This coming Tuesday at Monk Space, Mojave Trio (Sara Parkins, violin; Maggie Parkins, cello; Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano) will be performing along with SAKURA Cello Quintet (Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda, Peter Myers), for a program of music by composers Daniel Silliman, Daniel Allas, Thomas Kotcheff, Kaija Saariaho, and Nico Muhly. I had the opportunity to ask cellist Maggie Parkins some questions about the piano trio as a genre, performing the works of living composers, and the program on January 9. Here’s what she had to say:
As a standard of the classical canon, how has the piano trio evolved over time in your opinion?
Here is a quote from Kaija Saariaho: “I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.”
The chamber ensemble of the piano trio with its plentiful classic beginnings of Haydn and Mozart, its deeper development of Beethoven and Schubert, to its late 19th century peak of a romantic explosion of Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Brahms, Schumann (Robert and Clara) Dvorak and Debussy, etc., has left an indelible mark on the repertoire for three mostly compatible instruments.
The early twentieth century has left some fantastic staples such as, Ravel, Shostakovich, Faure, Frank Bridge, Henry Cowell, Korngold, and of course Ives. One can develop a long list of later 20th and early 21st century works but there seems to be a wane of multiple explorations into the genre by well-known composers as other types of chamber ensembles using different instrumental combinations have developed. Now we see sextets, duos, percussion groups, and many other variations that capture the contemporary landscape. Contemporary piano trios are generally used to “fill out” programs of concert length. One sometimes wonders why some notable 20th century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Barber didn’t write for piano trio.
The string quartet seems to have continued to capture the interest of composers more consistently than piano trio. There are multiple examples of quartets by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston, and John Adams.
There are built-in challenges for matching the timbres of the strings to the keyboard. Perhaps it is the weighty tradition itself and the focus to find fresh new combinations that satisfies the aural palette.
What are your thoughts about performing music from the classical repertoire versus works by living composers?
As a cellist focused on small ensemble chamber music, I find myself in a unique and enviable position. Conservatory trained on an instrument steeped in tradition, I am lucky to have studied with fantastic teachers handing down their classic wisdom and knowledge. I have had some amazing experiences performing at great festivals such as Tanglewood, Taos, and Banff, and in wonderful orchestras as well.
At the same time I have gravitated toward and truly enjoyed working with living composers, having shared the camaraderie and challenge of exploring new techniques with the ability to discuss performance issues with the composer to be so rewarding. My sister, who is a composer, initiated me into her world of composition through improvisation and dance collaboration and further opened up my eyes to possibilities of interpretation. But guess what? I have decided that the two concentrations nourish each other. After a stretch of doing only new music I find myself listening to Beethoven or Brahms or performing a Bach Suite and thinking, “Now that is a really good composer!” How delightful to play a piece I have grown up hearing and knowing and playing. It is comforting.
My luck is having the opportunity and ability to do both. The thrill of premiering a new work and working hard on a piece to get it just the way a composer wants it is very enjoyable to me. Who knows, it could be a piece that gets played again and again.
Can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing on the program at Monk Space?
Yes, we are really excited by these new works for our ensemble. I have been really into Saariaho’s compositions for quite some time. This is the fourth piece of hers I have worked on. I find her voice so unique and commanding. You won’t be whistling a tune into the wee hours of the evening though. Her music is about abstract color, timbre and contrast. Close your eyes and listen. She takes movement such as trills into tremolo and glissando, puts it over the fingerboard and on top of the bridge, maybe inside the piano, and then the overtones pop out. Her language creates such a wide pallet, changing simple notions of loud and soft, and occasional new sounds. She has truly explored some of the now accepted techniques of sul ponticello and sul tasto. She isn’t afraid to make the motion just stop and meditate on static sound which develops over the longer periods of time. Her music is a little more challenging for the listener and it often needs several listenings, but what a lovely door to enter.
Like Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon is also interested in color as a basis for compositional beginnings. It influences melody for her. Higdon is quite appreciated for her soaring tunes, and Pale Yellow doesn’t disappoint with its glorious romantic feeling. The music has depth too and feels authentic.
Nicho Muhly’s piece is all about rhythmic drive. Its energy is fun with bookends of material that have funky asymmetrical meters and conversational dynamic writing. The middle has a long melody popping through against the chatter. It’s a really fun piece to learn and play.