"In a piano trio, the balance among the instruments is so much different than a string quartet. Sometimes they're blended as much as possible, but other times you want to hear the differences and so the composers played up the strings against the piano."
Breath of fresh music
The Claremont Trio is constantly striving to find "new insights and new ways of relating to the music"
Fasten your fortissimo, ladies and gentlemen. The Claremont Trio is winging its way to town. That's the feeling one gets after talking music with members of the New York-based group, which will be appearing four times in the islands during the next week, starting Thursday with a free preview concert at Mozart House.
» 7:30 p.m. Thursday: Preview recital, Mozart House, 720 Iwilei Road, Suite 324. Free. Contact Helen Chao Casano at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 943-3215 for reservations.
» 7:30 p.m. Friday: Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2411 Dole St. $30 advance, $35 at the door; students and Honolulu Symphony members, $18 and $20. Call 483-7123 or visit etickethawaii.com or any UH ticket outlet.
» 7 p.m. Monday: Kahilu Theater, Kamuela, Hawaii. $40 and $35. Call 885-6868 or visit kahilutheatre.org.
» 7 p.m. Tuesday: Kauai Community Performing Arts Center, Lihue. $30 and $10. Call 245-7464 or visit kauai-concert.org.
"At a lot of concerts, the audience is sitting back and listening, they're kind of relaxed," said cellist Julia Bruskin by telephone from New York. "We want them to be very active, to be involved in what we're doing. We're telling them a story, and we want to come with us on that journey through the music, and we want them to be traveling with us."
So far, the trip has gone well for the trio, comprising Bruskin on cello, her twin sister Emily on violin and Julia Kwong on piano. Since forming the group in 1999, the Juilliard-trained ensemble has won a coveted Young Concert Artists award in 2001, toured nationally and internationally to rave reviews, and produced two highly praised CDs. In 2003, the Claremonts became the first recipient of the then-newly created award for trios, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award, founded and named by the famous trio of the past quarter-century.
The award symbolizes what Strings magazine calls the "golden age" of piano trios. It refers to the fact that string quartets have traditionally dominated the small-ensemble concert stage, with familiar groups like the Juilliard String Quartet, the Kronos Quartet, even the Turtle Island Quartet coming easily to mind. Piano trios, on the other hand, were often made of star soloists who combined for the occasional concert or recording, as if it was an afterthought. After all, a group with a name like Ax-Ma-Uck-Kim hardly rolls off the tongue, even if it does feature Emanuel Ax on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Young Uck-Kim on piano.
In the past 20 years or so, however, a number of piano trios have risen to prominence, such as the Eroica Trio and the Ahn Trio. "It's really interesting that these groups have formed that are dedicated to this music," said Kwong, who had been vacationing on Kauai. "When you have soloists who spend a short time playing together, it's great to hear that soloist style, but when you have three people who are making music together as a group, the results can be much different."
So what is it about a piano trio that has suddenly caught the interest of so many young artists? All of the great composers wrote for such a grouping, with some such as Beethoven's "Archduke" reaching exalted status, but it seems that recently musicians have come to appreciate the teamwork vs. star dynamic of not just the performance aspect, but of the music itself.
"In a piano trio, the balance among the instruments is so much different than a string quartet," Kwong said. "Sometimes they're blended as much as possible, but other times you want to hear the differences and so the composers played up the strings against the piano. There's wonderful variety and wonderful texture to these pieces. And everybody gets a chance to shine."
The Claremont Trio has gained attention with a particularly aggressive, no-holds-barred performance style. "They play with an uncommon ferocity" wrote a New York Times critic. "Scherzos go off like champagne corks," wrote Strad magazine.
It all stems from a background steeped in an intense passion for discovery through music. Bruskin described intense practice and rehearsal sessions, aimed not so much at technique or even ensemble work, but at "finding new insights and new ways of relating to the music."
"Even though we've played a piece many times, we're breathing new life into it," Bruskin said. "I've heard recordings of us from a few years ago and we think 'Oh, we don't play it like that any more.' A great piece of music is like a great piece of literature. You can go over it again and again."
Kwong has a different take on the process. "It would be so interesting to be a fly on the wall at our rehearsals," she said with a laugh.
Their programs here will feature some classic and intriguing works for the piano trio. In Honolulu, the Claremonts will play an early Beethoven sonata, a modern work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco that Bruskin says has a "guitarike flair," and a Brahms sonata that she calls "a real gem of the repertoire." For their neighbor island concerts, they'll go further into the modern realm, with a work by modern composer Leon Kirchner, as well as the "Archduke."
"Each of these pieces represent the pinnacle in the trio repertoire," Bruskin said. "They all have sections where the individual instruments have the solo spotlight, but then there are others where the ensemble work is featured, where it uses that sonority that's so unique."