Music Review: With bases loaded and a foul ball or two, Blakemore Trio finally hits a home run

blakemore1The mark of a great pitcher is not the ability to blow opponents away when everything is working perfectly. The majors are overstuffed with guys who can do just that. The thing that truly separates the best from the rest is the capability to dominate a game on a day when their stuff just isn’t quite there. I kept coming back to that idea on Friday night as I sat in Blair School of Music’s Ingram Hall watching the Blakemore Trio’s concert. It was by no means perfect, but violinist Carolyn Huebl, cellist Felix Wang and pianist Amy Dorfman played with such conviction and musicality that I left the hall thrilled by the performance.

Blakemore began the evening with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio in E Major, Hob. XV: 28. Although he is best known as the father of the string quartet, “Papa Haydn” also did a great deal to legitimize and codify the piano trio. With that being said, his early trios —from which the E major is culled — are performed considerably less often than their later counterparts. This is the case for good reason, as it turns out. In its worst moments, the piece could only be described as perfunctory. Fortunately Huebl, Wang and Dorfman played it with the requisite refinement and clarity, so it was rarely boring, but the work never reached a level above agreeable. Especially when contrasted with the music to follow, the Haydn E Major trio felt dated and out of place.

blakemore2My favorite piece of the evening was unquestionably Tigran Mansurian’s Five Bagatelles for Piano Trio. Wang spoke briefly and gave the audience a much appreciated introduction to the little known Armenian composer and his music before launching into the work. Wang mentioned in his talk that Mansurian had experience as a film composer. It showed early and often, especially in impressionistic fragments during the glassy first movement. What followed was a compelling mélange of lyric, tonal moments paired with wonderfully angular, chromatic passages. The resulting work was something the likes of which I’ve never quite heard before. It incorporated two disparate harmonic materials with rare skill and aplomb, creating an aesthetic all its own.

Huebl, Wang and Dorfman also began to play with their fullest, most expressive sound. Gone was the propriety they carried so well in the Haydn. In its place was an emotionally raw, elastic ensemble sound that I enjoyed exponentially more. Wang stood out especially during the Mansurian. He plays in the cello’s highest register with incredible depth of tone and such skill. I would put him against any cellist in the world with absolute confidence that he would come out on top. It was nothing short of thrilling to hear him in the sections of the piece that showcased the instrument’s range.

Huebl played with fire, but did have some small tuning issues, especially in the blistering chromatic passages of the fourth and fifth movements. Dorfman, for her part, was often called upon to initiate drastic emotional or stylistic shifts. She did so with a grace and confidence that rendered the sudden changes inevitable rather than jarring. Five Bagatelles was something of a revelation. I hope the Blakemore Trio continues to perform and champion the work. I would be delighted for it to see more widespread notoriety.

blakemore4In many ways, Bedryich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G Minor perfectly mirrored the concert’s first half. Huebl, Wang and Dorfman continued to play impressively, although Dorfman had some slight note slip-ups, especially during the final movement. Unfortunately, the work spent the first movement and a half verging on pastiche, unable to do justice to the three performers’ artistry. Smetana seemed to experiment with Classical, Romantic, and folk-like styles, but never sounded truly comfortable with any. The piece began to hit its stride towards the end of the second movement and culminated in a third movement that flirted with perfection. The theme was infectious, the fast passages were rollicking, the slow moments heartbreakingly beautiful, and the piece as a whole sounded like it had finally found its voice.

Huebl also made her formidable presence truly felt for the first time in the evening. The G Minor Trio began with a gut- wrenching, incredibly deep violin solo from which Huebl mined every bit of pathos she could muster. From that point forward, there was no doubt that it was her moment to take the lead as she played with a fervor and intensity that was no longer undercut by pitch inaccuracies.

blakemore5Wang and Dorfman took the spotlight at brief, appropriate times throughout the final work, but, for the most part, stepped back and allowed their colleague to command the stage. Upon reaching the work’s false ending and thrilling climax, the Blakemore Trio had the spellbound audience leaping to its feet in applause. There are few things more exciting than watching three incredible performers play with such confidence in and deference to one another. Some of the most compelling moments of the concert came when the three supreme musicians seemed to move as parts of a single organism. Friday’s concert was not the most perfect performance the Blakemore Trio will ever give but, ironically, that’s what impressed me all the more. Huebl, Wang and Dorfman pushed past small programming and technical issues to give a performance that will stick with me much longer than if they had put forth a flawless evening of music.

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About Steven Sloan

Steven Sloan is a senior Music Composition and Theory major at Vanderbilt University. Hailing from Arlington, Va., Sloan is an avid sports fan, ultimate frisbee player and music enthusiast: He is just as likely to be seen at the Mercy Lounge as he is at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. After graduating, he hopes to pursue a Masters degree in Composition.