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Trios Through the Ages at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

Classical Preview

Nov. 30, 2009
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One hundred and fifty years separate the works on the upcoming concert by the Prometheus Trio; hence concertgoers will be exposed to very different styles of chamber music composition in these four works for violin, cello and piano.

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-91) completed his first trio when he was 20 years old, then didn’t return to the form for a decade, but when he did he created far more sophisticated works than his initial effort. Among the latter group, arguably the best is the Trio in E Major, K. 542. It’s really much like a rudimentary piano concerto—the normally leading piano part thoroughly enfolded into the strings—striking a harmonious balance between rigor of design and emotional appeal.

The Trio in G Minor, Op. 110 of 1851 was the third and last such work composed by Robert Schumann (1810-56). Though his first trio is generally regarded as his best, the intimate chamber music genre always allowed Schumann to indulge his preference for intricate inner-workings and adventurous harmonies. Not surprisingly, the piano is first among equals, with the strings either following or standing in opposition as a united front. With hindsight, some point to the G Minor Trio as eliciting signs of Schumann’s mental decline; nevertheless, whatever it may lack in cohesiveness it makes up for in its impassioned pleas.

“During the summer (of 1888), Jean composed the last of his big trios, the Piano Trio in C Major, JS 208 (‘Lovisa’),” writes Andrew Barnett of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Though Sibelius’ works are very much an acquired taste, owing to their often severe nature, Barnett correctly observes that the C Major Trio is on many chamber music programs due to “its sparkling thematic invention and its manageable proportions.”

The Prometheus Trio wraps up their concert with a somewhat early work of Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000): the Trio No. 1, Op. 3 (1935). Hovhaness’ works are numerous; indeed he was one of the most prolific 20th-century composers, with more than 60 symphonies and numerous choral works, ballets, operas and all manner of chamber music to his name. His style changed over time as he discovered new methods and inspiration. As music critic Richard Buell once observed: “Although (Hovhaness) has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer, his output assimilates the music of many cultures;” and Hovhaness’ American nationality is perhaps best reflected in the way his music “turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic.”

The Prometheus Trio performs these trios Dec. 7-8 at Helen Bader Hall of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.


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