April 21 Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio

Photo: Christian Steiner

Photo: Christian Steiner

After 35 years, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio remains in top form 

The celebrated piano trio closes out the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music’s 62nd season with impeccable ensemble

By David Abrams

If you’ve been having trouble finding Ponce de León’s legendary Fountain of Youth, perhaps you should follow the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio on its next trip to Florida.

The celebrated chamber ensemble comprising violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Sharon Robinson and pianist Joseph Kalichstein has been touring the circuit and turning out recordings ever since its White House debut at President Carter’s Inauguration in 1977.  Saturday evening’s Syracuse performance—perhaps a warm up to the ensemble’s upcoming Alice Tully Hall program May 6 at Lincoln Center with André Previn—suggests the ageless trio has lost neither freshness of approach nor spontaneity of delivery since its Jimmy Carter gig.

There was much to enjoy in the group’s stylistically appropriate and technically precise performance of Mozart’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major (K. 502), which opened the program.  While technically a chamber work, this charming Trio is more akin to a piano concerto in that the keyboard predominates over the other instruments throughout the work—an imbalance that afforded listeners an opportunity to savor Kalichstein’s formidable pianistic skills.

To play Mozart convincingly a pianist must have the delicacy of touch necessary to delineate the composer’s elegant phrases, steady fingers to balance the crystal clear passagework evenly, and the technical facility to execute turns, trills and other ornaments with suitable grace and polish.  Kalichstein has all this—along with the ability to inject spontaneity and artistry into his playing.

Kalichstein’s sensitive phrasing allowed the elegant Larghetto (slow) movement to sing, as he massaged the shapely melodies with just the right touch of rubato.  At times the sensuous give-and-take of tempo was such that I thought I was listening to an Italian bel canto aria.  He adroitly negotiated the many turns and ornaments of the final movement rondo, echoed beautifully by Laredo, producing a joyful and thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

Stanley Silverman’s Piano Trio No. 2, commissioned by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and premiered by the group last September, is a work written in dedication to a man who was among those who perished in the World Trade Center tragedy.  But far from being a solemn tribute to the deceased, Herman Sandler, this work revels in the humor of the incongruity of his eclectic tastes—such as serving dinner guests candy bars for dessert following the gourmet meals he had prepared for them.

Silverman’s tribute to Sandler is eclectic, as well—reflecting the composer’s training and hybrid career as a composer-arranger. (He studied with ultra-serialist Pierre Boulez yet orchestrates and collaborates with James Taylor, John Williams, Sting and Paul Simon.)  His Trio is a striking amalgam of several different musical styles that takes the listener on a zigzag journey from art music to pop-music and from Latin dances to contrapuntal procedures.

The intermingling of styles is especially evident as the Cuban dance Guajira bobs in and out of the somber lute song, Fear No More Heat o’ the Sun.  As Joseph Kalichstein explained in his pre-performance talk, Silverman got the idea from listening to his radio, whose tuning dial separating the adjacent classical music and salsa stations is so narrow that the two channels fade in and out on one-another.

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio took the work seriously, rendering a tightly knit performance that was persuasive throughout the many stylistic twists and turns. Beyond the first-rate playing, however, Silverman’s Trio comes off as a novelty—how else might you explain the unabashed juxtaposition of incongruous musical styles, tongue-in-cheek writing and musical quotations? (Most notably Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, the genesis of the lengthy final movement.)  And like most novelties, freshness has a tendency to fade when it goes on and on—as this piece does.  After 10 or 15 minutes, the smile on my lips began to fade.

When the piece at last drew to a close I felt that my life had somehow been enriched as a result experiencing this work.  But I have little desire to enrich it further by listening to the work a second time.

One piece I’ll never grow tired of is Beethoven’s mammoth Piano Trio in B-flat Major, more commonly known as the Archduke Trio.

The last of Beethoven’s cycle of piano trios, the Archduke is among the composer’s most melodically inclined works, and the generally relaxed tempos are a stark departure from his middle-period chamber works.  The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio gave this piece all the breathing room it needed to blossom into a fulfilling listening experience.

The performers’ good ensemble and evenness of timbre was evident from the opening exposition of the Allegro moderato movement.  The good blend of sound was particularly apparent in Laredo’s sweet tone, which provided a complementary—rather than soloistic—collaboration with the other players.  The lengthy pizzicato section between Laredo and Robinson was nicely balanced and well synchronized.

The piano part in this work is not easy and Kalichstein dropped more than just a few notes throughout the four movements, especially during the busy sections of the second movement Scherzo.  But after all, Beethoven himself struggled at the first public performance of the work in 1814.  According to composer Louis Spohr, “In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted.” (Not surprisingly, a subsequent performance of the work a few weeks later marked Beethoven’s last public appearance as a pianist).

But whatever Kalichstein missed under the fingers he captured in style and manner of interpretation, particularly in the intoxicating variations of the chorale-like slow (Andante cantabile) movement that Beethoven is believed to have written for his “Immortal Beloved.”  The inspiring playing here, and sensitive delivery, proved to be the artistic highlight of the evening.

Prior to the start of Saturday evening’s program the winners of the 2012 SFCM Youth Chamber Music Competition, the Tanka Quintet, took center stage with the first and third movements from Schumann’s sprightly Piano Quintet in E-flat Major.

One of the great warhorses of the piano quintet repertory, the Schumann Quintet presents a formidable challenge for even the most seasoned chamber ensembles.  But the Rochester-based Tanka Quintet, an ensemble of immensely talented high school students under the able coaching of the Eastman School of Music’s George Taylor, exceeded all expectations.

Led by the strong skills of first violinist Ilya Kim, a junior at Wilson High School who had previously studied at the Moscow State (Tchaikovsky) Conservatory Ensemble, the ensemble of five able players has no weak links.  Ensemble was tight throughout the two movements (played up-to-tempo), and pulse was even throughout the metronomic-like Scherzo movement.

When this dazzling movement concluded, an incredulous SFCM audience rose to its feet in a rousing demonstration of appreciation, if not astonishment, and the promise of a new generation of performers to carry the torch of chamber music for years to come.

Details Box:
What: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio
Presented by: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: April 21, 2012
Information: call (315) 682-7720
Ticket prices: Regular $20, Senior $15, Student $10