The trio’s musical offerings were substantial and not the easiest things for an occasional group to pull together.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Is there a more idyllic spot to spend an afternoon listening to chamber music in New England than the rolling hills of southern New Hampshire? Surely it must rank among the most Arcadian. On Sunday, Monadnock Music, celebrating its 50th season this summer, offered just that opportunity, with a free concert of the Monadnock Music String Quartet “in Trio Form,” as it was billed, at Wilton Center Unitarian Church. The venue itself, dedicated in January 1861, is ideal for such a concert: a small, square space, offering warm, clear acoustics and a pleasing intimacy between performers and audience.
Individually, each of the Quartet-in-Trio-Form’s (MST) members — violinist Charles Dimmick, violist Shira Majoni, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer — are accomplished and familiar. Their playing together on Sunday was generally good, if not really as sweeping as it might have been, marred by some inconsistencies of balance and intonation. That said, the trio’s musical offerings were substantial and not the easiest things for an occasional group to pull together: that one can encounter them at all at a festival in rural New Hampshire speaks volumes for both Monadnock Music’s creative ambition and the high level of engagement of its audience (which was well represented on Sunday afternoon).
The afternoon’s program, in keeping with Monadnock’s welcome emphasis on American music, featured five pieces, with two by significant East Coast composers. The first of them was Donald Martino’s String Trio.
Written in 1955 but subsequently withdrawn from Martino’s catalogue, cellist Popper-Keizer told us beforehand that there was no record of a performance before this Sunday, so it was possibly a posthumous premiere. It’s a significant work in three movements, though it’s understandable why Martino put it back in his desk: the Trio is the music of a young composer who owes a strong debt to the Fourth Quartet of Bartók, though the newer piece lacks that master-composer’s focused intensity, tending to meander, especially over its last two movements.
Only the Trio’s first movement, built mostly around iterations of a four-note cell that’s treated to a host of developmental procedures — displacements, canons, augmentations, diminutions, and the like — packs a real punch, expressively and compositionally. It’s serious stuff, not without personality (though it does bear the whiff of Schoenberg and Bartók pretty strongly), but it suggests a composer with something urgent to say through this medium.
And, if that one movement comprised the whole piece, it could well be, if not a repertory staple, then at least a not-unappealing curiosity to bring out every now and again. Unfortunately, the two succeeding movements do little more than play for time. The second, which boasts an arch-like structure — the first half filled with rising gestures, the second, following a strenuous, anguished outburst, marked by falling ones — lacks immediacy, and the finale, with its pizzicato glissandi hinting at Martino’s background as a jazz clarinetist, rambles.
The MST turned in an involved performance, by turns forthright, anxious, unsettled, and, in the last movement, touched with humor. Ultimately, though, I came away unimpressed: the Trio outstays its welcome and its arguments fail to compel.
Less insubstantial but about equally grim is Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 1982 Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello. Another three-movement piece, it obsesses over the interval of a third and seems to owe at least a small debt to Shostakovich. Its fast outer movements feature plenty of dense textures; pulsing, motoric figures; and juxtapositions of violent and lyrical musical content. The desolate second movement offers fleeting moments of warmth but little by way of hope or comfort.
On the whole, it struck me as the more compelling of the American scores, but it’s not a particularly easy nut to crack. The MTO’s playing was energized and full-bore — violinist Dimmick’s short, lyrical solo in the second movement was a truly lovely moment — but, combined with the Martino, the Zwilich gave the middle of the program a particularly dour cast.
That said, the contrast of extremes often begets drama and the program’s three remaining selections were about as different from the Martino and Zwilich offerings as one could get.
Jean Françaix’s frothy Trio came at the end of the concert’s first half. Mostly sprightly and whimsical, with cute, Ibert-ish gestures regularly tossed about for good measure, it suffered here and there from some ensemble imprecision but came together beautifully in the short, time-stopping, slow third movement, a melodic essay that simply drifted by, almost weightless, like the best summer afternoons.
The most successful pieces and performances of the afternoon came at, respectively, the beginning and the end of it: Zoltán Kodály’s Intermezzo and Ernö Dohnányi’s Serenade. The former, a sweet, lilting collection of folk and folk-like melodies, was played with much swing and charm.
In the latter, music that holds its own with greatest entry in the genre (Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563), the MTO performed with gusto and personality. Violist Majoni delivered a sweet-but-not-too-saccharine account of her languid solo in the fourth movement and the whole group really dug in to the deliciously energetic Scherzo.
Stylistically conservative, Dohnányi’s score boasted perhaps the best-realized (and most forward-looking) structure of any piece on Sunday’s program: the final rondo interpolates the theme of the opening movement (a march), and the Serenade ends with the same music with which it began. In this movement, the trio really projected a sense of inevitability onto the music and the score’s closing bars offered a measure of genial triumph — if this wasn’t the hardest of victories won, it was at least a hearty ramble that finished strongly.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.