Nashville’s Blakemore Trio has never been afraid to perform new works of classical music. In fact, in the decade of its existence, it has been a staple of its repertoire. But this eagerness for the experimental and the untried is tempered by a mastery of the canon, from Baroque to Romantic. In their concert at the Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall on Friday night, they showcased the best of both worlds. Their program ranged across both time and space, displaying influences as far afield as Africa and China, but hewing faithfully to the classical tradition.
After a brief discussion of the pieces, the concert opened with Judith Weir’s Piano Trio Two. The piece, set in three movements, makes use of a number of different folk melodies, from American to African. The first movement features the piano (Amy Dorfman) at its most prominent. Beginning with a descending, lightly played melodic motive, the piece provides a contrast between the rhythmic keyboard playing and the long extensions of the violin (Carolyn Huebl) and cello (Felix Wang.) Later in the movement, the motive gradually develops out of fragments, accentuated by heavily chromatic counterpoint in the strings.
By the end of the first movement, the melodic fragments have cohered into a multifaceted, virtuosic run on the piano that ties all of the elements together. The second and third movements, in comparison, feature the violin and the cello much more. Bent notes and extremely tight dissonance give the movements a nearly “subtonal” feel, as if traditional tonality was being stretched and dissolved. The folk influences are especially apparent in the last movement, with rapid melodies passing back and forth between the instruments. The piece ends with a bang: quite literally, as Amy Dorfman slams the piano cover over the keys.
The next piece was Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio, originally composed in 1990 for the Peabody Trio. Sheng, an Asian-American composer, designed this piece to explore a similar cross-cultural tradition as Bela Bartok’s body of work. Each movement incorporates different idioms from Chinese folk music.
The first movement uses a technique known as “heterophony”, a kind of juxtaposition of melodies designed to create both space and coherence. Piano passages often seemed to lack a definable rhythm, which created a feeling of constantly pulsating space.
The second movement uses extended bowing, microtones, and bent notes; a close approximation of the sound would be an Indian raga, though this is inexact. The third movement, entitled “Savage Dance,” is played at an extremely fast speed, demanding extremes of all the players. It ends with a thunderous cacophony, created by rapid piano arpeggios and muted plucking of the violin and cello strings. The fourth movement, by contrast, is elegant in its simplicity. Delicate, short piano melodies are set alongside long, mournful descents in the strings. Sheng intended the piece to create a feeling of nostalgia, and the trio succeeded with grace. Their sense of balance, orchestral ensemble and restraint was palpable, especially for such a complex piece.
The final piece performed was Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor. While more famous for his Piano Trio in D minor, the trio has openly confessed to preferring the second trio. This piece is also significant because the trio played it at their first concert, over a decade ago. Whereas Sheng’s piece displayed the trio’s capabilities as individuals, the Mendelssohn was more interesting for showing them as a unit.
The first movement follows a slightly expanded sonata form, with the development of the first theme given the most space. The second theme is a slow movement, with a pastoral melody featured in the strings. The third and fourth movements are both energetic, with the fourth movement’s constant triple meter especially so. Once again, the piano provided much of the underlying architecture of the piece. However, since this work had a more defined overall structure, the players as a whole had the chance to build on one another’s technical work. Occasionally the piano and violin’s forte playing would slightly obscure the contrapuntal passages in the cello. Overall, however, this distracted little from the technically excellent and musically engaging performance.
This concert marked the release of the Blakemore Trio’s first album. It displayed not only their mastery of the instruments, but also their long-established, inculcated ensemble. More than that, however, it displayed an emotion for and in the music that is difficult to capture in words. Reaching across both time and space, they brought both orchestral scope and tender intimacy to all of the pieces. It was a universal experience that showed the best of the new and the profoundly ancient wellsprings of music.