Monday, January 31, 2011

The Newstead Trio in Concert- 1/28/11

       Friday night, I heard the Newstead Trio, a locally-based piano trio that has performed worldwide. It's easy to sense the ensemble's musical chemistry; they've been playing together since 1993. This was the first concert of a new series presented by the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, an entity which has had a tumultuous past year, but seems to be mounting a resurgence recently.

      Violinist Michael Jamanis and cellist Sarah Male sat at the edge of the "stage" (the altar at Highland Presbyterian Church), evoking an intimate feeling for the performance. Behind them, of course, was pianist  Xun Pan, seated at the church's gorgeous Steinway grand piano. The church was aesthetically and acoustically an excellent performance space, with its wooden altar floor and looming silver organ pipes on the background.

The Newstead Trio during a past performance.

      The program began with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque No. 1 (in g minor), a single-movement composition which references no specific programmatic event. Composed by Rachmaninoff at age 19, the work is in sonata form. As a very early work by Rachmaninoff, the piano writing is strongest, and was infused with a sense of vigor by Xun Pan. The group's flawless collaboration was complimented by a sense of sublime emotion emitted by the musicians as they performed the mournful 'elegy' of a young composer.

      Before beginning their second piece, Xipi: Themes from Peking Opera, cellist Sara Male seemed to be having difficulty positioning her music on her stand, joking "I've done this before, really." I mention this because the piece was, in fact, written for the Newstead Trio, and they debuted it in 1996. The work, by Chinese composer Ping Jin, pays tribute to the unique Chinese music theatre style of Peking Opera. The piece is based on texture and ambiance, painting a picture through biting, dissonant double stops in both violin and 'cello, which resolve to octaves and are joined by the piano. Jin exploits a huge variety of the available sounds for all instruments. The strings play pizzicato, glissandi, spiccato bowings, and enharmonics; the pianist is required to pluck strings inside the open piano lid, creating a nearly celestial  feel. The piece combines eastern and western music, sounding a bit strange at times, but the Newstead Trio completely owned every aspect of the work with its intense performance.

      The final piece of the first half of the program returned to tonality with Trio-Cornwall, by American composer Julia Smith.  The piece depicts a trip following the Hudson River in New York as it approaches New York City.The first movement, Allegro giusto, evoked the feeling of a pleasant ride through the country, though not with it's bumpy moments, depicted by loud or dissonant interjections. Theme with variations, the second movement, cycled through a seemingly random array of variations; the theme was a relaxed, strolling rhythm which was then transformed into a playful pizzicato variation, a legato minor variation, and a laid-back rumba section. The movement concisely recapped each variation as it came to a close. The final movement, Allegro quasi rondo, opened with a fast, loud theme that was revisited frequently as per the rondo form; the piece closed with a distinct quote from the folk song Old Joe Clark, which cut through the strings in the upper register of the piano. Again, the trio's enthusiastic musicianship and energetic performance brought the piece to life.

      After intermission, the final piece of the concert was Anton Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 in  D minor, Op. 32, which was reminiscent of Mendelssohn's D minor trio, in spite of the composer's Russian origins. From the beginning of the first movement, the piece flowed like the Mendelssohn, with a very active piano part underneath flowing string melodies. It felt serious, though not sad or somber. The passing of themes from Male to Jamanis in the mid-range of the cello to the low range of violin was seamless; the two players matched each others' timbres brilliantly. The Scherzo-allergro molto followed; it contrasted both the previous movement with its lighter feel, and itself, presenting several distinct themes repeated in various sets. The movement featured many bouncy bowings, executed extremely accurately. Movement three, Elegia-Adagio, returned to the previous sincerity of the work, featuring the muted, distant sound of  the strings, followed by a graceful scherzo-esque section, and finally returning to the poignant elegiac quality of the beginning. The Finale-Allegro non troppo alternated between a boisterous theme with rapid bowings and fierce unisons and a contrasting lyric theme before coming to its climactic ending.

      I can't say enough about the performance quality of the artists; Jamanis plays with just enough edge to his sound keep you wanting more, where as Male balances him with a subdued intensity to her playing. Pianist Xun Pan equals his counterparts in terms of intensity and musicianship, bringing a similar degree of precision and execution to his performance. It's easy to see why the group has played in Carnegie Hall and other venues from London to China. I consider it a privilege to have them in the Lancaster area as the PA Academy of Music's ensemble-in-residence and highly recommend seizing the opportunity to see the Newstead Trio perform.

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