Oh the perils of a classical music concert. One always risks showing one’s ignorance and suffering acute embarrassment.
That’s because classical music is complex. A classical piece can be hard to follow. Unlike the average pop concert, just when you think you’ve got the tune, classical stops and change keys on you. It’s also because there’s a protocol for classical music performance, a protocol that was established around the end of the 17th century by European aristocracy. Until well into the last century, tuxedos and formal wear were expected dress at classical concerts.
Between the complexity and the protocol, a lot of people are put off by classical music. That is a shame, because there’s little reward without some risk. “Eroica” is Italian for “heroic,” and taking risks, even the minor risk of embarrassment, for beauty and passion are what makes heroes.
Which leads to Saturday night’s performance at the Napa Valley Opera House by the world famous Eroica Trio, a performance underwritten by Berit and Bob Muh.
The Eroica Trio consists of three lovely women who happen to be virtuosos of their instruments. They are all award winning soloists. They are all easy on the eyes.
In fact Erika Nickrenz on piano, Susie Park on violin and Sara Sant’Ambriogio on cello seem to get noticed almost as much for their good looks as for their musical achievements. And the women don’t seem to mind; they take the stage attired in strapless evening gowns. Nowadays if they wished, they could just as easily wear tuxedos.
Their attractiveness certainly doesn’t hurt their concert sales and probably gets more people interested in their music. After all, they’ve been compared to the Dixie Chicks. No, seriously.
The piano trio has a long established history in chamber music going back to the early classical period. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms have all written for trio. Refreshingly enough, Saturday’s program was modern fare.
The evening began with “Piano Trio No. 1 (Poets and Prophets)” by modern classical composer Mark O’Connor. The piece was commissioned for the trio in 2003 and was inspired by country music star, the late Johnny Cash. Cash was a reputed boyhood idol and later a personal friend of O’Connor’s and appeared on one of his albums.
The second piece slated for the first half of the performance was “Café Music,” also by a contemporary, Paul Schoenfield, which was composed in 1985. Schoenfield modestly describes the three-movement work as “high-class dinner-music music.”
The O’Connor piece was engagingly familiar, even on first hearing. The interwoven themes from Cash’s popular music, most notably “I Walk the Line,” and gave the piece a distinctly American, rather Copeland-esque feeling.
The piece consists of four movements, and that’s where a little confusion began. Under traditional classical protocol, applause is reserved for the conclusion of the piece. To applaud between movements has always been considered gauche, at least in this reviewer’s limited experience.
The audience held its applause after the first movement, but the trio seemed to encourage recognition after the ensuing movements and we all clapped loud and long. The musicians said not a word throughout, again in keeping with classical formality.
Now, I’m not encouraging anything like the mindless babble that passes for interaction at rock concerts: “How y’all doin’ tonight?” But if one is dispensing with formality, a little give and take with the audience couldn’t hurt either.
Before you could say “presto,” the three women stood, bowed and walked off the stage. The house lights had never gone completely dark and so there was no reason not to head up the aisle toward the wine bar.
In my defense, I was not alone.
Your intrepid reviewer was already sipping pinot noir when a man sprinted into the café to announce to some of his friends that it was not intermission; the trio was still playing.
Chagrined, we too-eager imbibers listened to the last 10 minutes of Schoenfield from the back of the house. “Café Music” — what I heard of it — felt approachable as well, with its relaxed, lounge-conversational mood and its jazz idioms. It sent us into the real intermission with a big, bright flourish.
During the second half, everyone was on very familiar ground. “West Side Story Fantasy” and “Three Preludes” were arrangements of Bernstein and Gershwin by Raimundo Penaforte. The three movements of the fantasy were based on three of the musical’s most popular songs, “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere” and “America.” Park and Sant’Ambriogio’s rollicking pizzicato melodies could have put any jazz musician to shame.
The Gershwin preludes were originally written for solo piano and like most of the popular composer’s works are heavily syncopated and layered with blues and jazz influences. Penaforte added original introductions and transitions for the trio. Gerschwin’s music stirs the urge to doff the tuxedo and don a smoking jacket and slippers.
Called out for an encore, Sant’ Ambriogio addressed the audience.
“After this big American meal with thought you might like a little French pastry for dessert,’ she said by way of introducing Camille Saint Saen’s “The Swan.” And indeed the sweet, light, languid piece was the perfect way to end the evening.