The Music Guild has introduced some of the world’s finest chamber ensembles to Los Angeles audiences over many years since 1945. Executive Director Eugene Golden has tapped the wealth of extraordinarily talented musicians from the area for this year’s Summerfest 2019 series. The Aristeia Trio is a good example — all USC Thornton School of Music graduates, emerging stars on a national level, with original members Vijay Venkatesh (piano) and Micah Wright (clarinet) and recently recruited cellist Eric Byers, a founding member of the Calder Quartet.
The July 21 program opened with Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio in B Flat Major, Op. 11, a delightful example from his early years. The Trio shined in the Adagio, especially in the profusely decorated themes of the recapitulation. The finale gave us a glimpse of Venkatesh’s piano virtuosity with a set of variations on “Pria ch’io l’impegno” from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’amor marinaro that was a very popular tune at the time. Venkatesh was dazzling in the first variation with staccato runs and whirling tremolos. He had the artistic sensibilities and technical control of his instrument to play like Beethoven in the foreground when appropriate, yet stay inobtrusive when in the background. After the fourth variation’s moment of reflection, Venkatesh stepped forward with an exuberant burst of energy that changed the mood entirely. The eighth was pure elegance, and the Trio was jubilant with Beethoven’s romping 6/8 ending.
The Fantasy Trio, Op. 26, of Robert Muczynski was composed in 1969, but has an approachable neoclassical tonal style described with characteristics of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartok. Although challenging to perform, the music was written for the musicians’ enjoyment as much as that for the audience, and clearly the musicians were having fun, much to the delight of the audience. Wright introduced the strong rhythmic drive of the first movement with syncopated accents, then Venkatesh and Byers took their turns with the energetic motivic material, each altering it slightly. The interpretive nuances of the players were finely honed, their individual articulations and accents gave each voice a unique character while still maintaining a pleasant cohesiveness.
The arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes was outstanding. Wright showed amazing versatility, and perfectly captured Gershwin’s style. Venkatesh’s syncopated rhythms and Brazilian dominant seventh chords gave the first Prelude a jazz vibe, and virtuosity abounded as each of the performers flashed short snippets of incredible technique. The second Prelude also had a distinct jazz flavor, although this version was a little more brisk than typical. Wright’s seductive melody above Byers’ smooth and steady bass-line produced a wonderful blues lullaby. I enjoyed the dramatic interpretation of “Agitato,” the final Prelude. All together an outstanding presentation of Gershwin and a wonderful application of the trio format.
Selections from Bruch’s collection of Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Op. 83 concluded the first half of the program and also provided a nice introduction to the Brahms that followed the intermission. Wright was masterful as he skillfully brought out the special character of the clarinet timbre. Venkatesh and Byers deftly controlled the mood and tempo, and kept the music ever-fluid as the ensemble confidently filled the lyrical melodies and Romantic harmonies with passionate expression.
Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114 was the cornerstone of the program and another showpiece for Wright who’s somewhat melancholy timbre permeated the entire piece. The Trio portrayed an intimacy that allowed a conversational interplay between the musicians, as if they were completing each other’s thoughts. The affect was warm, perhaps implied by Byers’ (1856) cello that produced a mellow timbre keeping with the “autumnal” character of which Brahms was so fond. Wright’s clarinet sound was equally well matched in tone, and the two of them together were a rare and special sound. Byers commanded the stage as he began the solo, followed by Wright and Venkatesh four bars later. There was great dynamic control among the instruments. The clarinet was most prominent and more in the foreground thanks in part to Venkatesh, who stayed in control, carefully balancing his projection. The ensemble created a natural motion that was totally alluring. They artfully tossed rhythmic figures among themselves while nicely matching dynamic and prosody as they passed from voice to voice. Wright and Byers were lock-step in their timing that provided a solid source of structure. Overall, an expressive, brilliant performance. The audience hailed “Bravo!” with a standing ovation. The Aristeia Trio lived up to its appellation — excellence.
Kudos to the Music Guild and this outstanding Summerfest chamber music series.
—Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA
Vijay Venkatesh will be performing along with Eva Schaumkell at the Music Guild Summerfest 2019 on Sunday, July 28, with the Vieness Piano Duo.