Brilliance and feeling from the Mazzoli Trio at Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:


Julie Park (viola), Sally Kim (‘cello), Shauno Isomura (violin)

SCHUBERT –  Trio in B-flat Major D.471
A. RITCHIE – Spring String Trio (2013)
FRANCAIX – String Trio (1933)
MISSY MAZZOLI – Lies You Can Believe In (2006)
HAYDN – Trio in G Major Op.53/1
DOHNANYI – Serenade Op.10

Lower Hutt Little Theatre,

Monday, 26th March 2018

Formed in 2015 by students from the University of Auckland and the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music, the Mazzoli Trio, so the story goes, took its name from that of a composer of a piece of music which was one of the first the trio of musicians had prepared. They had fallen in love with the piece, one called “Lies You Can Believe In”, written by up-and-coming New York composer Missy Mazzoli, and thereupon contacted her to ask if she would allow the Trio to use her name, as well as perform her music. And so a new and vital ensemble was born, with its first major assignment in public an invitation to perform at a concert at the 2nd International Pacific Alliance of Music Schools’ Summit in Beijing, China, an occasion which brought them much acclaim regarding both their playing and the repertoire chosen.

Monday evening’s concert at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre was one of a number of appearances by the Trio throughout the North Island organised by Chamber Music New Zealand. The programme seemed a judiciously chosen selection of works both familiar and intriguing, with the Trio’s “signature work”, by Missy Mazzoli, promising to be one of the evening’s particular fascinations. Interestingly, both halves of the concert had their order as per programme changed, which left me to wonder whether there had been a simple misunderstanding between the musicians and the printers, or, alternatively represented a significant rethink by the musicians of a previously existing order. Whatever the case, it made not the slightest difference to our anticipated enjoyment and receptivity of the concert.

So, instead of beginning the evening’s music with Anthony Ritchie’s “Spring String Trio”, we heard instead Schubert’s B-flat Major Trio D.471, a work in a single movement, which was played with such freshness and simplicity of wide-eyed wonderment that our hearts were instantly captured. What struck me instantly about the playing was that, despite the Trio’s obvious youth the music-making was imbued with such character. Part of this came from the players’ awareness of the interactiveness of the different instruments, each ready to assert and then give way, beautifully dovetailing the various musical arguments, and delighting the ear in doing so. We enjoyed the “shape” of the piece, its vivid contourings through the opening’s lyricism and contrasting dynamism, and the music’s intensification throughout the development, before the eventual “unravelling” of these tensions, instigated by the opening’s reprise via its warmth and familiarity. I thought the playing most importantly caught that unique Schubertian mix of charm, sunniness and tension which characterises his music.

I must admit to being intrigued at Anthony Ritchie’s work having been, according to the programme, the result of a commission concerning none other than (Sir) Robert Jones, somebody about whom I have very few positive feelings – however, I suppose composers have to earn a living! Banishing all thoughts of the association from my mind I settled down to enjoy the music, and was straightaway drawn into a dark-browed world of almost Shostakovich-like angst, a kind of “charged calmness”, out of which grew structured, contrapuntal exchanges almost baroque-like in their ordering, with everything creating a real sense of expectation, both in a formal and emotional sense.

This feeling bore fruit with the players’ energetic launching of vigorous, almost hoe-down-like passages, which in places either “took to the road” or drew from the irresistible momentum of a steam train (the music’s motoric quality not surprising in a composer with avowed admiration for Shostakovich’s music), a sequence which, after taking us places most exhilaratingly suddenly ceased its physicalities and became thoughtful and even melancholic. By this time, I was completely at the mercy of the music-making, drawn in by these musicians’ concentration and focus, the instrumental tones here given increasing weight and strength as to achieve a splendid kind of apotheosis, with the composer seemingly bringing the work’s essential elements triumphantly together at the conclusion, before cheekily throwing the last bars to the four winds! – great stuff!

Even cheekier entertainment was provided by French composer Jean Francaix (1912-1997), whose music was described most aptly in the programme as having “wit, lightness and a conversational interplay”. Writing his first pieces at the age of six, he once remarked that he was “constantly composing” and over the course of his long life wrote over two hundred pieces in a variety of styles and genres. His String Trio of 1933 began with hide-and-seek scamperings expressed in largely will-o’the-wisp tones, the instruments occasionally showing their faces and striking attitudes in mock-seriousness, before grinning impudently and skipping out of reach once more, the movement finishing on a po-faced pizzicato note.

The Scherzo presented itself as a wild, lurching waltz, replete with impish mischief and surprising orchestral-like effects, such as sharp-edged pizzicati that made one jump! The musicians entered into the music’s spirit with great relish, bringing out both the contrasting episodes of melancholy hand-in-glove with their humorous undersides – at one stage the sounds resembled instruments duelling with pizzicato notes – “Take that! – and that! – and THAT!”. The Andante which followed made a wistful, melancholic impression, with the violinist’s instrument singing disconsolately, while being rocked and comforted by the viola and ‘cello.  The melody was taken over by the cello and counterpointed by the viola, giving rise to sounds and feelings of a great loveliness – for whatever reason I was put in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music, by way of imagining the music written with the viola as the leading voice.

The Rondo finale, marked “Vivo”, wasted no time in making its presence felt, with great dynamics at the outset, and the composer’s singular invention regarding the accompanying rhythms leaving us wondering what to expect and where to be taken next! A bout of upper-register exploration left the music momentarily frightened by its own angsts, before emerging, albeit a little cautiously, from its own melt-down, the viola taking the initiative and restoring control and morale, leading the music into and through a mock-march of triumph, with (one senses) no prisoners being taken!

After the interval, we were told of another “running order” change to the programme, the last being made first this time round, with the piece written by the Trio’s namesake, Missy Mazzoli, divertingly called “Lies You Can Believe In”, beginning the concert’s second half. Called by its composer “An improvisatory tale”, the music draws from what the composer calls “the violence, energy and rare calm one finds in a city”. Written in 2006 for a Milwaukee-based ensemble, Present Music, the piece seems to throw everything within reach at the listener by way of introduction, the rhythms fierce, driving and syncopated, the lines both focusing and blurring the laser-like unisons, which disconcert by unexpectedly melting into warm and fruity expressions of melancholy. The Trio’s total involvement with this material swept our sensibilities up into its maelstrom of variety, with all the aforementioned characteristics the composer required of the piece’s presentation.

In tandem with the driving rhythms and spiky accents come lyrical instrumental solos – one for the ‘cello at first and then another for the viola – contributing to the music’s volatility and echoing the ambiguities of the piece’s title. There’s even a “twilight-zone” sequence of eerie, other-worldly harmonics, as the instruments move the music through a kind of wasteland, one which suddenly explodes into life with “Grosse Fugue-like” driving syncopations, the cello playing a sinuously exotic, decadently sliding theme as its companions push the repeated notes along. In characteristic fashion it all comes to an end as the rhythms become disjointed and break up, taking their leave of us with a rhythmically curt unison gesture. Whether we’d made sense of what we’d been through suddenly seemed less to matter than the experience itself, as Alan Jay Lerner put it in “My Fair Lady”, a heady sample of “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise”.

Perhaps some eighteenth-century sensibilities thought much the same of some of Josef Haydn’s more original manifestations of creativity, such as with his String Trio Op.53 No.1 (actually a transcription of the Piano Sonata Hob.XV1:40/1). At the outset the music breathes out-of-doors country pleasures, the aristocracy amusing themselves at play, though the music’s minor-key change midway the first movement readily suggests “trouble at mill”, with its range of outward emotion, the players here making the most of the contrast between whole-hearted expressiveness and near-furtive withdrawal of tones. When the graceful dance returned I thought the cellist so very expressive in her music-making gestures, bringing it all so vividly to life, as did her companions during the music’s precipitious return to the previous agitations, and the gentle gathering-up of fraught sensibilities – wonderfully soft playing from all concerned!

The second movement’s scampering presto immediately reminded me of the finale of the composer’s C-Major ‘Cello Concerto, the musicians’ soft, rapid playing a tantalising joy! Of course these would have been brilliantly effective on the keyboard as well, but the extra colour and textural contrasts afforded by the trio brought special delight, with the rhythmic syncopations deliciously underlined. In this way, the work was brought to a rousing conclusion which we in the audience thoroughly relished.

There remained of this well-stocked programme a work by Ernst von Dohnanyi, best-known to an earlier generation by his work for piano and orchestra “Variations on a Nursery Theme”, but more recently for his chamber music. Feted as a virtuoso pianist in his youth, Dohnanyi soon took up composition, influenced mostly by the work of Brahms and the German romantics, though he was to promote the music and activities of his fellow Hungarian composers, Bartok and Kodaly while teaching at the Budapest Academy. Differences with both pre- and post-War regimes in Hungary forced him into exile, firstly in Argentina, and then in the United States, where he took out citizenship and remained for the rest of his life.

His five-movement Serenade for String Trio, dating from 1902/3, was one of the first works in which Dohnanyi felt his own voice had properly sounded, rather less in thrall to late-Romantic models, and with touches of the “real” Hungarian folk-music influence that Bartok and Kodaly would soon begin to explore in earnest. Right at the beginning of the opening March, the music sounded like a Hungarian Brahms, with rather more of the former than the latter, flavoursome folk-fiddle treatment of the material from violin and ‘cello, and a drone-accompaniment from the viola. A soft pizzicato dance accompanied a beautifully folkish, Kodaly-like melody from the viola, the instrument then accompanying its companions’ heartfelt dialogues with evocative arpeggio-like figurations  resembling those of the solo viola in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”.

Mischievous fugal-like scurryings of different lines from all three instruments began the scherzo, which occasionally brought the voices together in fierce unisons. The trio section’s graceful, song-like measures, reminiscent of Schubert’s music for “Rosamunde” in places featured some affectionately-sounded dovetailings, reflecting the music-making’s warmly co-operative aspect.

In the slow movement’s Theme and Variations, the opening was presented to us as “a special moment gone somehow wrong”, the melody attempting to keep its poise and grace, but darkening in mood at its end. The variations exhibited plenty of character and differently-focused purpose, seemingly running the emotional gamut from agitation and fright to tremulous melancholy. After these angsts we needed the jollity of the finale’s opening to return us to our lives – and here the playing brought out both the girth and the grace of the dancers, as well as excitingly varying the pulse and pace of the music. Eventually the sounds cycled all the way back to the work’s richly Magyar opening, thus binding the work and its singular ambiences of unique expression together. What playing from these people! – so very youthful and energetic, while commanding responses to the music of such warmth and understanding and character.