By Dana Wen
One of the great joys of chamber music is the conversation that unfolds between the musicians on stage. Each performer is given a chance to contribute to the musical dialogue in a very prominent way. In such an intimate environment, the personality of each musician inevitably emerges. Sometimes the going gets rough, and personalities will clash. But other times, especially with a group of musicians who have been playing together for a while, watching a performance can feel like sitting in on a lively conversation between old friends. When this happens, it’s a treat for the performers and the audience alike.
The atmosphere at Town Hall on Sunday night definitely felt like a gathering of old friends. The Onyx Chamber Players – James Garlick on violin, Meg Brennand on cello, and David White on piano – hosted their last performance of the 2009-10 season. These three Seattle musicians have been performing as an ensemble for years. Their program on Sunday featured the works of Franz Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn, an unlikely duo. However, the pieces on the program – two vivacious, sparkling Haydn trios, an early Mendelssohn piano quartet, and the great Mendelssohn trio in D minor – offered an excellent balance of light-hearted energy and intense drama. Pianist White gave a brief introduction to the program at the start of the performance, pointing out that the two composers are chronologically adjacent – Mendelssohn was born the very year of Haydn’s death. Well-spoken and animated, White offered the audience a few other interesting facts about the pieces on the program. The Mendelssohn piano quartet, one of the composer’s first published works, was written when he was only 15. It was interesting to compare this to the D Minor Piano Trio, which was written when Mendelssohn was thirty. White also encouraged the audience to listen for string pizzicatos and interplay between strings & piano in the Haydn trios.
Onyx began the evening with Haydn’s lively Piano Trio in A Major (Hob. XV:18), a late work, written when the composer was in his 60’s. Haydn’s later works for piano are full of keyboard gymnastics and pianistic excitement, and this trio was no exception. The work did an excellent job of showcasing White’s energetic playing style. However, at times I hoped to hear a fuller tone from the strings. The pizzicato tones from the cello in the slow second movement added a texture that complimented the sparkling piano perfectly.
The full tones of the strings emerged in the next piece, Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in F Minor (Op. 2). Here Onyx was joined by violist J. Melvin Butler. Together with Garlick and Brennand, the trio of strings balanced White’s exuberant energy well. The quartet certainly wasn’t afraid to turn up the dramatic effects from the very first note. After winding its way through beautiful sections that showcased the low strings, the first movement ended with all four players joining in a daring, seat-of-your-pants accelerando to the final note. A show-stopping moment for sure!
The cello was featured prominently in the second movement of the next work, Haydn’s Piano Trio in D Major (Hob. XV:24). The jovial first movement, full of Haydn’s signature dramatic pauses, was followed by a creeping minor-key second movement. I loved the moments where the strident piano subsided and the rich sound of Brennand’s cello sang through.
Jokingly dubbed “the other Mendelssohn piano concerto” by White, the D Minor Trio (Op. 49) features one of the busiest keyboard parts in the piano trio repertoire. White tackled the challenge with his usual enthusiasm and flair. However, the energy level of the piano occasionally overpowered the strings. Despite this, there were many beautiful moments that showcased the violin and cello. Most notable were the flowing cello and piano duet in the opening bars and a lovely violin solo with pizzicato cello accompaniment in the second movement. Onyx’s interpretation of this chamber music warhorse was fresh, colorful, fun, and wonderfully unpretentious.
As an ensemble, Garlick, Brennand, and White are truly a model piano trio. Like all good chamber ensembles, they keep in constant communication while they’re playing together through eye contact, gestures, or nods. But among this trio, these simple musical cues are joyful and wonderfully natural. It’s fun to watch them interact. These are three performers who thoroughly enjoy making music together. I have never seen a group of musicians smile more during a performance! This genuine joy, accompanied by their intelligent, exciting interpretations of the trio repertoire, makes Onyx a very fun trio to watch. We’re very fortunate to have them as a resident piano trio in Seattle.
Onyx has another season of fantastic concerts planned for next year, this time featuring works by Robert Schumann (this year marks the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth). Also, keep an eye out for their performances of a few chamber music favorites: Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.