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The Manhattan Trio: Trio Times Three

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Sep 22nd, 2019

From left: Eugenia Zukerman, Milana Strezeva, Dmitry Kouzov, Wayne Lee

The Manhattan Trio, three Juilliard graduates, performed a lively program at Saint James Place in Great Barrington Friday evening for the next leg of the Clarion Concert series. For the opener the Trio was joined by eminent flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Franz Doppler (1821-1883) was a flutist, composer, and conductor. Franz and his younger brother Karl were the most noted mid-nineteenth century flutists in Europe. The composer of five operas and fifteen ballets, Franz specialized in flute compositions, especially duets. The quartet played an Andante and Rondo by Doppler which offered an example of Doppler’s cheerful and playful spirit wherein Zukerman led The Manhattan Trio in an elegant romp that was more Classical than Romantic.

Dmity Kouzov’s resonant cello opened Antonín Dvořák’s Op, 90 Dumky (1891), often listed as Piano Trio in E minor or Dumky Trio (although Dvořák never called it by the latter titles). Violinist Wayne Lee, who has a baritone “radio voice,” as my companion would have it, explained the Ukrainian term dumky as “fleeting thoughts.” That term was associated with Polish-Ukrainian folk-epics wherein the excitement was mediated by mournful, melancholy laments. Dvořák most likely learned the dumky form from Leoš Janáček in the mid eighteen seventies. While the folk format is public epic, Dvořák turned it into what he does best—ruminative recollections of a personal nature, and in that sense, Dvořák was the musical Marcel Proust where memory percolated in musical motifs, quite often of childhood delights.

Although there are six movements, the first three movements are played in a run as if they constituted one movement, a quick meditation upon problems in the present. Dvořák appears to attempt something new: a light digressive style with popular rhythm that has a reflective undertone for the discriminating ear while evoking novel sound combinations from the three instruments as they blend in unison, thus providing a more probing undertow nuance of how memory influences perceptions of the present—the performers must capture a balanced unity to achieve the desired effect, which in this case, I am delighted to report that an aural brew of superior quality was achieved amid the marvelous acoustics of Saint James Place, which has become a treasured musical venue.

Since there is no home key to the work, the work has the freedom of an epic wandering format that permits investigation into specific memories linked in some way to the present, as the composer becomes a musical poet of what in literature is called interior monologue. The format permits contrasting meditations mediating and fluctuating between happy, melancholic, and poetic episodes of life that have private reflection about public events. This approach is, of course, found in Brahms and Janáček, yet Dvořák pushed it further and deeper with an ear for conjuring new sounds. On piano Milana Strezeva was especially moving in the fourth movement Andante while Lee’s violin soared with delectable delight in the following Allegro. That sonorous element of memory pressing into the present was conjured by Kouzov’s cello as all three master musicians played with inspired unity in the concluding Vivace which affirmed joy in the present moment.

Felix Mendelssohn only wrote two piano trios (although he wrote a lost piano trio at the age of eleven); to see either one on a program is to find a temptation that a music lover cannot resist, no matter how many times one has heard it performed. Lee’s affirmation of Mendelssohn’s “memorable melodies” aptly summarized just one element of its pleasure. The first movement of Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) offers the style of Classicism morphing into Romanticism. Robert Schumann declared it “the trio masterpiece of this present time” while he hailed Mendelssohn as the new Mozart. Mendelssohn himself was ever his modest self, declaring that it was just something that he really enjoyed, and that performers would too because “they can show off with it.” Yes, enjoyment, indeed. The Romantic lyricism of the second movement, which has affinities with Mendelssohn’s “Songs without words” piano sequence, permitted Strezeva to shine, yet not boast on piano, as Kouzov’s cello interwove with her accomplished wrist action on keyboard. In the third movement Scherzo, Lee’s violin captured that Romantic immediacy akin to improvisation that brings music into the therapeutic regions of delight. In the thrilling Finale, as the major key returns once more in triumphant mode, audible ecstasy floated palpably in the air.

After two bows, they played a short encore: the first movement waltz from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 1., which jauntily transforms a Yiddish folk tune into jazzy amusement with memorable melody. Shostakovich first heard jazz in 1926 Leningrad from Sam Wooding and the Chocolate Kiddies, and he was impressed by it, yet he did not write his first jazz piece (this one) until 1934 when he agreed to participate in a jazz commission to raise the level of Soviet Jazz (which enjoyed a popular run in the early 1930s) to a more professional level. An understatement: the audience was happy with this nightcap.

The next Clarion Concert at Saint James Place will take place October 12 and feature wizard accordionist Hanzhi Wong in a program of J.S Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Paul Rameau, Alfred Schnittke, Edvard Grieg, and Astor Piazzolla at 5 pm.