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Music Review: Blakemore Trio, making old music sound brand new

BlakemoreTrioThe best chamber music concerts allow you to hear the familiar classics in a new way. The Blair School of Music’s Blakemore Trio presented just such a concert on Friday night at Turner Recital Hall.

Blakemore’s program featured two staples of the repertoire – Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 “Ghost” and Brahms’ Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87. Sandwiched in between these classics was Sound and Fury, a substantial work for piano, violin and cello that the American composer Paul Osterfield wrote for the Blakemore Trio in 2004.

osterfieldMany composers would probably feel sheepish about having their trios appear between landmark works of Beethoven and Brahms – such programming seems to be begging for an unfavorable comparison. But Osterfield’s daring, dramatic and uncompromisingly difficult work helped me hear Beethoven’s and Brahms’ music with fresh ears.

His piece served as a valuable reminder that Beethoven’s and Brahms’ contemporaries deemed them to be composers not of hits, but of uncompromisingly difficult contemporary music. Context is everything in a program, and on Friday Beethoven’s and Brahms’ thrice-familiar scores seemed all the more innovative and adventurous when heard alongside Sound and Fury.

Although Sound and Fury had its thorny moments, it proved to be remarkably listenable. Arranged in three movements and lasting about 18 minutes, Sound and Fury is a real test piece for piano trio, a work that explores a wide range of techniques, sound effects and emotions.  The first movement featured the work’s most daring music. It had sort of an “Age of Anxiety” feel to it, with lots of skittish passages, sparse string harmonics and jabbing rhythms. The lyrical second movement came across as a sort of plaintive duet between violin and cello, with the piano offering soothing support and commentary. The finale was a fast, furious and fun rondo.

The members of the Blakemore Trio – pianist Amy Dorfman, violinist Carolyn Huebl and cellist Felix Wang – played this difficult music with clarity, precision and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy. They were positivity fearless in their approach to the first movement, navigating the work’s minefield of crazy rhythms with seeming ease. Huebl and Wang left no ardent emotion unexplored in the second movement, and their performance was beautifully enhanced by Dorfman’s sensitive playing. The trio played the fast finale with gusto. Osterfield, now a professor of composition at Middle Tennessee State University, was in the hall and happily acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

The concert opened with one of Blakemore’s specialties, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio. Blakemore recently recorded the piece for its debut recording, and on Friday they gave the master’s music a heroic reading. Dorfman was especially impressive in the first movement, playing fast passages with pearly perfection while bringing out all of the music’s big dynamic contrasts.

The slow second movement reportedly reminded Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny of Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth – hence the trio’s sobriquet. Appropriately enough, Blakemore’s interpretation of this music was vaporous and delicate. Their playing in the finale was powerful and precise.

Brahms has always been my favorite composer, so naturally I was in a state of heavenly bliss throughout Blakemore’s reading of the composer’s C-major Trio. They got the first movement exactly right, playing with a relaxed tempo and emotional warmth. They brought a beautiful sense of flow and line to the slow second movement. Their playing was vibrant in the scherzo and emotive in the finale.

Blakemore will soon head back to the studio to record Osterfield’s Sound and Fury. That’s good news. While they’re at it, Dorfman, Huebl and Wang should record the Brahms trios as well.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.