Musicam scribo cogito ergo sum! – with a vengeance! – from the remarkable Ghost Trio

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
The Ghost Trio –
Monique Lapins (violin), Ken Ichinose (cello), Gabriela Glapska (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio Op 1, No.1 in E flat major (1793)
KELLY-MARIE MURPHY – Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly (1997)
RODION SHCHEDRIN – Three Funny Pieces (3 heitere Stucke) (1981/1997)

Adam Concert Room, NZ School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, July 13th, 2021

This was a concert that packed a great deal into a short time, an out-and-out “moments-per-minute” affair which encouraged and repaid the listener’s active involvement, but also “came to get you” if you had any thoughts of hanging back as if you were some kind of passive observer! Each of the three composers with the help of some extraordinarily dynamic and impactful, infinitely varied playing from the musicians of the Ghost Trio had things to say that seemed to variously brood, seethe, bubble and burst forth all about the available spaces, so that there was nothing for it but to allow oneself to be taken up and possessed accordingly!

The three works chosen by the Trio to perform each shared something of the “no holds barred” character of the music-making, if markedly contrasted in other ways – ‘cellist Ken Ichinose briefly but succinctly introduced the Beethoven work to us as the latter’s Opus One, remarking that it was obviously chosen by the composer to make the most distinctive and memorable effect on the musical world of that time. In fact Beethoven with these three Op.1 works placed the piano trio on a higher “plane” far removed from the domestic music-making aspect the form had previously occupied, adding a “scherzo” that both expanded the form’s parameters and intensified the dynamism of the music.

Straightaway, Beethoven employed simple means with the greatest possible effect,  a strong opening chord leading to various assertive treatments of a rising arpeggio from all the instruments underpinned by virtuoso runs from the piano. All the while the players emphasised the robust nature of the dialogue, very much an “as equals” kind of discourse, the second subject’s engaging contrasts dynamics and phrasings deliciously enjoyed by all. In the development the Trio enacted the “rising arpeggio meets rising scale – will it work?” scenario with characteristic relish, taking us to the recapitulation, where the music beautifully restated and unravelled, Beethoven having a lot of fun with his “concluding” gestures (Haydn’s influence, here?), telling us “this is it – but not yet!” repeatedly, the playing beautifully po-faced throughout!

Gabriella Glapska’s beautifully-played piano solo at the Adagio cantabile’s beginning made me long to hear her play one of the composer’s sonatas – Monique Lapins’ violin solo and cellist Ken Ichinose’s reply carried the mood forward fetchingly, then continued into ghostly minor-key realms of wonderment, the music “rescued” by a kind of “fanfare of being” from all the instruments. Beethoven allowed us further enjoyment of Glapska’s solo playing and of Lapins’ heartfelt delivery of the violin’s emotive phrases – so much light-and-shade, here! – and with Ichinose’s more circumspect ‘cello tones, putting me in mind of a Florestan/Eusebius kind of contrast between the two (yes, it’s the wrong composer, I know!). And what elfin magic there was in the tenderly-sounded concluding piano/pizzicato notes!

One wonders what this music’s first listeners made of the following Scherzo, with its “Minuet-gone-wrong” opening measures, and the roisterous “all together, now!” passage that followed. The players gave the music all the rustic vigour it needed, particularly digging into the “drone” passages which, here, almost made me laugh out loud! – and then, in complete contrast , the Trio seemed to draw back a curtain on a different scene, a dancing piano set against sostenuto string lines, like a butterfly gently hovering over a sleeping child. Tremendous vigour marked the scherzo’s return – but the players wound down these energies at the dance’s end with disarming ease and charm.

The playfulness of the Presto finale’s “ready – steady – go!” beginning, sounded by the piano’s mischievous “tenth” jumps, wound itself into almost frenetic activity from all of the players, with Glapska in particular hugely enjoying the virtuoso piano writing in general, introducing at one point (and revisiting) an uncanny pre-echo of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody! Both Lapins and Ichinose joined in with the helter-skelter of the writing to stunning effect, the music generating tremendously fiery interchanges before breaking off, becalming, and then reintroducing the “starter’s gun” for another round of fun and games! The music also paid direct homage to Haydn near the end with the piano unexpectedly dancing away in a different key, before all the instruments broke into a cheekily raucous “fooled-ya!” kind of rejoiner and set the trajectories to rights! In all, a tremendously enjoyable and engaging performance of some ground-breaking music!

The name Kelly-Marie Murphy was new to me before I heard this performance of her 1997 piece for piano trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly. She’s a Canadian composer currently based in Ottawa, one whose works have achieved international status, winning prizes in competitions around the world with pieces such as From the Drum comes a Thundering Beat (1996), Utterances (1999), Departures and Deviations (2002) and a Harp Concerto And Then at Night I Paint the Stars (2003).She’s currently writing a Double Concerto for piano and percussion for the Ottawa-based SHHH Ensemble, and has been commissioned to write a Triple Concerto for Trio Sōra and Mikko Frank’s Radio France Philharmonic  Orchestra during 2022.

In a programme note accompanying a previous performance of Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly Murphy outlined her sources of inspiration for the work alongside the age-old Phoenix from the Ashes myth, each drawn from poetry – firstly, John Keats, from his poem “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again”….

    But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire

And then, Robert Graves, in a poem “To bring the dead to life”, one I confess I didn’t know….

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.

Murphy elaborated on her fascination with the myth of the Phoenix, and its ability to rise again after its immolation from its own ashes. Describing it as a powerful and relevant image for contemporary life as we humans perceive it, she characterised the process as a kind of way forward, and set out to render it in composition terms. She structured the piece in three movements, calling them fire, bleak devastation and rebuilding – and so emerged the Piano Trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly.

It was only after hearing the music that I came upon Murphy’s programme notes, so that the impression the work made upon me at the concert as outlined below was formed almost entirely through the spellbinding efforts of the Ghost Trio in bringing this extraordinary work into being,  apart from my hearing beforehand pianist Gabriela Glapska’s brief summary of the music’s three-movement scheme. The opening gestures, strident and gripping, transfixed one’s attention, as did the rhythmic trajectories that sprang up almost straight afterwards, at once urgent and oppressive, and with each of the players physically involved in what seemed either like desperate gestures of flight or of falling out of control. The piano’s lowest registers took us to the darkest places, the music’s visceral aspect then burgeoning physically and psychologically with a conglomeration of cacophonies that gradually rose up and suddenly exploded and crashed down onto a single held piano note resonating in the shockingly near-empty aural spaces!

Over these spaces drifted bleak, desolate piano tones, joined by the ‘cello in its high register and then the violin, with stricken and forlorn harmonics. Stratospheric piano-note-clusters floated over low, cavernous held notes, the strings sounding piteously-wrought harmonics, and then ghostly col legno tremolandos – music devoid of shape or living substance. Pitiful  impulses of repeated notes from the piano were answered by heartfelt stratospheric cries from the violin, joined by the ‘cello – the piano chimed and shimmered softly as the strings joined to play long-held mantra-like figures, with time seeming to drift almost into a state of negation or non-being…..

The violin suddenly dug into a three-note repeated figure, joined by the cello, giving the impression of something trying to reactivate or revive – the music began a kind of danse macabre pizz-and-arco-with-piano, the rhythms angular and asymmetric, the instruments wrestling with the material – effortful unisons become exchanged figurations,  everything sounding like desperate attempts at reconnectiveness. The piano danced as the strings interchanged motifs – this phoenix was evidently not one for grand perorations of rebirth, but instead a feisty bird, whose refurbishment was an intensely-wrought, obstreperous and defiant process – making for, in Monique Lapins’ words afterwards, “a wild ride!” And here, what a performance it was of that ride!

Perhaps the concert’s third work was less of a “no-holds barred” than an “unbuttoned” experience, a piece by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday this year. Whimsically titled “Three Funny Pieces” for Piano Trio,  and written in 1997, the pieces are arrangements of earlier works, a 1957 “Humoreske” and two pieces from a “Notebook for Youth” dated 1981, the first of these here called “Conversation” and the second given the title “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini”. Together, they made a riotous trio! Monique Lapins, who introduced the work, even promised us some singing, which, quixotically, did NOT happen in the Rossini piece but in the final “Humoreske”.

The first piece “Conversation” was a series of desultory exchanges between instruments which seemed determined NOT to communicate or even co-operate, each bent on doing its “own thing” – though at least each waited for the other to complete their “fragment” before beginning each new seemingly random, spur-of-the-moment impulse-gesture. The following “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini” at first mimicked an operatic “Recitative / Aria” sequence, complete with heroine (violin) and hero (‘cello), – though whether one lampooned or truly invented by Shchedrin, I’m not entirely sure – then suddenly “morphed” into what sounded vaguely like the crescendo sequence from the “La Cenerentola” Overture, at the end of which the ensemble  seemed to fall down a flight of stairs and the playing come to an inglorious stop! Lastly, the “Humoreske”, a mock-processional piece of drollery taking the original “humorous” meaning of the term to bizarre extremes, the players bursting into boisterous song for one of the sequences, and concluding the piece with a loud unison in the wrong key!

All in all, it was one of those occasions at the end of which one might have been tempted to pinch oneself and rhetorically ask in tones of wonderment and disbelief, “And we saw and heard all of that for free? – goodness! – What an absolute privilege!” Indeed!

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