Rockport Festival offers engaging night of piano trios

June 25, 2016 at 2:02 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Piano Trio was performed at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Friday night.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Piano Trio was performed at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Friday night. Photo: Bill Keefrey

 In 1990, the cartoonist Charles Schulz illustrated a comic strip that showed Peppermint Patty and Marcie at a concert. “This next piece is a concerto for flute and orchestra,” Marcie tells Patty. “It was composed by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who, incidentally, just happens to be a woman.”

“Good going, Ellen!” Patty shouts while standing in her chair.

Indeed, Zwilich has had a remarkable career. She is the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music (an honor bestowed upon her First Symphony in 1983), and she has garnered commissions from orchestras and ensembles from all over the world. 

Friday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, a trio consisting of violinist Andrés Cárdenes, cellist Anne Martindale Williams, and pianist David Deveau offered Zwilich’s Piano Trio at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Zwilich’s music is cast in a slick, modernist style where thorny textures fit snugly within taut, classical structures. Her Piano Trio, composed in 1987 for the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio, is no different. Rippling sixteenth-note figures characterize the outer movements while sweeping gestures creep into the texture. The second movement unfolds in a series of icy chords that seem to hang in place. The third movement, with its angular melodies and raspy lyricism, has the flavor of Shostakovich. But above all, this piece, as Nicolas Slonimsky said of her music in general, has an “immediate appeal.”

The ensemble performing this attractive work comprised fine musicians who have been playing together for many years. Cárdenes and Williams, both principals of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, play with warm, glowing tone and a plush ensemble blend. Deveau, who serves as artistic director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, is an acclaimed pianist and is capable of supplying nimble phrases to complement the strings.

Together, they gave a vivid and muscular account of Zwilich’s score. Cárdenes and Williams deftly handled the darting statements and whirlpool-like flourishes of the outer movements. Deveau added hammer-like chords to the texture without sacrificing tone quality. 

There’s a romantic strain at the heart of the string melody that opens the second movement, which Cárdenes and Williams gave a singing quality, and the cello phrase central to the movement was captivating as Williams played it with yearning expression. 

The musicians’ partnership was especially charming in the opener, Haydn’s Trio in C major, Hob. XV: 27. Completed in 1797, this piece brims with playful humor. 

The piano-heavy score put Deveau in the spotlight, and he delivered the agile runs that pepper the outer movements with graceful flourish. Cárdenes and Williams supplied a soft blanket of string sound.

The trio played with a keen sense of phrasing, and Haydn’s witty lines were given a vocal arc. That was especially true of the second movement. The musicians shaped their phrases with delicate touch, while taking care to give palpable weight to the stormy moments that seemed to come out of nowhere. 

After intermission, the musicians offered a glittering performance of Schubert’s Trio in B-flat major, D. 898. 

Composed while Schubert was putting the finishing touches on Winterreise but not published until 1836, this trio bears the hallmarks of the composer’s richly lyrical style. 

Schubert the songwriter is particularly present in the second movement. There, a lullaby-like melody, begun by Williams before passing it to Cárdenes, wafted in the air like perfume.

Moreover, this piece showcased the musicians’ keen sense of ensemble. Their performance was a true dialogue between piano and strings as well as the strings with each other. The first movement featured song-like phrases from each of the players, while the ländler of the scherzo was given a sense of urgency, a few finger slips in the strings apart.

The rondo finale was full of surprises as the musicians dug in for the sudden accents, key changes, and false endings that pepper the movement. In all, the trio played with bustling energy to bring Schubert’s trio and the concert to a joyous conclusion.

The next program of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature violinist Frank Huang and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in sonatas by Beethoven and Prokofiev 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.; 978-546-7391

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