Ensemble Epomeo

String Trio

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Newburyport Arts Journal: Review

By JC Lockwood (Original Here)It may not have been exactly what organizers had envisioned. Okay, it definitely wasn’t: A fundraiser that doesn’t rake in the dough wasn’t what all the meetings and all the strategy sessions were about. But it’s hard to believe anyone felt less than sigh-and-snuggle-before-rolling-over-and-lighting-up-a-smoke satisfied after the Trio Epomeo’s June 6 performance for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Except, perhaps, for the Schnittke fans, who, once they got a taste of the Moderato section of the Russian composer’s String started growling for the Adagio — a kind of musical blood lust. But it was not to be. A last-minute adjustment of the program had the trio — violinist Byron Wallis, cellist Kenneth Woods and violist David Yang, who is also NCMF artistic director— jettisoned the Adagio to make room for Beethoven’s Trio in C minor, Opus 9, in its entirety. The program had originally called for closing with just a taste of the Maestro, playing the Rondo and calling it a night.Was it a good trade-off? Opinions vary, even among Schnittke fans. The Newburyport performance, the penultimate stop of Trio Epomeo’s three-country, two-continent tour, had been conceived as musical tapas, of sorts, giving the audience a taster’s menu, a variety of works to sample, a selection of moods and colors, rather than complete works. But, even within this context, the emphasis was on the modern, and the mood tilted toward darker hues: Hans Krasa’s chilling “Tanz,” which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; Alan Hovhaness’ ethereal, otherworldly Trio, the musical manifestation of a deep, mournful sadness that seems to exist on a cellular level; Gideon Klein’s “Based on a Moravian Theme,” a concise and unforgettable emotional musical rollercoaster; and, finally, closing the first half of the performance with Schnittke’s alternately lulling and jolting crash-bang String Trio.Within this context, the Beethoven seems a little out of place historically, musically and even geographically, given that the work presented had an eastern Europe perspective — even the encore, a Kodaly Intermezzo. At the same time, it was comforting, steadying, closing with Beethoven, a lovely piece — lyrical, expressive, an incredible vehicle for exploring possibilities of the instruments. And, again, when you encounter such inspired playing —wonderfully executed and, at times, absolutely breathtaking performances by players at the top of their game, up close and personal— all this talk about the what’s what of the program becomes mere sport. So, again, within this context, the decision to go Ludwig becomes a fielder’s choice.It was a magical evening — seriously under attended, but magical. The trio, which came together last year at the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy to explore the possibilities of just one piece (the Schnittke Trio, natch) and discovered that they clicked musically, sounded like they had been playing together forever. The performance space (the Carriage House, a marvelous listening room fashioned out of an 19th-century out-building on the Lord Timothy Dexter Estate by NCMF patrons Julia Farwell Clay and Walter Clay) is a delight, as was the after-party — the social aspect, the schmooze, has been an important part of festival since its inception. There was plenty of food and wine and a chance to chat up musicians. We heard stories about Wallis’ recent tour of North Korea, of all places. Or the time when he and Wood, who worked together during a musical interlude in Arkansas, wandered into a rock and roll club. Wallis kind of hung back, but Woods, who performed in a rock band back in his Indiana University days, jammed with the band, playing guitar behind his head, a la Jimi Hendrix. But the best news we got, before the last of the wine had been poured, was that trio plans to record the Schnitkke. Stay tuned!

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Engaging the Audience

Reblog from Kenneth Woods- A view from the podiumIt is a fact of life that most organizations think of programming largely in terms of marketing. While almost all musical organizations have some desire to do interesting things, there is always a certain amount of pressure to focus on “getting an audience,” which usually equates to conservative programming.After many years as a music director, who knows that if you don’t have an audience you don’t have an orchestra, I’ve had to face the simple mathematical truth that, more often than not, Beethoven sells more tickets than Schumann, and Schumann sells more tickets than Haydn, and Haydn sells more tickets than Bartok. With most of my groups, we can predict with some accuracy what percentage our audience will tail off from 100% by having one, two or three relatively unfamiliar pieces on a concert.However, the problem with this outlook is that it only focuses on the experience and reactions of the audience up to the moment they enter the hall. Conservative programming is programming designed to get the public to come, but is it programming that gets them to come back?Of course, there is a false dichotomy, which everyone is aware of- it is very, very possible to construct a creative, interesting and unique program that the audience will enjoy. The problem is getting them in the door to experience it.Fair enough, but I think one of the fundamental weaknesses of modern classical institutions is that we have settled for a passive and passionless relationship with our audiences.Several times this year, I’ve been deeply struck that when you are able to do something that really challenges the audience, they come away from the experience more engaged and MORE PASSIONATE about the orchestra or the ensemble then they would have been for just another predictably bland concert.Along these lines, it was very encouraging to get to meet so many audience members after the Ensemble Epomeo concert at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Our program was certainly challengingKrasa- Tanec for TrioHovhanness- String Trio (1963)Klein- Variations on a Moravian Theme (from Trio 1944)Schnittke- String TrioBeethoven- Trio in C minor op 9 no 3(Encore- Kodaly- Intermezzo)We’d been warned it was a conservative crowd, but from the level of energy in the room at the recession, you’d have thought we were playing for a new music festival audience. People were engaged, fired up, talking about what the pieces meant, about what they had experienced. As often happens, we had people literally jump out of their chairs in spots of the Schnittke. After a first half that mostly dealt with dire questions of life and death, the Beethoven could also be heard as the ferocious, imposing and revelatory work it is, not as something safe and mild-mannered.The same thing happened with the SMP recently did Ives 3 and Shostakovich Chamber Symphony alongside Schumann and Mozart for our usually conservative Guildford audience, or, for that matter, when we did the Fifth Prokofiev concerto. In both instances, attendance was off a bit from our usual sell-outs, but I think more people talked to their friends about those concerts than would have if we had had just done Mozart. It’s another form of math- if 75% of your public show up for the wacky program, but 90% of them tell their friends about the experience isn’t that going to be better in the long run than if the hall is 100% full, but only 20% of the audience remembers the evening as anything other than nice, or mention it to anyone else?Of course, we’ve got to get people in the door- sometimes that means working harder, sometimes it means making conservative programs and just doing a great job. When I started at OES, the idea of the orchestra doing one new piece a season was anathema. It took some time and a few well-chose bits of more accessible 20th c faire before we could begin to consider a commission, but by the time I left, we were doing them regularly, and patrons were FUNDING them. How cool is that?I had one of those memorable 20 second conversations today after our Exeter performance on the Aliento Chamber Music series. Before the Schnittke, I had mentioned to the audience that the piece was written around the time of his first stroke, and that  the first movement does seem like a terrifying struggle for survival. After the concert a woman greeted me and said she had cried through the whole piece. Her daughter had a stroke last year, and when she began to get well enough to communicate, she told he mother in some detail about what it felt like and how terrifying it was. The woman said that throughout the piece, she kept thinking of her daughter’s stroke and couldn’t escape the parallels. “It sounded just like what she went throug.” She said it was terrifying from beginning to end, that she cried through the whole thing, and at the end, she felt somehow better, even a bit healed.Wouldn’t you rather that than an under-rehearsed hack-through of the Trout?

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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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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