On Sunday, March 22, Wintergreen Performing Arts is proud to present the Adaskin Trio in performance at the Rockfish Valley Community Center. This exciting concert features the music of Beethoven, Villa Lobos, Murray Adaskin, and WPA favorite, Michael White.
Recently, WPA Artistic Director, Erin Freeman, had the chance to ask Adaskin Violist (Wintergreen Festival Orchestra Principal Violist and Academy Chair of Viola Studies) Steve Larson about the program.
Erin: What goes into programming a concert such as this? How do you choose the music?
Steve: Of course there are many different ways to choose a program for a particular concert. At one extreme is having some sort of theme or idea that you want to focus on in detail. That sort of approach can be a wonderful way to delve in depth into a particular topic. On the other hand, very often we play for audiences who have never heard us play before and who, even though they might be chamber music fans, might not be familiar with the rich string trio repertory. In that case, it often makes more sense to bring a more thematically varied program. Of course after eight summers at the festival I know that many Wintergreen audience members will be very knowledgeable about chamber music. But I also know that even at a festival like Wintergreen, string trios aren’t played that often. So we decided to bring music that we love that will give a great sense of the depth and beauty of the string trio repertoire as a whole.
Of course we had to include a trio by Beethoven. His five string trios (plus the wonderful Divertimento for string trio by Mozart) are at the core of the whole repertoire. And it is in his three Op.9 string trios that we think Beethoven truly perfected his own early voice. Needless to say he was inspired by Mozart’s Divertimento and by the conversational quartet style of Joseph Haydn, but already in his early works he had a personality and energy that is truly distinct. In the Op.9 trios we hear Beethoven speaking with a crystalized directness that is riveting. Hearing (and for us, playing) one of Beethoven’s Op.9 string trios is truly exhilarating – he takes the classical style of Haydn and Mozart and uses it with stunning virtuosity, sometimes almost ruthless efficiency, and intensely personal emotion. Even after playing these pieces for twenty years, every performance is a thrill.
We decided to include Michael White’s Songs of My People for String Trio in this program for a number of reasons. I’ve had the honor of premiering three other pieces by Michael and hearing many others at the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival over the years (and I am looking forward to premiering yet another one at the fest in July 2015!). His music has always struck me as beautiful, creatively crafted, exciting and richly expressive. I am humbled to be able to be with him each summer. I was privileged to be in the Wintergreen audience at the Rodes Farm when this string trio was first brought to life at the 2013 fest by my friends and colleagues Andrea Schultz, Anne Lanzilotti and Michael Finckel. I knew immediately both from my own response and the enthusiastic reactions of the other audience members that this was a piece that I would want to play with my Adaskin String Trio soon and often. I am certain that anyone who got to hear it then will absolutely want to hear it again and those who hear it for the first time will love it! The piece brings to life and shines new light on Jewish music from many different eras and locations. Exhilarating and moving.
In some ways the choice of including Song’s of My People led to the choice to include the Divertimento No.9 by our namesake, Canadian composer Murray Adaskin. Shortly after we began playing trios together in Montreal we had the opportunity to do graduate studies at The Hartt School in Connecticut to work as an ensemble with the famed Emerson String Quartet. We hadn’t settled on a permanent name yet and the idea of leaving Canada led us to want to choose a distinctly Canadian name. The Adaskin name appealed to us because of Murray’s wonderful music and also because he and two of his brothers, violinist Harry and cellist/radio-producer John, were exceptionally important in bringing the tradition of classical music performance, composition and teaching to life in Canada throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Not only had we all benefited by that legacy in general, we all happened to have connections with one or more of the Adaskin brothers through our teachers and other members of the Canadian musical community. We called Murray and were thrilled when he gave us his blessing to use his family’s name for our trio. A year later, still composing at the age of 90, Murray honored us by writing this wonderful piece for us. It is an exquisitely beautiful trio. There are hints of neo-classicism and moments that recall impressionism or jazz influences, but the voice is unique - charming, sincere, unforceful, and utterly convincing.
…Now to explain how doing Michael’s piece made doing Murray’s such an easy choice. First there was the question of program pacing and balance. For the first half of the concert we had a big four-movement Beethoven trio and then a collection of six very short pieces by Michael. The logical choice to balance that would be a substantial one-movement piece like the Divertimento No.9. But there are also some interesting parallel features of their lives and careers - Michael and Murray were both born into Jewish immigrant families and were both deeply influenced by both their Jewish heritage and the classical music tradition. And they, like so many other descendants of Jewish immigrants, have gone on to contribute enormously to the cultural life of their respective countries, Michael at Juilliard in New York (and at Wintergreen of course!) and Murray in his native Toronto, in Saskatchewan (where I grew up), and in Victoria (where Adaskin String Trio violinist Emlyn Ngai grew up). To unite them together on the same program seemed fitting.
With the classical/early-romantic Beethoven string trio, and two recent pieces from North American composers steeped in European traditions, it seemed fitting to look outside of Europe and our own continent to round out the program. Heitor Villa Lobos is Brazil’s most famous composer and his Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello is a major masterpiece (written in Rio de Janeiro in 1945) that deserves to be widely known. Villa-Lobos is known for using elements of Brazilian music to give his music distinctive flavors and energy. In his string trio, this is not as overt as in many of his pieces (no direct quotes of well know folk melodies, no typical Brazilian dances), but the influence is still somehow obvious especially in the haunting slow movement and rhythmically driven finale. Villa Lobos wrote 17 string quartets (many of which were heard at the 2014 Wintergreen Festival), but only one string trio. Sigh. But we cherish it all the more and think you will too.
Erin: How do you approach the works of living composers (i.e. Michael White) differently from pieces by composers such as Beethoven and Villa Lobos?
Steve: Honestly, the approach is basically the same. We try to uncover the essence of what the composer is trying to share with the audience and figure out how to communicate that as effectively and generously as possible. Of course getting to meet and speak with a living composer is a wonderful opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Beethoven or Villa Lobos on hand in case we had a question about what he intended for certain movements or details?! Being able to speak with, get to know and play for a composer like Michael White (especially getting to do so over the course of a number of years) is a special gift. On the other hand, we’ve now been studying and playing the music of Haydn. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms etc. together and in other contexts for decades. Eventually you start to feel that you know them personally at least on some level. Even though we know it’s all in our own heads, we hope to develop a sense of relationship with these composers and their music, each of us individually and as an ensemble. The more we can know about and empathize with a composer the better chance we have a bringing their music to life and continuing to make it exciting and meaningful for our audiences today.