Yesterday afternoon at the Old First Church, the Delphi Trio (violinist Liana Bérubé, cellist Michelle Kwon, and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur) gave the second recital as Artists-in-Residence in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. As was the case with their first recital, the program featured the world premiere of a commissioned work. This meant that the four selections performed covered the scope of four centuries from the eighteenth to the twenty-first.
The commissioned composer for yesterday’s recital was Max Stoffregen. Stoffregen is no stranger to O1C. His “the delicate flow of vines” was performed in August of 2009 as part of a concert entitled Music: The Next Generation, at which he also played Moog synthesizer in a performance of Frederick Rzewski’s “Coming Together.” The title of his new work is “Coyote Plan.” For many of my generation, this is likely to connote Looney Tunes and mail-order products from the Acme Corporation; but Stoffregen’s music tends to evoke two alternative connotations. One is the role of the coyote as scavenger in the natural world, and the other is his role in the trickster tales found in the myths of many of the American Indian cultures.
In his introductory remarks to the audience, Stoffregen explained that he likes to compose by appropriating music from some other source and then leading it off into new directions. Hence, he is a scavenger; but his sources tend to come from relatively select subcultures and are thus not that familiar to most audiences (or, as LaDeur confessed, those who perform Stoffregen’s music). Thus, Stoffregen is also a bit of a trickster, making patchwork out of unrecognizable patches, so to speak.
Each of the three movements of “Coyote Plan” follows Stoffregen’s technique. Furthermore, the obscurity of his sources is further enhanced by the movements’ cryptic titles. However, whether or not one can decode his enigmas, his music has an aggressively solid beat, allowing us to appreciate those trickster qualities, even if we are not always clued into the details of those tricks. Delphi gave this music a suitably energetic account, giving themselves up to its wild rhetoric without ever compromising on the music’s technical demands.
“Coyote Plan” was performed before the intermission and after the program’s twentieth-century selection, which was Henry Cowell’s “Trio in Nine Short Movements.” This was his last completed work, finished in 1965 shortly before his death. With the trio’s emphasis on brevity, each movement emerges as an exploration at the motivic level, often involving only a single motif. No single movement ever lasts long enough to develop an extended structural architecture; so the music is very much in the spirit of the approach that Alexander Scriabin took to his preludes (and, to the extent that many of these movements cultivate specific technical skills, his etudes).
This made for a bold opening to the Delphi recital. Many of the technical demands concerned keyboard work, and LaDeur addressed all of them with energetic determination. However, Cowell had a long-standing interest in sonority; and the work as a whole shone with Delphi’s perceptive approach to balancing the voices of the three instruments to achieve the necessary sonorous effects and providing heartening evidence that Cowell’s creative skills were with him to the very end of his highly productive life.
The second half of the concert was devoted to music of the more distant past. This involved an early work by Frédéric Chopin and a relatively late one by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The major work was Chopin’s Opus 8 trio in G minor, his only piece of chamber music for violin. Chopin completed this at the age of nineteen in 1829; and it was his second effort at a multiple-movement composition. (The first was the Opus 4 piano sonata in C minor in four movements, which, in spite of the Opus number, was not published until after Chopin’s death.)
The approach to structure in Opus 8 is relatively traditional, with at least a suggestion of Polish folk elements in the final movement. As might be expected, the piano part is a demanding one. Nevertheless, between the overall grasp of form and the balance of the piano against the two string parts, the music actually lacks many of the lumbering and aimless qualities that tend to surface in this composer’s piano concertos. He may not have written much chamber music, but he seems to have been more at home on the scale of a few good instruments than on that of a large ensemble. Delphi gave this trio a solid account, affirming it as a unique voice in the abundant literature of nineteenth-century chamber music.
The Chopin trio was preceded by a shorter Mozart selection, his K. 542 in E major. This was composed in 1788, a hard year in Mozart’s personal life but also the year of his three final symphonies, K. 543 in E-flat major, K. 550 in G minor, and K. 551 in C major. As the catalog number indicates, K. 542 was written around the same time as K. 543 but is on a more modest scale. The trio also shows a tendency to favor the piano, but there is no shortage of inventiveness in its overall rhetoric. Delphi provided this trio with a convincing account; but, in the context of the many discoveries encountered in the other works on their program, there was some sense that Mozart may have received less attention than the other composers.