Calyx Trio brings close-knit artistry to American music

November 17, 2014 at 3:42 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Calyx Piano Trio performed a program of American works Sunday night for Collage New Music.

In its thirteen-year career, the Calyx Piano Trio has made it a mission to present new music through wide-ranging programs. Sunday night at Pickman Hall, in a concert sponsored by Collage New Music, the Calyx musicians turned their attention to American composers by performing a bracing mix of new and recently composed piano trios.

The musicians—violinist Catherine French, cellist Jennifer Lucht, and pianist Nina Ferrigno—play with a wonderfully uniform ensemble blend and crisp execution of musical dialogue. To borrow Haydn’s phrase, their performances are like a true conversation among friends.

Those characteristics were on full display in Sunday evening’s closer, Richard Festinger’s Tapestries. 

Festinger’s work is an energetic affair, and the Calyx Trio gave fine attention to every detail of the piece. The angular lines that open Tapestries were handled freely by French and Lucht. The slow central movement had depth of feeling and featured silky playing from the musicians. Lucht lofted a gentle solo, and French answered with amber-toned phrases. Ferrigno’s piano runs in the third movement had a vital, rhythmic bite for a fitting match to the sparkling playing of the strings. Throughout, the trio deftly handled the shifts between the smooth and agitated passages that lie at the heart of Festinger’s music.

The Boston premieres of two works were the centerpiece of the evening’s offerings.

Amy Beth Kirsten came to composition at the age of 30. Now in her early 40s, she has already established herself as a distinctive musical voice.

Her kiss to the earth, heard Sunday night, is a case in point. Composed for the Calyx Trio to mark the centennial of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, kiss to the earth is a true spectacle in sound and a trio in the fullest sense of the word. The musicians are called upon to hum, sigh, perform on hand-held bells and shakers, as well as play on their instruments, sometimes doing two things at the same time.

Cast in seven movements as a ballet for an imaginary dancer, kiss to the earth is a colorful and memorable score. Ferrigno opened the work with a thud in piano’s lower register. French and Lucht answered with a series of amplified sighs. The trio dug in for a dazzling display of jagged figures, which were combined with the sound of rapid exhaling from the musicians. Elsewhere, Ferrigno plunked out notes from dampened piano strings, and French and Lucht supplied snapping pizzicato notes while humming pitches that slid up and down the musical texture.

In the sixth movement, the musicians whispered at different speeds the lines from a toast Sergei Diaghilev gave in 1905. The most beautiful of the movements was the fourth, which featured Ferrigno in twinkling piano filigree. French, here, played a tubular bell, which created a soft, wavering tone to accompany the pianist. Lucht added whistling cello harmonics for a shimmering, delicate tapestry of sound. One could, by piece’s end, imagine the ghost dancer twirling about on stage.

If kiss to the earth commemorates one of the most well-known pieces of the twentieth century, then Derek Bermel’s Death with Interruptions, the other Boston premiere of the evening, was like a trip through the one hundred years of music history that came before it. Drawing its title from a novel by Portuguese writer José Saramago, Death with Interruptions is a set of variations involving lush, romantic writing that recalls Schumann. That is most evident in the gentle waltz-like tune that serves as the foundation for the work.

The Schumannesque lines soon get a twentieth century makeover as the variations transform the theme in unexpected ways, the statements growing darker with sprinkled chromatic notes from the piano and strings. In other places, the music shifts into the style of smooth pop. The closing variation takes the theme in yet another direction, recalling the open fifths and octaves of Debussy’s impressionism. Through it all, the Calyx Trio gave this interesting work a vivid performance.

A colorful tonal palette also characterized Lansing McLoskey’s Glisten. Cast in seven brief but free flowing movements, Glisten, as the title implies, is a musical portrait of string and piano effects. Sheen of harmonics spread into warm, streaming lines. Violin and piano pull together for jazzy riffs, with the cello supplying a few sturdy notes in accompaniment. In one of the movements, Ferrigno supplied a series of slow-moving chords over prickly violin and cello sonorities, played by French and Lucht by bouncing their bows on their strings for sounds that twinkled like sparkling light on a gemstone. Glisten contains spectacular music, and the Calyx Trio gave the work a colorful and sensitive reading.

The Calyx Trio opened with two short works by Augusta Read Thomas.

…a circle around the sun…, composed in honor of businessman and philanthropist George D. Kennedy, grows organically from a solitary G, which fans out into spacious intervals and interlocking lines. The Calyx Trio played with an alert sense of the music’s dialogue.

They did the same for Moon Jig, a brief but vigorous work. Ferrigno gave the disjointed figures that pepper the score a sure-footed bounce. French and Lucht answered with phrases of crisp, dance-like energy.

Collage New Music will present works by Chambers, LeFanu, Davidovsky, Choi, and Jaffe 8 p.m. January 18 at Pickman Hall. collagenewmusic.org

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