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A Ghost, Two Elegies, Mitt Romney, and That Fine Cellist: Sitka Summer Music Festival in Anchorage, Part 2

Cellist and Sitka Music Director Zuill Bailey, Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The Sitka Summer Music Festival is coming to Anchorage’s Grant Hall Auditorium this weekend, and earlier this week I wrote about the piano trios (i.e., the pieces written for the piano, violin, and cello together) on Friday night’s program. Because each concert this weekend will present a different program, in this second post I’ll cover the Saturday and Sunday offerings, especially the piano trios.

The full weekend skims through 100 years of chamber music, and on Friday the musicians will play Haydn’s 39th piano trio, the Gypsy, and Beethoven’s 1st piano trio, the Guinea Pig. (And if you don’t know why I call it the Guinea Pig, see my last post.) Friday’s audience will hear how the piano trio genre evolves in that small progression from late Haydn to early Beethoven; the cello inherits ever more prominent and interesting parts, and the piano begins to share the melodic spotlight.

Indeed, the cello is the first instrument to carry the primary melody in Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, written in 1808. While the cello and violin share most of the melody, the piano is largely demoted to the accompaniment, subordinate but also virtuosic. My wrists hurt just listening to the piano’s frenetic scales, broken chords, arpeggios, rocking intervals, and broken octaves. This piano trio is commonly called the Ghost, by the way, for the eerie and slow second movement that is sandwiched between the first and last feverishly exuberant movements.

Beethoven adheres to the sonata structure and form for his Ghost, but Suk ignores it completely for his Elegy, also on Saturday’s program. Written in 1902, the Elegy is just one movement and is more art song than sonata, almost like a violin and cello duet accompanied by piano. Listen for the ABAC structure, but this piece is more about impressionism and atmosphere than architecture. In commemoration of the late Czech writer Julius Zeyer, the Elegy is subtitled “Under the Impression of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad”, alluding to the writer’s epic, mythological poem.

On Sunday the musicians will perform the last piano trio of the weekend, Tchaikovsky’s Op. 50 in A Minor. This trio lacks a catchy nickname, so I’m calling it the Mitt Romney. A less cheeky sobriquet might be the Recantation. You see, Tchaikovsky hated piano trios and promised he’d never write one. Then he wrote one.

The famous story goes like this: in 1880, when Tchaikovsky’s benefactress Nadezhda von Meck asked him to compose a piano trio, he refused, writing: “I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend… it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings.” And yet a year later, he wrote to her: “In spite of this antipathy [for piano trios], I am thinking of experimenting with this sort of music, which so far I have not touched. I have already written the start of a trio.” By 1882, his piano trio was complete. He wrote to von Meck: “The Trio is finished… now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad.”

Such a dramatic retraction. Such a striking reversal of positions, from “torture” to “not all bad”. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Late Show, but I can’t help but compare Tchaikovsky’s recantation to Mitt Romney’s about-face on those tax returns (watch from about 0:45 to 1:45). In fairness, Romney is not the only politician to change a position; we could call Tchaikovsky’s trio the Obama-Gitmo Debacle, but that’s a lot of syllables.

But back to Tchaikovsky. His piano trio combines some traditional elements of the genre with his own unique twists. Specifically, he sloughed the conventional three- or four-movement structure in favor of just two: the first movement is a ruminating elegy in the traditional sonata form, while the second is in the “theme and variations” form, ending with a lugubrious coda that echoes the first movement. The piece is “in memory of a great artist,” probably pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, so it’s no wonder the piece spotlights the piano and ends with a funereal dirge. As you listen, decide for yourself if Tchaikovsky’s composition is “torture” or “not all bad”. Me, I think it’s gorgeous.

So I hope I have you convinced: the Sitka Summer Music Festival concerts this weekend will offer not just great music-making but a superb opportunity to study the piano trio genre across a century of composition. If that’s not motivation enough to go, I give you one more reason: that very fine cellist, Zuill Bailey. Happily for Alaska, Bailey is now the Sitka Festival’s music director, so we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more of him in the years to come. Purchase your tickets through CenterTix, or click here for more details.