpretation was as impassioned as could be imagined with only four voices.

Finally, there was an encore that closed the circle, texturally in that it was another Ave Maria, and temporally, reaching back even further than Palestrina to the much lesser-known Franco-Flemish Jacob (or Jacques) Arcadelt (1507-1568). The amiable, songful immediacy of his setting made it easy to understand that he was apparently (thanks, Wikipedia!) one of the earliest composers of madrigals.

With the permission of Seraphour, whose origins as a group can be read about on Shoutout LA, an edited recording of most of the items in this recital can be enjoyed on Classical Crossroads’ Vimeo page for a month here, ably captured in sound and vision by Jim Eninger. 


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 3, 2023.
Images: The performers: author; Eleanor Daley: Alliance Music; César Carrillo: Discogs; Palestrina: Wikimedia Commons; Aidan Vass: Instagram; Randall Thompson: Classical Net.