Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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Newburyport Arts Journal: Epomeo: Now, that’s Italian

Reblog from Newburyport Arts JournalBy J C LockwoodOur Italian vocabulary word of the day is “aliscafo,” as in “Oggi David Yang e a cavallo di un aliscafo.” And, you may well ask, just what is David Yang, the artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and a fellow comfortable enough with Italiano to order, properly, insalata, fusilli con formaggio e piselli and prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala, doing in a hovercraft? Answer: Barely touching the surface of the Mediterranean in a mad dash to the island of Ischia, home of the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival where he has been a resident coach for years and where Ensemble Epomeo will be settling in for its second year as the festival’s ensemble-in-residence. That’s what he’s doing. And he’s getting a just a little sick to his stomach (solo un po ‘malato al suo stomaco) from the choppy seas as he blasts across the Sea of Napoli, taking questions about Epomeo’s May 21 show at the historic Henry C. Learned House, a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. We see the sea sickness as a kind of penance for totally blowing off a certain arts writer a couple of days earlier. No, no, no. E solo uno scherzo. Just joking.No, Yang’s a tough guy to get ahold of under the best of circumstances. In addition to playing with Epomeo, he’s a member of Auricolae, a Philadelphia-based storytelling troupe, as well as a performer with Poor Richard’s String Quintet. He’s also director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and coach at Swarthmore and, well, you get the idea. And this time of year, with Epomeo doing its usual globetrotting spring schedule, with tours on the East Coast, including a live radio broadcast, as well as shows in England and Wales, before retuning to Ischia, its home-base — and, four days after they put the lid on the intense Italian music festival, parachuting into Newburyport for “Music and the Manse,” as the program is being called.The ensemble will also have a new look, with Caroline Chin, leader of the String Orchestra of New York City and artistic director of Musica Reginae, replacing Byron Wallis on violin. Cellist Kenneth Woods, another guy with a resume — Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet, principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and author of the entertaining and informative View from the Podium blog — returns on cello.They’ll will be taking a comparatively lighter program around the block: Instead of piling on, emotionally, with Krasa’s “Tanz,” which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; or Hovhaness’ mournful, ethereal Trio, they’ll be playing Sitkovetsky’s transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio, Beethoven’s String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by Newbury composer John Tufts.The Variations, of course, were written for keyboard by Bach and forever seared into the collective musical imagination by the admittedly idiosyncratic performances by Glenn Gould, much to the dismay of purists. Yang confesses to sacrilege, saying the piano version is, well “a little, um, boring” … and is immediately rewarded with the crash of a huge wave against the aliscafo, raising a collective moan from passengers.) “I think what is so interesting about this piece is its hybrid nature. It is a period work but played on modern instruments Also, since we can sustain with string instruments vs. a harpsichord (no sustaining) or a piano you can get a very different effect so that harmony, instead of having to be implied can really be just, well, played,” Yang says. Because of time restraints, the trio will be doing only two-thirds of the variations.The Beethoven is “the core of the repertory for us,” says Yang. “What is neat about this is the slow movement which is written in an Italian feeling style (Yes, of course, affettuoso). By that I mean it is less contrapunctual, with parts playing off one another and more… like an opera, with arias and accompaniment. But since it is Beethoven it is incredibly beautiful but also complex, although I hope you don’t hear the complexity as much as just feel it deep down in the animal part of your brain.”The final piece will be a world premiere by Kile Smith, who is a bit of a classical star in Philly. He has his own radio show and runs the legendary Fleisher Collection of Music. He’s also been resident composer for the Jupiter Symphony in New York. Yang asked him to do something based on a local hymnbook that Newburyport Chamber Music Festival founder Jane Niebling found. He used a melody from Tufts who was from 17th-century Newbury. The composition has three sections — the hymn, then an agitated quick and rhythmic middle section and then back to the hymn. “The piece, I am sure, will be very popular with the audience,” Yang says. “It is lovely, the kind of stuff people will ask for again.”Road warriorsFrom Newburyport, Epomeo will pack up and head north to Portland before calling it a wrap — a hectic time that has the favor of a rock tour. “Well, it has felt a little like that recently,” Yang says. “But I stay in one place usually for a few days. I like traveling but am torn, as I really miss my little daughters. When I am home I spend as much time with them as I can. I also really like my home. Philadelphia has been good to me, and I live on a leafy little city street where all the neighbors know each other and have dinner together and stuff like that. It is a treat to be home. (And now we are rolling side to side – oooh nooooo! I really have to stop now.)”JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.

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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).