Aspen String Trio at Asheville’s Unitarian Universalist Church
September 29, 2018
Concert Review by Don Howland
Hans Krása: Passacaglia and Fugue for String Trio
Gideon Klein: Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello
Hans Krása: Dance Tanec
“Chamber music” is a cool term, in part because “chamber” is a cool word. Say it slow… Chaaammmmmmmber. It feels good.
It’s a literal term – music written for a group of people who could fit in a living room, because in the days before phonographs, people wanting to hear music at home had to play it themselves. All sorts of configurations are included under the category heading – brass quintets, piano sextets, trios for reed instruments… By far the most popular configuration is of course the string quartet. There are hundreds – thousands? – for professional quartets (touring, recording) to choose among. According to Wikipedia (which is as close as I’m getting to Haydn…), Haydn alone wrote 68. Mozart wrote 23 pieces for string quartet; Schubert 21; Beethoven 16. Modern era composers kept it a vital form: Shostakovich’s 15 and Bartok’s 6 have taken their place as revered masterpieces in the world of art music.
The string trio, on the other hand: not so much. Without taking the time to count, it looks like there’s a repertoire of roughly 100-150 pieces for professional trios to choose from, which is probably why there are few full-time string trios. Beethoven wrote 6, and a lot of the best-known composers didn’t do any. String trios can take different configurations, but most are scored for violin, viola and cello. That is the Aspen Trio’s configuration, and, as evidenced at their performance at the Unitarian Church in North Asheville on Saturday, September 28, it creates a soundworld that is very different from a quartet, despite the loss of just one violin. It brings the viola and cello into a triangulated equilibrium. It’s kind of weird that it’s not more prevalent…
On their webpage, the Aspen Trio lists works by 24 composers in their repertoire. They often play thematic concerts, like a program of Czech composers or another based on fugues. I was supercharged to see they had chosen their “degenerate” composers program – which is to say trios by Jewish composers deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis – for their Asheville show, though only half of it. The Aspen’s website lists trios by Hans Gál and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (both of whom survived the Nazi plague) as part of the “degenerate” program, but a piece by Mozart was substituted for those works in the second half of the Asheville concert.
The works that remained from the “degenerate” program, nevertheless, were ones I never expected I’d have a chance to hear live: two works by Hans Krasa and one by Gideon Klein, Czech composers who were interred at the Theresienstadt “show camp” before being murdered (Krása in a gas chamber at Auschwitz, Klein in a work camp). Much as I tear up when I hear John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” so am I overcome by profound sadness when I listen to the music of Klein and Krása and other brilliant composers like Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff, and have to confront each time the vast pointlessness of their untimely deaths and, by extension, of the very mortal coil itself.
The Aspen Trio has been together for two decades and are superfine players who, I can say, brought a depth of understanding to the works that made for a very rewarding night out. The pieces require at least an attempt at understanding because they were, all three, written and premiered in a concentration camp and yet sound not so different from the Czech folk-infused chamber music associated with Janáček or Martinů – often intense, occasionally acerbic, sometimes melancholy, but in general jaunty and upbeat. Were Krása and Klein writing to lift the spirits of their fellow captives? Did they possess some grain of optimism that they might survive? Cellist Mike Mermagen, who introduced the “degenerate” segment to the audience, has been to Terezin (the Czech name for the town) and seen music of the composers performed there. I have single recordings of each of the three compositions and so not a lot to draw from in terms of comparison, but it’s hard to imagine the pieces played better.
You can watch them play the first movement of the Gideon Klein piece here on YouTube. It sounded exactly like that.
The mid-20th-century first-half program might have been a slightly tough sell for the crowd, most of whom (I’d guess after looking around) were waiting for the Mozart, but the applause for each was enthusiastic, so maybe it was just my imagination.
I did not stay to see the Mozart piece. It was a last-minute program substitution (apparently) for a Mendelssohn trio originally listed on the ACMS website, but I would not have stayed for that either because it just has no appeal to me. It is my problem, but I have to be honest. I don’t know how people are supposed to like all styles of music that has been evolving for centuries, though. It seems like asking a John Coltrane fan to like Dixieland, or a My Bloody Valentine fan to like Elvis.
The Asheville Chamber Music Series is in its 66th year. They have an impressive season ahead – the Aspen Trio show was the first installment – including bringing the Hungarian-born Takács Quartet along with pianist Garrick Ohlsson for a program at Diana Wortham in March. Personally, I am looking forward to a show in January, when the young French piano trio Trio Karénine will be performing Weinberg’s Piano Trio, Op. 24 and Ravel’s Piano Trio in A, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. More information can be found at their website:
I hope the Aspen Trio gets to record the “degenerate” program. Their website, including links to a live album on iTunes, is here.
Finally, you can listen to an episode of OM that featured music of Krasa, Klein, Paavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff here.