Friday, May 22, 2009

Musical destination: Globe-trotting Trio Epomeo plays Newburyport Chamber Music Festival opener

It’s never easy getting face time with David Yang. Artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival since its inception seven years ago, Yang is an in-demand performer, the leader of the storytelling and music troupe Auricolae, director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and member of Poor Richard’s String Quartet — a busy guy. But this is the start of an especially busy season for Yang. He’s on a plane with a laptop, dashing off a response to questions about Trio Epomeo, which will perform June 6 in Newburyport. He’s en route to Rome via Frankfurt, then off to the beautiful isolation of Ischia, home to the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival and intensive workshop where he has been a resident coach and performer for years. It’s also the place where he met first violinist Byron Wallis, concertmaster of the Orchestre de Chambre Français Albéric Magnard in Paris, and cellist Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet — making it the birthplace of Trio Epomeo. The name comes from the non-active volcano that dominates the landscape of the small, sun-drenched island in the Bay of Naples.

The idea, at first, was for the three musicians to get together to work on just one piece, Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio — a fascinating composition, Yang says, because it combines the composer’s fascination with the medieval and the angularity of the modern to create “a passion that is so distinctly Russian … and romantic in the way a warm fireplace is comforting with a blizzard raging outside.” As the 2008 festival drew to a close, Yang sensed that, given how the rehearsals had gone, they might actually have the makings of a “real” trio and suggested that they stick it out a little longer and see what happened. The others were receptive, but cautious. “All three of us have played in a lot of groups over the years, so we all were more than aware of what the odds are of a group of three players, no matter how good and no matter how simpatico, being or becoming a ‘real’ string trio,” says Woods. “The odds of failure are pretty high. Still, if you’re lucky enough to play with good colleagues, to fail is to still be pretty good, so we all agreed to give it a shot.”

At this year’s Ischia festival, the trio performed a full program that Yang, who has a penchant for food metaphors when describing music, calls “a taster’s menu.” It’s a relatively short program (about 90 minutes without intermission) and is based on programs from the turn of the last century, where groups would play selected movements instead of full-scale pieces. In addition to the Schnittke, they performed works by Alan Hovhaness, Gideon Klein, Zoltáan Kodály, Hans Krasa and Beethoven. When the curtain closed in Ischia on May 17, the trio packed for Bath, England, having tested a portion of the program in Hereford earlier this year, and then prepared for a short tour of the United States, where it will play dates in New York and Philadelphia, before heading north for performances in Newburyport and Exeter, N.H. The Newburyport performance, a fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, takes place June 6, at the historic Carriage House, once an outbuilding of the Lord Timothy Dexter Home that Julia Farwell Clay and Walter Clay have transformed into a listening room and, on occasion, performance space. A reception featuring hors d’oeuvres and wine will follow the performance, and members of the audience will have the opportunity to speak with the musicians.

On the road
The program, says Yang, is very much a musical slog from country to country — one that has deep roots in the folk music and traditions of the various composers’ cultures which, more than usual, gives these pieces their ethnic flavor.

The performance will open with Hans Krasa’s “Dance,” which Yang describes as a “driving work that conjures up images of some demon train hurtling toward oblivion,” he says. “It takes on added meaning when you learn that Krasa, a Czech Jew, died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis. I’m not sure I can break down exactly what the sound of bitterness and sarcasm is but, for sure, it is in this piece from the first notes.”

In the next piece, the American-born Hovhaness looks to his Armenian heritage for his “Trio,” using ethnic scales and techniques to make standard Western instruments create sounds “utterly unlike anything one would normally hear in a classical setting,” says Yang. “The piece is strange, lonely and oddly sparse. The romantic image it conjures up in my mind is of a shepherd on some barren mountain with his charges, out for weeks at a time without seeing another human.”

The trio will then return to the former Czechoslovakia — and the central movement from Gideon Klein’s trio “Based on a Moravian Theme,” which, Yang says, “goes through a huge range of tangible emotions in just 10 minutes of variations,” from impassioned to playful, sardonic, uncertain and fearful. He, like Krasa, did not survive the camps. The performance then moves on to Hungary with “Intermezzo,” a terrific little Kodály trio based on Hungarian folk music.

After the Schnittke “sneaks in, yells for a while, and then skulks out,” the trio will check its musical bags with a with a quick and airy movement by Beethoven — the last movement, a Rondo, from his C Minor Trio, which, Yang says, “whizzes and whirls and then disappears like a puff of smoke. What better way to end a concert?”
But, perhaps the performance won’t end there after all. “Of course, “ Yang says, “if everyone keeps applauding we might just have to keep on playing. But we’ll see about that.”

Founded last year in the Mount Epomeo during the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, Trio Epomeo will perform in a pre-season fundraiser for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival June 6, at The Carriage House. The program will include music by Alan Hovhaness, Gideon Klein, Zoltán Kodály, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Krasa and Beethoven. Tickets are $50. A cocktail reception follows the performance. Space is limited. For reservations or more information, log onto

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