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Haunted by The Sherman Ensemble

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Aug 13th, 2017

Jill Levy, Thomas Sauer, Eliot Bailen

Thirty-five years after The Sherman Ensemble performed their first concert, they have returned to the venue of their birth, The Sherman Playhouse, for an evening of memorable music. They opened with a 1944 piece by Lukas Foss. A protégé of Aaron Copland, Three American Pieces presents a medley of classical music based upon American popular music. While composed for violin and piano in 1944, Foss transcribed the violin line for flautist Carol Wincenc in 1986. Susan Rotholz on flute in this later version conjured a fiddler’s hoe-down with supporting piano, a jazzy semi-improvised interplay with Thomas Sauer (from Vassar College) on piano, then descending into playful renditions of American show tunes. The result was a recognizable, happy picture of American optimism on the cusp of the second half of the century as nimbly extracted into abstract musical wanderings. Rotholz ably captured the mischievous whimsy of the piece.

The Foss number acted as both foil and instructive historical comparison to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor. A year-and-a-half after Shostakovitch moved to Moscow, he completed in 1944 Op. 67, dedicated to the memory of his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a composer and historian of music (an advocate of Gustav Mahler), and linguistic polymath, who had suddenly died at 41 earlier that year.

The opening Andante works with furious dissonances.  Amid the difficulty of this opening, cellist Eliot Bailen created a pure ambiguous tone at high range as he produced varied harmonic levels with elegiac thrust. Thomas Sauer on piano abruptly cut short nascent melodies. On violin Jill Levy produced aborted dance rhythms. This piece was about life and culture dissolved in brutal, sardonic parody.

The freer Allegro scherzo that followed brought up memories as if someone was flipping through a family album or sorting cultural postcards. The Larghetto of the third movement was nearly unbearable to hear as the piano suggestively fiddles with brief snatches of hymnody while the cello or violin attempted to adapt to the forceful suggestions of the piano, yet they could not fully accept the piano’s lead. This was a towering and frightening irony—heartbreaking beyond words.

The tragic finale is a transcription of klezmer music. This remains perhaps the saddest and most memorable movement amid the many tragic passages in Shostakovitch. Despite its moving melancholy, it remains one of the most recorded chamber works of Shostakovitch. Dmitri Rabinovich has cited the origin of this peculiar and haunting music in those Nazi death camps where Jews were made to dance on their own graves before being shot. Jill Levy’s violin soared with both terrified pathos and macabre dance. I have heard Levi, the concertmaster of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Saratoga Chamber Players, play before, yet never to the searing emotional depth that she plumbed on this performance of Shostakovitch. While this Trio is considered to be a formal sonata, it has the characteristics of a ragged, broken sonata.

A Schadenfreud shiver of contemporary resonance filled the theater after the news of racist riots in Virginia. But perhaps we are overly capable of being pessimistic? Since one cannot have a tragic ending in American theater, we traveled back to old Vienna for a nostalgic passage in the brief life of Franz Schubert in January of the year he died (in November 1828).

Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano no. 1, in B-flat, Op. 99 permits the piano to speak on equal terms to its peers. Rarely has a melodic line been so dramatically effective in chamber music. This Romantic effusion in sonata form projects an intimacy, a brio, and lilting piano rhythm that can be intoxicating and infectious. Sauer, Bailen, and Levy were simply marvelous.

Despite the fact that this concert hall staple was faultlessly performed with energetic conviction and witty interchange, it remained a hard sell after the emotional turmoil of the Shostakovich Trio. I smiled at the conclusion, yet I’m still digesting the traumatic Shostakovitch Trio. There is no law yet that we can't consume tragedy.