Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The trio and the Trio: Or breaking up is hard to do

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."

Epomeo cellist Kenneth Woods

Over the past nine years, the trio has released a trio of critically acclaimed albums, including "Hans Gál & Hans Krása: Complete String Trios," its 2012 Avie debut, and, in 2016, the eponymous "Ensemble Epomeo," a collection of 20th-century string trios by Eastern European composers Krzysztof Penderecki, György Kurtág and Mieczyslaw Weinberg, in addition to Schnittke. And, in a back-to-the-future moment just a couple of years later, the ensemble-of-the-moment  — Yang, Woods and Caroline Chin — would team up with Tom Hankey, Pascal, who, shortly, would hold down the third seat in Epomeo — and Matthew Sharp, the British cellist/vocalist who would perform at the 2017 Newburyport Chamber Music Festival spring concert, for a stunning performance of Arnold Schönberg’s "Verklärte Nacht," the original version for string sextet, performed live during the 2013 Deal Festival, in Kent, and released on the Somm label. It is the B-side, if you will, of Orchestra of the Swan’s performance of Brahms's Piano Serenade No.1 in D Major, conducted by Woods in a dual role as performer and director.

Epomeo also has a second face, when, Sgt. Pepper-like, the musicians transform into Auricolae, a fantastical band of minstrels presenting fairytales, folklore and fables. Auricolae will perform Yang’s "Matzoh Ball Man," Opus 5,  from Auricolae’s sole CD, "The Double Album," at the Custom House show.

Breaking up is hard to do

The split?
Sorry, no juicy gossip or backstage drama. The problem for Epomeo, aside from third chair issues, has always been distance: No matter how small the world seems, it’s still a big place when you have three musicians in various corners of it, in this case Wales, the USA and Austria. After a while, the distance became an albatross. But it was more than that. After Pacal called it quits, Yang and Woods came face-to-face with how difficult it would be to fill her shoes  — and her chair.

“Basically she was impossible to replace,” says Yang. “So much work and sacrifice goes into a regular group that it’s got to be with people you believe in and want to work with. When the ensemble is tight, you can work on the music, you can be free with it.” In rehearsals with Pascal, “you never knew what was going to come out, but it always made sense. It constantly knocked you off balance, new and in the moment, in a performance. Moments like that were — and are — truly transcendent. We felt like we could have spent a lot of time trying to replace her, trying to find the right third member. Relationships are like that. You get to the point where, in the moment, you think, maybe we should just break up while we’re still friends and can stay on good terms. Doesn’t make sense once this relationship has run its course.”

For Woods, the challenge of Epomeo was not so much distance and globe-trotting. “When we're together rehearsing and performing, it's fine and the  logistics and the schedules work themselves out,” the cellist says. “It's more that finding mental space and time to develop projects, plan concerts and move the group forward between tours is next to impossible. I think we could have found another violinist if we had more time and energy. For me, I think membership changes can help renew a group, so I wasn't too daunted by the prospect of replacing (Pascal), but, at this moment, we need to focus our energy on other things.

Epomeo, whose name is taken from the non-active volcano on Ischia, soldiered on for nearly two years after Pascal split, but, for all practical purposes, it was over when Pascal left.

In the third seat for the final concert will be University of Maryland School of Music-based violinist James Stern, whose playing shows “virtuosity and penetrating intelligence,” according to The Washington Post.  The highly recommended Stern is “the perfect guy to help us bring the project to a close,” says Woods. “He's smart as heck, funny and very musical.”

Epomeo violist David Yang

 Yang is sanguine about the split. “It feels like it’s time,” he says. “Yes, there’s a little bit of sadness,” he says, “but there aren’t any regrets.” Well, maybe one. Epomeo had an offer from Avie, its label, to record the complete Beethoven trios – five in all. The project had been in the pipeline for several years, but the musicians wanted to perform them all first, and really get to know them, know them cold, before recording. Time just ran out.

There are fond memories of the early days, of shows in Italy, of the first album of under-appreciated Gál and Krása pieces. “The Krása works are heart-rending mini masterpieces, full of the courage in the face of impending death,” says Woods. “He  was killed in Auschwitz very soon after completing them) and I'll never forget working on them. They had been recorded before, the two Gál trios were world-premieres, and they are stunning and very important works. The disc seems to have become a bit of a classic, and I'm very proud to have been part of it.” And, of course, their first performance of the Trio. “Bit of a pity we're not doing Schnittke this time around,” says Woods, now entering his fourth year as conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and his  third year as conductor of Colorado MahlerFest, a project that combines cello playing, conducting and teaching. “It's a very, very special piece — both timeless and of our time. I think that at our best, we played that work as well and as wisely as it has been played, and I'm very proud of that. But it's also a piece that you can always take further. I shall miss it.”

The final tour is also  generating warm, fuzzy feelings.

“Sometimes I still get the feeling, can you believe people are paying us to do this? It’s so much fun,” says Yang. “I feel so lucky to have this career as a violist. It’s weird to me all the time, that people pay me for something I would happily do for nothing, just because there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

Quick, about the program?
The program opens with Webern, whose music was dismissed as “cultural bolshevism” and “degenerate art” by the Nazis. Composed in 1925 but published posthumously in 1966, the piece runs less than three minutes from beginning to end – “almost long for Webern,” says Yang. “It’s a brilliant little work that’s gone in the blink an eye. Most people listen and they’ll go, ‘What the hell was that?' I get that, I understand that. I won’t even say it's ‘difficult,’ but it is hard to sit through.”

The program will also include Jean Cras's String Trio “as a sort of gift" to Customs House Maritime Museum executive director Michael Mroz, seeing how Cras was an admiral in the French navy in the 1900s. It is an impressionistic piece strongly influenced by Debussy and folk music, with "weird harmonies, dissonances and intervals that can sound, I won’t say ‘quaint,’” says Yang, “but sound a little dated in some ways.” The Beethoven, the maestro’s String Trio in C minor, Opus 9, No. 3  — is the go-to piece for Epomeo when you’re talking Ludwig von. “For me, the Beethoven is what it's all about,” says Woods, “His trios have been the core, the heart, the soul of our work as a trio, and the C minor is the one we've played the most. That said, I'm very glad we're finishing with David's narrated piece. It's a nice way of signalling, after the profundity of the Beethoven, that life goes on and that we mustn't take ourselves too seriously.”

Wrapping up the farewell concert is Yang’s “Matzoh Ball Man,” a narrated “Jewish version” of “The Gingerbread Man,” with a mix of shtick in a tableau of dark, existential corners.

Of course, it ends badly.

Or deliciously, depending on your perspective.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform its final concert at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport. On the program will be Anton Webern's Trio Satz, a string trio by Jean Cras, Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Opus 9, No. 3 and David Yang's "The Matzoh Ball Man," Opus 5. Tickets are $32 for adults, $11.50 for those under age 18.  Purchase tickets at newburyportchambermusic.org. For more information, call 978-701-4914.

1 comment:

  1. Article updated to include comments by Epomeo cellist Kenneth Woods.