A recent (and ongoing) celebration of the piano at Strathmore’s Music in the Mansion put the boys of Baltimore’s own Monument Trio on lavish display. The rich wood of the Shapiro music room cradled the tones admirably, allowing the higher notes to sparkle.
I’ve heard these boys play all the pieces on the evening’s ambitious program at various An Die Musik performances since 2005, where they are the trio-in-residence. They know how to charm even as they induct audiences into composers unknown – like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) – first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Their first piece, Ernest Bloch’s Three Nocturnes for Violin, Cello and Piano, released us from the grips of D.C. metro hustle (where I got off at the Grovesner/Strathmore stop with other concertgoers). We’re doused in fantasy. The Andante opens with Michael Sheppard bringing the Steinway from low to glittering tones against long draws from violinist, Igor Yuzefovich and cellist, Dariusz Skoraczewski (both BSO symphony players). In the Andante Quieto, the cello and piano build their own harmonic bridge before Igor breaks in with bright, lush ornament – like the first flush of green on a spring mead, and all end on unison. Dariusz launches us into the Tempetoso with a scratching stomp, which Igor catches up, as the piano glances and glints. Violin and cello taunt one another in this delightful opening romp.
Now onto serious matters: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2,opus 67 in E Minor. This wartime work balances with delicacy the single ray of sun glancing down on a long line of tanks, the deadly grindings of war machines devouring indiscriminately…rising to glorify the denounced man still resisting – even if he be a wandering, shodless soul.
Monument took the Andante achingly slow — to great effect. (I have a recording of Dmitri playing this himself, and I bet he’d say the boys did him proud). Transitions, like whip-turns, were spot on. Cello starts us off alone, high and slow, creeping round just above the bridge…a foreboding that Igor comes in to soften. Rumbles rise up from the piano to meet them. Then there’s a relentless bounce of bows as Michael intones a halfway hopeful melody, crushed out by the pizzicato on cello. Never have I seen them so fierce of face – a tight rigor that paid off.
The second movement flies into warping strokes on strings that bend the sound beyond the breaking point – as if we’re moving too fast to stop a note. Then the violin makes a break for sweet freedom, which the cello follows. At movement’s end, they draw audience gasps and one whisper of “terrific”… but they are not finished.
The Largo intones seven singular and awesome chords in a row – each delivered by Michael whose sensitivity carves out a cavernous space. On the seventh, Igor takes up his bow. On the eighth, he edges in and plays alone. The cello echoes like a crier from a distant hill. The final movement opens on the cat-feet of pizzicato and cello thumb strums, building an image of a man being trapped by the nails of his own coffin.
Does he escape? There’s a moment where the cello turns lush, halting to a canter, before the piano picks up the pace. The man, we think, is flogged like a horse, as Dariusz wails on the cello. This is the Jewish “Dance of Death” – Dmitri’s honoring of the Treblinka prisoners made to dance on their own graves. A waterfall of trills brings respite from the piano, washing us clean, before we must do it all again… left with the pounding of our own beating hearts resonating on the Monument mens’ strings.
Zwilich’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, made a perfect companion to Piano Trio #2. In this case, the turning clusters of notes sounding on all three instruments was like a drill boring into the center of the soul, with colorful curls spewing out in all directions. Its strategic musical pauses and halts seem to ask “how we’re coming along?” – don’t want to drill too deep. At one point, Michael spews three diverging tonal lines from two hands. Here the pizzicato knocks like a lurching comedian come to ape the Shostakovich. At the high end of the piano, Michael phrases an impertinent and persistent existential question.
We end with a little Café Music from Paul Shoenfield. This work marks the closest Dariusz comes to smiling, and with good reason; it’s pure delight…like it’s time to push back the chairs and get a little sweaty. Each instrument takes a turn, with a little bow, and then offers a jazzy unison. Sometimes things turn Chick Webb-y, with rambling piano and cello moves most orchestras can’t countenance. Igor delivers a “bees-knees” Charleston with his violin before we turn wistful in the third movement. Very honey dearest and Hollywood this – making the music room into the MGM lot of Love where the stars come out and the cello plays actor to the violin’s grande actress.
Not content to shortchange our $25 or our clamorous applause, the Monument Trio trotted out a superfast Argentine wonder of a Piazzolla tango to send us on our way.
[Author's Note: Next Monument Trio concert at An Die Musik: April 19, 7:30pm.]
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