Last night in Old First Church, Aleron Trio (violinist Solenn Séguillon, cellist Anne Suda, and pianist Sophie Xuefei Zhang) gave their third recital in the Old First Concerts series. This occasion was marked by the premiere performance of a commissioned work, the first such commissioned by this ensemble, if memory serves correctly. The composer was Shahab Paranj, born in Tehran and a product of music studies at Tehran University, the Manhattan School of Music, and our own San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), where he studied composition with David Garner. (Last season he performed at Garner’s concert in the Faculty Artist Series at SFCM, where he provided the percussion for Garner’s arrangements of six traditional Persian songs.)
The new work was Paranj’s first piano trio, given the subtitle “A Bitter Letter.” The thematic material was based on traditional classical Persian music, little of which has survived due to the number of invasions the country has had to endure. Paranj’s principal source was thus a particular genre of religious mourning, called “Taazie;” and his subtitle reflects the funerary connotations of that genre. He structured his score in three movements, whose first two are both in Largo tempo, each with its own approach to the spirit of Taazie. The first involves a parlando chant-like style, while the second is structured over an ostinato in the piano. The final movement then assumes the sharp contrast of a Prestissimo tempo as mourning gives way to jubilation.
In composing for modern instruments, Paranj evoked the spirit of his source material through connotation, rather than denotation. The sonorities of the source material were suggested, rather than reproduced. More important was how both the piano and string instruments captured the underlying rhythmic patterns and the interplay of those patterns among the melodic lines. One could grasp the intensity of the first two movements even without knowledge of the material that inspired them. The driving energy of the final movement, however, seemed more settled into the expressiveness of modern instruments, establishing a rhetoric of delivery that was, in some respects, reminiscent of how Béla Bartók treated his own indigenous source materials.
Paranj’s trio was performed between two far more traditional (and familiar) works from the piano trio literature. The second half of the program consisted entirely of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 90 trio in E minor, which Aleron had performed in their Old First debut recital. This trio, the last of the four that Dvořák composed, is known as “Dumky” because all six of its movement are in the dumka folk form, based on radical mood swings between melancholia and wild abandon.
The challenge posed by this trio has to do with the stylistic similarity of all six of its movements. One needs to capture the abrupt shifts in spirit in each movement. However, there needs to be some sense of journey through the six movements to avoid their sounding like “one damned thing after another” (my favorite evocation of Winston Churchill). Dvořák provides some suggestion of that journey by giving both the first and last movements the same Lento maestoso tempo. While the thematic material of these two movements is different, Aleron was able to capture at least a suggestion of return in that final movement, thus establishing a convincing “sense of an ending” to the entire composition.
The journey was more explicitly defined in the opening selection of the program, the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s two Opus 70 trios, this one in D major. The middle of its three movements is marked Largo assai e espressivo, and it is representative of the intensive expressiveness of hushed dynamics only occasionally shattered by loud outbursts. The eeriness of that intensity earned this trio its “Ghost” epithet. That movement, however, is both preceded and followed by some of Beethoven’s most exuberant writing. Indeed, the very first measures require all three instruments to hurtle forward with such aggressive energy that the seasoned professionals of the Beaux Arts Trio once declared it the most difficult opening passage in the trio repertoire. Aleron rose to the challenge of the opening admirably, making it the perfect way to seize audience attention at the beginning of a concert.
The final Presto movement, on the other hand, is more playful in nature. Beethoven has rather explicit fun with an appoggiatura that suggests that, in the enthusiasm of that Presto tempo, the pianist has missed the mark and must correct the error immediately. Aleron captured all of the high spirits of this music, allowing the audience to settle in to Beethoven’s wit before proceeding into the darkness of Paranj’s trio. The overall program thus made for a well-conceived disposition of samples from the repertoire, offering an evening that was both moving and enlightening.