Saturday, June 23, 2018

Curium Presents an Impressive O1C Debut

Rachel Kim, Agnieszka Peszko, and Natalie Raney of Curium (photograph by Valentina Sadiul)

The Curium piano trio was founded a little over a year ago by violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Natalie Raney, and pianist Rachel Kim. The group is named after the 96th element in the periodic table, which, in turn, was named after the husband-and-wife couple of pioneering researchers into the nature of radioactivity, whose efforts earned them the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie has become a symbol of the innovations of female minds, past and present; and, in this respect, one of the motivations behind forming Curium was to develop a repertoire around female composers, both past and present. Programming has thus been organized around a balance between such innovative offerings and the more familiar piano trio repertoire.

The group launched its 2017–2018 concert season this past November, and the first female composer to be presented in performance was Clara Schumann with her Opus 17 piano trio in G minor. Schumann composed this trio in 1846, not long after she and her husband Robert first met violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom she would have a long recital career as his accompanying pianist. Given that Robert had some experience with the cello, there is at least the possibility that the three of them would have been the first to play Clara’s Opus 17, even if they did not do so in a public concert.

Last night in the Old First Presbyterian Church, Curium made its debut in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series; and they chose to begin the evening with two of Opus 17’s four movements, the opening Allegro moderato and the third (Andante) movement. This was a solid account of the score, and the abbreviation provided an opportunity to contrast the rhetorics of G minor and G major. By all rights this is a worthy element (connection with Curium only slightly intended) of the nineteenth-century chamber music repertoire; and there is no doubt that it holds its own with a confident hand. Before last night my only contact with the piece was through a recording made by the Beaux Arts Trio, and the piece definitely deserves more attention in recital settings. Perhaps Curium will lead the way to bringing this piece to the attention of a larger number of serious listeners.

Opus 17 was complemented with a selection by one of the best known living female composers, Kaija Saariaho. Saariaho has written a fair amount of chamber music for strings; but, on the basis of the catalog of works on her Web site, “Light and Matter” is her only piano trio. It was composed in 2014 at a time when she was living in an apartment in New York, and the piece was inspired by her view of the changing lights and colors in Morningside Park.

Saariaho has had a long interest in working with sonorities as the foundational elements of composition. That interest probably emerged during her tenure at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, which translates as “institute for research and coordination in acoustics and music”); and, while much of her work there involved computers and electronics, she has taken many imaginative approaches to realizing her ideas through “standard” instruments. This month began with a demonstration of how she applied those realizations to a full orchestra when Susanna Mälkki conducted the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in a performance of Saariaho’s “Laterna Magica.”

The resources of a piano trio are clearly more limited than those of an orchestra. Nevertheless, Saariaho has a firm command of “extended techniques” for both the piano and members of the string family. One could thus approach listening to “Light and Matter” with the same mindset required for “Laterna Magica.” The nature of the sonorities themselves were clearly different; but Saariaho’s techniques for structuring her work around such sonorities, rather than more conventional constructs, such as harmonic progression and polyphonic counterpoint, all seem to grow from a common source of roots. Curium had no trouble preparing a performance based on those roots, and they seemed as much at home when dealing with Saariaho’s expressiveness as they had been in their approach to Schumann.

However, expressiveness was at its most intense during the second half of the program. This consisted entirely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor. This trio was composed in 1944 around the same time as the composer’s Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor. This was a period when the experiences of World War II had taken a significant toll on Shostakovich’s psyche. He had experienced more than enough, and his despairing weariness with it all emerges in both of these compositions.

I remember when Scott Foglesong gave the pre-concert talk when SFS played Opus 65. He concluded by saying that he could not, in good conscience, conclude with the phrase “enjoy the music!” He said that the only parting remark he could give was “The Force be with you!” Opus 67 is very much in that same vein. The darkness begins with the mournful keening of the harmonic bowing of the cello strings, and the prevailing mood never gets any lighter. By the final movement one is immersed in persistent motifs of Yiddishkeit suggesting that Shostakovich knew more about the Holocaust than one was supposed to know. One might not be able to applaud Curium for “providing a good time;” but they definitely should be recognized for their blend of basic technical skill and rhetorical intensity, both of which are so critical to Shostakovich’s message registering with the attentive listener.

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