|Ensemble Epomeo will perform its last show — ever — Nov. 4 in Newburyport.|
By J.C. Lockwood
When it comes to the, sadly, soon-to-be late, great Ensemble Epomeo, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke is key — even when it’s not immediately apparent: The trio, after all, came together nearly a decade ago at the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia, a weeklong music festival on an island off the coast of Italy, in the Bay of in Naples, to explore the musical possibilities of one piece — the Russian serialist’s alternatively lulling, galloping and seriously crash-bang String Trio. Commissioned in 1985 to mark the Alban Berg centennial, the modernist masterpiece shows the influences of later work of Schnittke compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich, but the 30-minute, two-movement piece is also informed by the classical tradition, reaching back to Schubert and Mahler. The trio seemed to click musically with the Trio, sounding like they had been playing together all of their lives.
Anchored by Philadelphia-based violist David Yang, artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and Wales-based cellist Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet as well as the principal guest conductor of Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, the trio turned in a breathtaking performance of the Trio — the Moderato, any way. The ensemble ditched the Adagio to make room for Beethoven's Trio in C minor, Opus 9 — during a 2009 NCMF fundraiser and, a couple of years later, recorded it on “Ensemble Epomeo: Schnittke, Weinberg, Kurtág, Penderecki,” its critically acclaimed sophomore release on Avie Records, with violinist Diane Pascal in the third seat. More on that later.
The program for Epomeo’s final show, set for Nov. 4 at the Newburyport Custom House Maritime Museum, does not include the Schnittke, although the ensemble will continue its tradition of aggressively focusing on the modern, while zooming in and out of the centuries, musically. The program features Anton Webern’s “Trio Satz,” a string trio by Jean Cras, Beethoven's String Trio in C Minor, Opus 9, No. 3 and Yang’s “The Matzoh Ball Man,” Opus 5. But the Schnittke Trio, and especially the trio’s 2009 Port performance of the piece, still casts a long shadow and is at the heart of the ensemble — as is the city itself, which the musicians cite as its “spiritual home” for the trio, as well as a testing ground, of sorts. “It’s a nice way to finish things out,” says Yang, “in Newburyport, which has been home for us in a lot of ways — a kind of laboratory.”
In a recent interview, Yang cited the 2009 performance of the Trio as one of the highlights of Epomeo’s nine-year run. The 30-minute piece sneaks in, yells a while and skulks off. After a sudden emphatic burst, the music is swallowed up by an uncertain silence. At first, a wave of shock goes through the audience, then there’s some nervous laughter, “because it’s so shocking,” says Yang. "They didn't know what to make of it. That’s very satisfying."