Trio Voce @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, February 17, 2011. Jane Mallet Theatre, Toronto.

The star-studded Trio Voce performed a work by Shostakovich from their recent Con Brio recording and  a new piece written for them by Jonathan Berger who last appeared at Music Toronto in March of 2007, when he introduced a Tears in Your Hand—commissioned by The Gryphon Trio. Berger is part of a team at Stanford University that explores the neuroscience of music.

Last night he introduced Memory Slips (2010), a composition in four movements inspired by the auditory hallucinations Berger annotated from the nameless, recurrent melodic fragments his late mother sang as she lay dying.  The core of the first movement, built around the idea of flash recall of emotional memory, is the sentimental tune “Cruising Down The River,” #1 on the ‘Hit Parade’ of 1948, the birth year of Mrs. Berger’s first born son, the composer’s older brother.

Around this lovely core melody ornamented with Yiddish musical motifs, are disjointed and often harsh fragments—sonic references to dislocated memories. Pizzicato cello and violin lines flicked out fast over punchy piano chords accelerate to the frequency of fly-buzz, decay into the featureless ringing of tinnitus, resurrect into string squeaks, rise in the cello towards an urgent dramatic melody that softens as it emerges, ‘cruising’ sweet and sentimental before flowing back to the opening figures and the close.

Berger entitles his second movement “leanan sidhe” referring to a being the poet Yeats described as ” the Dark Muse, an artistic succubus, giving creative gifts in exchange for the artist’s life.” The Gaelic melody begins low in cello (Marina Hoover) and piano (Patricia Tao) and a piercing high whistle in Jasmine Lin’s violin. This broadens into a dirge proceeding richly in the strings to the tolling of an ostinato piano. The third movement is devoted to unuttered memories that get stuck on ‘the tip of the tongue. It is lively, fast, percussive, with frequent changes in tempo and jazzy rhythms—repetitive, obstinato riffs—possibly referencing an obsessive quality that marks the onset of dementia—unfinished phrases that finally just fade away.

The final movement is entitled “Ear Worms” in reference to music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind—music stuck in one’s head”—an affliction that pained his mother. The music here is often dissonant, discordant, sour. Piano and violin melodies are often totally out of tempo. The music builds tension that gradually thins out to spooky, creepy, spacey, sad and finally attenuates to nothing.

Trio Voce’s performance of the Berger impressed with individual virtuosity and balanced expression of the ensemble. Their rendering of Piano Trio No.1, Op. 8,  a student work by Shostakovich not published till after the composer’s death, but wonderful, lacked vitality, especially in comparison to the account by The Gryphon Trio. Patricia Tao’s piano was too far back in the mix, too soft around the edges. Admittedly, it was the piece Trio Voce opened with and warmed up on. Their soft-edged, slow-paced approach to Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, dubbed “The Ghost,” achieved a lyrical quality and brought out the ‘positive’ side of that conflicted work. I especially enjoyed the recapitulation of the finale where the instruments totally get down and talk to each other.

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