Z.E.N. Trio performers Esther Yoo, Narek Hakhnazaryan, and Zhang Zuo (from their SFP event page)
This season San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its Chamber Series with an ensemble debut performance, which will be followed, over the coming months, by a series of three return visits. The ensemble, which played last night at Herbst Theatre, is the Z.E.N. Trio, whose name comes from the first initials of the first names of the players: Zhang Zuo on piano, Esther Yoo on violin, and Narek Hakhnazaryan on cello. For those who follow SFP programming assiduously, Hakhnazaryan’s face may have been familiar, since he made his San Francisco debut when he performed in the SFP 2017–2018 Young Masters Series in February of 2018. By that time the trio was in its early stages, having first come together in 2015.
The program was organized around two four-movement trios from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. The first half of the program presented Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 (first) trio in B major. Brahms completed this trio at the age of twenty in 1854, and it was one of the first major landmarks to establish his reputation. Nevertheless, at the age of 56 in 1889 Brahms decided that this massively expressive trio could do with a bit of tightening-up. As Eric Bromberger’s program notes observed, this revision was “so thorough that it amounted to a virtual re-composition;” but the results are what we now almost always hear when the trio is performed. The second half of the program was devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) trio in E minor, composed in 1944, when the composer’s weariness with World War II was at its darkest. In addition, the Brahms trio was preceded by Franz Schubert’s D. 897 Notturno, speculated by some to have been originally intended for the composer’s first (D. 898) piano trio in B-flat major. (D. 897 is in E-flat major, a logical choice for the second movement of a four-movement composition in B-flat major.)
Whatever the origins of D. 897 may have been, it stands today as one of the most sublime compositions for piano trio ever written (if not the most). The thematic material is practically naive in its simplicity, but that is the simplicity of water whose surface quietude conceals the profound depth beneath that surface. Motifs and themes may repeat, but they always return with subtle variation. The Z.E.N. players were acutely aware of those subtleties, conveying each of them to the attentive listener with just the right blend of technical precision and rhetorical intensity. Over the course of a mere fifteen minutes, this ensemble made it clear that they knew how to bring their own interpretative voice to a familiar repertory standard.
That sense of the trio bringing collective insight to the familiar sustained throughout the performance of both of the four-movement trios. The Brahms selection was delivered perceptively with both sides of its origins, the gestures of impetuous youth that led to its creation in the first place and the more subtle refinements provided with the wisdom of age. Even when the textures were at their thickest, one could still apprehend the individual contributions of each performer and the ease with which playing involved an ongoing oscillating flow between foreground and background.
The Shostakovich trio, on the other hand, demanded not only technical skill but also the ability to elicit a sense of dark narrative behind the music itself. This is recognized immediately in the mournful keening sonorities of a cello solo, which then develops into a duo with the violin. The piano was, of course, Shostakovich’s own instrument; and Opus 67 reveals a vast landscape of demanding keyboard skills, all of which were delivered by Zuo with just the right blend of precision and rhetorical passion.
It goes without saying that it would have been cruel to send the audience on its way under such a cloud of darkness. Light returned with a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” This was originally the last in his Opus 34 collection of fourteen songs, sung, as the title implies, without text. It has been subjected to no end of arrangements, including versions for both six clarinets and six cellos. It may well have been that Z.E.N. prepared its own arrangement, revealing a transparent polyphony in which all three instruments contributed to the melodic line in one way or another. If so, this is definitely an ensemble to follow, not only for its understanding of a broad swath of repertoire but also for the inventiveness of its approaches to that repertoire.