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Gypsies and Guinea Pigs: Sitka Summer Music Festival in Anchorage, Part 1

A Guinea Pig, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Jay Reed

The Sitka Summer Music Festival is coming to Anchorage this weekend, and they’ve got ghosts, gypsies, guinea pigs, elegies, retractions — and one very fine cellist on the program.

But first, the need-to-know: Performances are this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, February 17, 18, and 19, at 7:00 pm (4:00 pm for the Sunday show) in Grant Hall Auditorium on the Alaska Pacific University campus. Tickets, available through CenterTix, are $25 for the evening performances and $23 for Sunday afternoon, with $2 off for seniors and youth. I recommend purchasing tickets in advance; Grant Hall is not large, so don’t count on ticket availability at the door.

The concerts will employ a cello, piano, and violin, and cover 100 years of chamber music, from Haydn to Suk, with a particular leaning toward Beethoven. And here’s the cool thing: in true festival spirit, each performance has a different program. Over the course of three days, there’s solo and duet work for each instrument, but what anchors the weekend are the trios, the pieces written for all three instruments combined.

Friday night opens with Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 39 in G Major, the Gypsy. Yes, his 39th piano trio. Haydn wrote 45 piano trios in his lifetime, not to mention 68 string quartets and 106 symphonies. Prolific and formulaic, Haydn is like the Nora Roberts of classical music — except that he created his formula, not just imitated it. This was through tinkering. Unlike Ravel, for example, who wrote just one piano trio (and, in my opinion, perfected the form in one try), Haydn wrote about 15 (relatively) mediocre piano trios before hitting his stride.

And by 1795, when he wrote his 39th, Haydn had definitely hit his stride. The Gypsy is one of Haydn’s best-known piano trios and is quintessential of that form. Listen for the “sonata form” in the first movement, in which two melodies are introduced in the exposition, expanded and expounded in the development, and resolved in the recapitulation. The franticly rollicking third movement is prototypical Haydn, too, in his “popular style”, incorporating, as he often did, folk music, or in this case a gypsy-style rondo. Throughout all the movements, notice that the piano and violin often swap the melody. The violin has some particularly lovely lines in the second movement. But the cello, the poor cello is relegated almost entirely to doubling the bass line of the piano part. Yawn. Musicologists say that Haydn did this because the piano of his time had a feeble timbre and benefited from the added voice of the cello. That’s understandable, but with today’s instruments, it’s just kind of boring.

Friday night’s program ends with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major, which I call the Guinea Pig. I typically think of Beethoven as succeeding Haydn, but this piano trio is among his first works, written in 1793, which predates Haydn’s Gypsy. Yet Beethoven’s cello part is a generation ahead of Haydn’s. Sure, Beethoven’s cello sometimes doubles the piano, but it holds its own, often adding a discrete tenor line in harmony with the violin (listen for this particularly in the first movement), and even exchanging the melody with the violin in the second movement.

Why call it the Guinea Pig? Listen for the opening motif of the last movement, that huge leaping interval (a major tenth). Doesn’t it sound like a guinea pig wheeking for dinner?

Well, I’m way above my word limit, and we haven’t even touched on the Ghost, Elegy, and Mitt Romney trios on the Saturday and Sunday programs. (Mitt Romney is my name for Tchaikovsky’s piano trio; more on that later.) I will post Part 2 before this weekend. And I promise: more on that fine cellist next time!

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Update: Click here for Part 2!

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