It has been over a year since I have written about one of the releases from Project Odradek, which describes itself as “a new way of doing classical.” That “new way” is summarized on their home page, in which they describe themselves as “The 1st non-profit, artist controlled classical label.” However, I was first drawn to this label not through ideology but through an imaginative approach to repertoire. Over the course of a few days I was drawn to consider the efforts of two prodigious pianists, one of whom, Pina Napolitano, had chosen to record the complete piano works of Arnold Schoenberg, while the other, Mei Yi Foo, had prepared a program of Sofia Gubaidulina, Unsuk Chin, and György Ligeti for her album.
At the beginning of this month, Project Odradek released of recording by Trio Appassionata, a piano trio, whose members (violinist Lydia Chernicoff, cellist Andrea Casarrubios, and pianist Ronaldo Rolim) met and first played together as students at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. It was not that long ago that conservatories focused on preparing students for careers as either soloists or members of symphony orchestras. I take a certain amount of local pride in the fact that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) pioneered the introduction of a graduate program in chamber music; and, as a result, I take an interest in how other institutions have followed suit.
The new album is a twofold debut. Primarily it introduces the talents of Trio Appassionata. At the same time it also provides the premiere recording of “gone into night are all the eyes,” which Trio Appassionata commissioned from Thomas Kotcheff, who had been a fellow student at Peabody. The remaining selections on the album are also all by American composers and form a pivotal relationship around the year 1954. This was the year in which Leon Kirchner wrote his piano trio, the year in which Charles Ives died, and the year in which Eric Moe was born.
Kotcheff took his title from the opening words of Stephen Kessler’s English translation of a poem by Jorge Luis Borges that was included in the collection Poems of the Night. Each movement is identified by a single adjective:
From the very opening gesture one is struck by the composer’s interest in sonority. There may be some question as to whether those sonorities constitute a reflection on either Borges’ text or Kessler’s translation, but they certainly establish a context of meditative moodiness that fits well with the nocturnal connotations of the composition’s title. The execution reflects the performers’ keen awareness of the rhetorical significance that Kotcheff has attached to sonority, resulting in an account that encourages subsequent listening in greater detail.
More interesting, however, may be their decision to include the Kirchner trio. To be fair, however, I should note that this recording was released only a few days after I had experienced a recital performance of Kirchner’s first string quartet at SFCM. In writing about that performance, I noted that, by studying with Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California at Los Angeles, Kirchner distinguished himself “from the earlier generation of American composers who went to France to learn how to compose American music from Nadia Boulanger at the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau.”
Kirchner’s trio definitely shows an appreciation for Schoenberg’s interest “emancipating” dissonance through “composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another;” but the music definitely reflects Kirchner’s effort to establish his own way of doing things. Schoenberg’s influence can be detected particularly through several rhythmic tropes that surface in Kirchner’s score, but there are approaches to sonority that one would not encounter in Schoenberg. There is one particularly magical moment in the first (Marcato) movement in which the violin and cello seem to echo portions (or, perhaps, overtones) of a firmly-struck chord on the piano, creating the sense of enhancing the reverberations of the piano’s frame. The trio also seems to have settled on strategies for establishing a tonic-dominant relationship in the absence of the lexicon of chords defined by a tonal framework. If Kirchner’s first string quartet, composed in 1949, was just beginning to confront this problem, his 1954 trio demonstrates how he was now finding his way in establishing structural relationships.
By contrast it is unclear whether or not Moe has yet found his own way to deal with these matters. His single-movement “We Happy Few” is the longest single track on the recording, clocking in at almost fifteen minutes. However, the listener may find more than a little opacity when it comes to negotiating the overall structure. To Moe’s credit, however, he has developed an imaginative repertoire of techniques for the interplay of the three performers. As a result this may be music that fares much better when the listener is there to experience the performance, since physical presence may establish that this element of interplay has much to do with how the music has been organized and how it may best be experienced.
The greatest disappointment on the recording is the Ives trio. From an academic point of view, one may not be able to find fault in how the three movements of this trio were executed; but the spirit of Ives’ distinctively unique rhetoric is sorely lacking. This is particularly evident in the middle of the three movements, which Ives entitled “TSIAJ” (standing for “This Scherzo Is A Joke”). This is the movement in which he draws upon his vast repertoire of familiar tunes, coming close to throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.
Not too long ago I found myself discussing this movement with an SFCM violin student. I observed that identifying the tunes addressed only a part of preparing the performance. I suggested that the spirit of the tunes could only be captured once all the performers had put their instruments aside and tried to sing them. While some of the tunes are strictly instrumental (like the “Sailor’s Hornpipe”), Ives’ music almost always rests on the nostalgic recollection of making music in a highly social setting; and singing is the principal activity in that setting. The members of Trio Appassionata do not seem to have caught on to this social dimension, which is so significant in just about everything that Ives wrote; and the result is a dutiful account that never really engages the listener.