Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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Ischia- buildings, tempi and mixed opinions

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumI’m back in the UK after a memorable week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival in Italy.For me and my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo, the focal point of the week was our concert on Thursday in the Church of Mary Magdeline in Cassamicciola. It’s a stunning church, and we received a very warm welcome from the priest who has been in residence there for 42 years now.Also warm was the air. I’m used to being hot during concerts when I conduct, but I’ve never been so hot playing as I was for the first half of this concert, with the possible exception of a few dodgy outdoor pops concerts. It was certainly a fiery program, and we could have been forgiven for breaking a sweat in a Manchester church in January-Krasa- Dance for String TrioHovhanness- String TrioKodaly- Intermezzo for TrioKlein- “Variations on a Moravian Theme” for String TrioBeethoven- Trio in C minor, op 9 no. 3IntermissionMozart- Clarinet QuintetI have wonderful memories of last year’s festival, and was a bit concerned that this year’s reality couldn’t match up to that of last year. Fortunately, the scenery, weather and food was as wonderful as ever, as was the clarinet playing of my colleague Giuseppe Caranante. He has an uncanny ability to bring a sense of rapt stillness to a performance. I don’t think I’ve every played the slow movement of the Mozart so softly, but it worked, and absolutely nobody coughed! On the other hand, the chamring padre talked through most of the Beethoven trio and the Kodaly.Throughout the week, I’ve been struck again and again but how difficult it is to find a consensus about how participants were perceiving their experience at the festival. Some loved playing in the orchestra, others felt it was an intrusion on their chamber music time (and some just dislike orchestra and conductors). Likewise, some loved the acoustics of the church on Thursday while others complained bitterly about the reverberation. Many people loved the Beethoven, which I think we in the band all felt went the best for us out of the first half, but one participant HATED it! She seemed to particularly loathe our performance of the slow movement of the trio, the miraculous Adagio con espressione. Granted, I don’t think we sounded like any of the old LPs I expect she grew up with- we played the opening non-vibrato, like a sacred procession, and tried to not let the phrases die in the many silences. It may have been radical, but it was the one movement of the night that got spontaneous (and noisy) applause from the entire audience, and I think we all felt it was our most polished work of the evening. I guess some people just need to vent. That kind of reaction isn’t likely to change an interpretation born of many years of study and research, but it is likely to make you think a bit less of someone’s manners….Her comments did bring into focus the question of interpretation and venue. She felt the churchy reverb meant we should have played much more slowly (although I’m doubtful she would have approved even in a carpeted living room).  Tempi are like neighborhoods- you can move around and adjust some, but you’ve got to stay relatively close to home. If you can’t make the piece understandable in a given space, it’s probably better to pick other repertoire (in this case, none of us knew the venue and we didn’t get a sound check).In the end, none of us in the trio were looking at this concert as a summation of our work together, just a step along a road that may lead in any number of directions. Rehearsals have been pretty good this week, so I think we have a clearer than ever sense of what we would like to accomplish together. The kind of work we’ve been doing on the Beethoven, including lots of experimentation with vibrato (or the lack thereof) and bow strokes as well as tempi has us excited to put together all the Beethoven Trios, but we’re also discovering the kind of time commitment we’re going to need to make to do the kind of work we all want to do. String trio playing is damn hard work.On the other hand, we got out the Schnittke Trio last night, which we played at last year’s festival and which is replacing the Mozart on our US tour next month. Even though we were bone tired and hadn’t worked on the piece in almost a year other than a read-through, it went well and felt in every way better than it did last year when we’d been playing it day in and day out. Hopefully this means the work we did on these last few programs has been paying off and that as we take on new pieces, we’ll be able to start working on things with a stronger foundation.

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To be (a group) or not to be (a group)…. (turns out, we’re a group)

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumAs many of readers will remember, I’m working this week at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival. I’m in residence here with my colleagues from my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo.(Mount Epomeo from the Covo dei Borboni, home of Ischia Chamber Music Festival)Of course, we’re called Ensemble Epomeo because the group came together here on the slopes of Mount Epomeo, the stunning volcano at the heart of Ischia, during last year’s festival. Our original mission was just to play one piece- the Schnittke String Trio. What an unbelievable piece to start with! As last year’s festival drew to a close, David, our violist mentioned that, given how well the rehearsals for the Schnittke had gone, we might actually have the makings of a trio and suggested we try to organize a few more concerts.All three of us have played in a lot of groups over the years, so we all were more than aware of what the odds are of a group of three players, no matter how good and no matter how simpatico, being or becoming a “real” string trio. The odds of failure are pretty high. Still, if you’re lucky enough to play with good colleagues to fail is to still be pretty good, so we all agreed to give it a shot.For me, the reason I was hesitant and the reason I decided to give it a shot is one and the same- the fact that we’re dealing with string trio, which I think of as by far the most challenging genre in chamber music. It’s more exposed than a quartet, the parts are more difficult (composers mostly think in four voices, so in trio, somebody is almost always playing 2 parts at once), and the repertoire is slanted towards the most difficult corners of classical music- big Mozart, early Beethoven and Schubert. Having just done Schnittke, there is no guarantee Beethoven will also click.On the other hand, I’ve played in wonderful quartets and piano trios where we had enough time and opportunity to have a good run, find a sound and cover some repertoire. I’ve been pining for another quartet for over 10 years now since Masala finished up, and had ruefully assumed that ship had sailed, and had never really thought about string trio, but now that we’re at it, I’m excited to explore the genre.  There are some advantages to this genre over string quartet and piano trio. It’s amazing how much calmer rehearsals feel with 3 than with 4 musicians, and how much easier it is to play when all 3 instruments are string instruments, as opposed to 2 strings and a 9 foot cannon called a Steinway.We’ve been doing some concerts here and there throughout the year, but this week has been our second big immersion since last year, and we’ve got a busy month or so of concerts in the UK and USA coming up. There are two things in particular I am enjoying- first, the repertoire. We’re playing the astounding trio of Gideon Klein, the last work he finished before he was shipped to Auschwitz, and the Krasa Dance for Trio, also composed at Teresenstadt just before his deportation. More and more, I hesitate to mention the circumstances surrounding the composition of these pieces because I don’t think they need any special sympathy or consideration as pure music. These are major, major masterpieces. I’m sure that had Klein lived he would have been one of the most important figures in 20th c. music, on a par with Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.I’m also enjoying the different ground rules that come with being in a group. Often at festivals, the rehearsal dynamics are alarmingly similar to the dynamics of an orchestra rehearsal. Expect good preparation, insist on accountability, but on the other hand, work in broad contours, don’t micromanage or nitpick, and try not to pick at scabs. In a “real” group you all agree that we’re not just focusing on preparing a given work, but on creating a shared concept of sound and interpretation- investing the next concert while preparing this one.What this really means is that we do a lot, a lot, a lot of tuning work. I’m like a pig in shit doing all this intonation work. As a conductor, one has to remember you can only do so much tuning before revolt breaks out. Even then, the institutional dynamics of orchestra rehearsal mean that tuning work often feels (in spite of the best of intentions from the conductor) corrective and sometimes adversarial and punitive. The focus ends up being on the result. Also, with all but the best orchestras, there are always bound to be one or two unsolvable problems in a wind section…In chamber music rehearsals, the focus is on the process, and in particular on giving everyone a chance to understand the harmonic function of what they are playing. That means you’re not just getting things to sound “not out of tune,” but on getting to understand, at a very microscopic level, how each composer works with notes, intervals and chords. I can’t think of a better reason to call three musicians a group (other than the groupies).

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Yang on Epomeo

Hi Everyone-I’m frantically packing for Ischia (and trying to get my cello chops back after a busy few months of stick waving and not  much practice), and internet access in Ischia is unpredictable. New blog posts may be scarce for a while, we’ll see. Meanwhile, my colleague in Ensemble Epomeo, David Yang, has some wise and funny words about the program we’re touring with this spring. These were written for the paper in one of the cities we’re playing in in June. KW

Ensemble EpomeoByron Wallace, violinDavid Yang, violaKenneth Woods, violoncelloHans Krasa – Tanz (Dance)Alan Hovhaness – TrioGideon Klein – “Variations on a Moravian Theme” from his String TrioZoltan Kodaly – IntermezzoAlfred Schnittke – Moderato from his String TrioLudwig van Beethoven – Rondo from String Trio, Opus 9, No. 3I’m writing this while on the airplane en route to Roma via Frankfurt. There is a large German man to my left slumbering peacefully. I have to say there sure is a difference between a plane full of Germans from a plane full of Italians. There is always a bit of a festive atmosphere when Italians are headed home from vacation. But this flight is all business. Speaking of which, I guess I should write a little about the program my group, Trio Epomeo, is performing in June in the USA. Actually, the first performance will be in Ischia, the small volcanic island in the Bay ofNaples in Southern Italy where Mount Epomeo sleeps in the blue seas off Naples, and where the trio was formed. Then we fly off to England where we are performing in Bath (having already tested out part of the program in Hereford). In June we’ll play in New York City in a concert and on Columbia University‘s radio station before heading to Philadelphia for two concerts and then up to Newburyport and Exeter, MA. Actually, the travel seems quite relevant because this program is very much a journey from country to country. Specifically, most of the the program has deep roots in the folk music of the various composers’ cultures which, more than usual, gives these pieces their ethnic flavor.The program is short – about an hour and a half – and we go right through without pause. It is based on old-time programs from the turn of the last century where someone like Kreisler or Elman would do selected movements instead of huge pieces. I find this a nice change for the audience, a bit like a taster’s menu. We sometimes call it a “Tapas Concert.” We’ll be starting with Hans Krasa’s “Dance” which is a driving work that conjures up images of some demon train hurtling towards oblivion. It takes on added meaning when you learn that Krasa, a Czech Jew, died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis shortly after completing it. I’m not sure I can break down exactly what the sound of bitterness and sarcasm is but, for sure, it is in this piece from the first notes.The next work heads to Armenia for a work by Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness actually lived inAmerica but this looks to his roots using ethnic scales and techniques to make these standard Western instruments create sounds utterly unlike anything one would normally hear in a classical setting. The piece is strange, lonely and oddly sparse. The romantic image it conjures up in my mind is of a shepherd on some barren mountain with his charges, out for weeks at a time without seeing another human.After that we move into the central movement from Gideon Klein’s great string trio “Based on a Moravian Theme.” I actually have a recording of the theme which is sung in, well, I don’t know – Czech? or is there a language called Moravian? – and IDa’ll play it  before we perform. As otherworldly as the Hovhaness was, this piece goes through a huge range of tangible emotions in just 10 minutes of variations. It starts impassioned but swings to playful, sardonic, uncertain and fearful, not necessarily in that order. Klein was a great piano virtuoso and rising musical star in Weimar Germany. Alas, he, like Krasa, did not survive the camps.Continuing with the folk music angle, we jump into a terrific early little trio by the great Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly (who, happily, lived out a full life, much of it spent collecting folk tunes with his best friend, Bela Bartok.) I’m not sure how to describe it except listening to it you can practically taste the  bits of paprika and potatoes stuck in the thick white beard of the man sitting across the room slurping at his goulash.After that we go right to a hard, ice-cold bottle of vodka. Alfred Schnittke was the “other” great Russian composer of the 20th Century after Shostakovich. He had a fascination with medieval music and his works reflect that at the same time having the angularity of the mid-20th Century combined with that passion that is so distinctly Russian. Actually, you know, it’s strange how Russian music is so romantic in the way a warm fireplace is comforting with a blizzard raging outside. This is very different from, for example, the hot-blooded passion of Italian opera or the earnestness of so much early 20th Century American music (think Appalachian Spring). Of course, you have to be careful about making silly national generalizations but at the same time, there is something that makes us different from each other. And it is the joy in sharing those differences that can lead to some very interesting things, indeed.After the Schnittke sneaks in, yells for a while, and then skulks out, we finish with a quick and airy movement by the Maestro himself. Beethoven wrote his C Minor Trio when just a lad in his 20s (it is Opus 9) but this is a fully formed mature work. We’ll be playing the last movement, a Rondo, that whizzes and whirls and then disappears like a puff of smoke. What better way to end a concert? Of course, if everyone keeps applauding we might just have to keep on playing. But we’ll see about that.David Yang5 May, 2009Rome, Italy