From Maurice Ravel to Bill Evans:

The Piano Trio in the 20th Century

featuring the Alden Trio and the Adam Shulman Trio

public performance

This program features both the Alden Trio and the Adam Shulman Trio in a program that showcases the trio ensemble in the classical and jazz contexts.

The birth of the classical piano trio is widely attributed to Haydn, who wrote over forty works for keyboard, violin, and cello. His scoring was biased, however, showcasing mostly the technique of the pianist, while the violin played a subservient role and the cello doubling the keyboard’s bass. Mozart modified this format by elevating the violin’s role and giving the cello its own dramatic voice. Nonetheless, the piano trio’s evolution was still in its infancy, especially when compared to the string quartet. Haydn’s and Mozart’s quartets were hailed as masterpieces, so when a young Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he decided to avoid an already crowded field and instead focus on the relatively unexplored ensemble, declaring a set of three trios as his first official printed work.

Haydn’s piano trios were structured as three-movement sonatas. Beethoven expanded them to four movements, which by his time was standard practice for string quartets and symphonies. That structure remained intact until the 20th century. The first half of tonight’s program showcases portions of two of the most widely performed 20th century trios, and concludes with one by a living American composer.

We begin with the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio. Composed at the dawn of the first World War, this piece represent an apex of his personal style before the war, when he was still unemcumbered by forces he would later face. As with his earlier chamber works including his famous String Quartet (1903) and Sonatine (1905), Ravel employed his signature lush textures, extended chords, and novel harmonic progressions. In the trio’s opening movement Modéré, he manipulates the conventional design of the sonata-allegro movement. The second theme, introduced by the violin in the exposition, does not modulate to either the relative major or dominant, and remains the same when later stated by the cello. Using different chords and following the textures of the development, the intimated recapitulation deceptively restates the first theme, and only later when the theme is transposed exactly does the audience realize its arrival. This technique was favored by Ravel, who was fond of the way Mendelssohn used it in his Violin Concerto, when the orchestra restates the first theme by “interrupting” the violin’s cadenza in the work’s opening movement.

After the war, Ravel was facing a Parisian public that was increasingly eschewing past references and seeking a new simplicity. Stuck with a case of the writer’s block, he struggled to adapt to the new musical trends while still remaining true to himself as a composer. Later, his fascination with jazz would lead to his integration of the art form in his second violin sonata (1927) and Piano Concerto in G (1931).

Next, we explore the first and second movements of Dmitri Shostakovich’s second piano trio. Composed in the summer of 1944, Shostakovich dedicated the work to the memory of one of his closest friends, Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died the February before. The tribute is not wholly lachrymose, but the bereavement is palpable in the first movement’s elegiac introduction.

The striking opening of the trio begins with a six-measure idea, introduced by solo cello, muted and in harmonics. It is followed in canon by the violin and then the piano in low bass. The material develops and increases in tempo. The lean textures keep the instruments exposed, and the movement concludes in bitterness. That pain lashes out to a brash sarcasm in the second movement, a frenzied, breathless scherzo. Sollertinsky’s sister felt this movement best described her deceased sibling: “that is his temper, his polemics, his manner of speech, his habit of returning to the same thought, developing it.”

Inspired by Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Chick Corea’s 1984 solo album Children’s Songs comprised of simple songs which evoked that of children’s music, but showcased Corea’s skills as a composer and performer capable of depth and interpretive contrast. The album concludes with Addendum, an aptly-named piece written for piano trio which the composer recorded with Ida Kavafian on violin (who later serves a term in the Beaux Arts Trio) and Fred Sherry on cello (co-founder of the Tashi Quartet).

The piece begins with a light syncopated rhythm and an airy melody. Its whimsy disguises complex polyrhythm in the piece. Although written in 3/4 time, the rhythm implies 3/2. After the introduction of the first melodic phrase, the cello introduces a syncopated rhythm of its own which generally lands on the beats the first rhythm omits. This rhythmic conflict drives the piece as the instruments weave between acting as separate melodic strands and playing together as a unified whole.

We conclude the “classical” (or better described as “written”) half of this evening’s concert with the first piano trio of Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967). Raised in northern Vermont, Jalbert studied piano and composition at Oberlin Conservatory, and was a student of the George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his doctorate in composition. He employs a wide gamut of available harmonies in his compositions, and creates vivid timbres with a pulse, which are on full display in this trio.

Jalbert composed this work for the Foothills Music Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and unlike the previous works on this program, which are each four movements in their entirety, this work contains only two movements of contrasting character. The first, called Life Cycle, was inspired by the arrival of his first son: “I heard my son’s heartbeat for the first time a few months into my wife’s pregnancy and was very surprised at how rapid it was. This rapid pulse became the basis for the first movement. The four sections of the movement each reveal different characters, but are all driven by the rapid beat that opens the movement.” The mystical second movement, Agnus Dei, is modeled on the three-part structure of the Agnus Dei prayer:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

The violin opens the movement with a mourning melody that is passed to the cello. After a cadence by the ensemble, the section is repeated, much like the second line in the prayer, but at a different pitch level. The material develops, but concludes at yet another place, similar to how the third line compares to the first two. Jalbert dedicated the movement to Mother Teresa who passed away during the creation of this movement.