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Nashville Scene Brave New World

Young trio injects freshness into hoary genre

By Marcel Smith

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  The Nashville Symphony brings to town a lot of fine musicians--Jessye Norman, Yefim Bronfman, and Pinchas Zucherman in the last few months, with Richard Stolzman and Misha Dichter still to come. Sometimes, as with Jessye Norman, the performances are stunning. But the Symphony has never before brought to town a group quite like the three "unapologetically glamorous" young women who call themselves the Eroica Trio.

The threesome takes its moniker from the nickname for Beethoven's Third Symphony, which was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte until the Corsican proved to be more a tyrant than a freedom-fighter--after which Beethoven decided to dedicate the work to "a heroic man." The Eroica symphony is seen as a watershed event, not only in Beethoven's career, but in music history as well: With it, the symphony as genre took a turn toward Wagnerian magisterialism.

Erika Nickrenz (piano), Adela Pe-a (violin), and Sara Sant' Ambrogio (cello) do not take themselves as seriously as their name might imply. Rather, their Web site suggests that they are archly humorous self-promoters. In carefully posed photos, they look like three pretty maids barely out of school. But the accompanying text, copiously furnished with press clippings, shows them in fact to be conquistadoras, taking on the big, middle-aged-guy musical establishment, and garnering loads of laurels in the process.

They first drew major notice in 1991, when they earned top prize in the Walter F. Naumberg Chamber Music Competition. This led to their acclaimed debut at Lincoln Center and a triumphant U.S. tour. Since then, they've been truckin' along like the Dixie Chicks: They play more than 80 concerts a year across the globe, and last year their debut album for Angel/EMI Classics won National Public Radio's Debut Recording of the Year Award. Their second album just came out on the same label.

They're very much aware that classical music right now is sort of like Service Merchandise--in grave danger of being eradicated by newer, flashier enterprises. It's no accident, they say, that opera is the only area of classical music gaining an audience right now. What matters is not just music, but showmanship--and imaginative programming. Thus, they've learned to put forth an appealing, playful image while at the same time performing the canonical literature for piano trio. But they also commission new work, and they play older classics in new arrangements (some of which they've done themselves). Their award-winning debut album, for instance, opens with three preludes by Gershwin, originally for piano, in an arrangement by the Brazilian composer Raimundo Penaforte (b. 1961); it closes with a piece called "Cafe Music" by Paul Schoenfeld (b. 1947).

The debut album, though quite good, isn't quite heroic. This trio is not yet ready to go three-on-three with, say, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Daniel Barenboim. But they do play very well, and they deserve attention. They also deserve a better program than the one they'll play in Nashville. They're scheduled to perform Beethoven's Triple Concerto, which the Symphony's own press release identifies as "rarely performed." Even in the hands of such seasoned virtuosi as the three men mention mentioned above--who recorded the work live with the Berlin Philharmonic--this piece is more historically interesting than musically satisfying.

That said, it is the only thing Beethoven wrote for piano trio and orchestra. The Triple Concerto, Opus 56 (1803-04) belongs to a crucial period in Beethoven's life. It comes out of a time when he was wrestling with the onset of deafness, and fighting to show that it would not hobble him as a musician. In the composer's oeuvre, the concerto is surrounded by masterworks--all "heroic" in manner and substance, rich and grand and technically innovative. The Third (Eroica) Symphony is Opus 55, and one of his most famous and compelling piano sonatas, the "Waldstein," is Opus 53. Beethoven followed the Triple Concerto with another sonata (the "Apassionata," Opus 57), and with the three "Razumovsky" string quartets, Opus 59. All of these works--save the Triple Concerto--have always been acknowledged as masterworks, signals that classical music was turning a corner.

This is not to say that it isn't worth seeing and hearing the Triple Concerto performed by three unapologetically glamorous young women who are also very accomplished musicians. The work was important in Beethoven's development. It is, one critic says, the concerto in which the composer first showed his formal mastery of the genre. Indeed, what Beethoven does here is always solidly workmanlike, and there are some wonderful moments. But there's lots of other music I'd rather hear the Eroica Trio play. Musically, a more sensible program would have featured the unaccompanied trio playing one of the Brahms piano trios, followed by the Symphony playing one of Beethoven symphonies--maybe even the Third.

The point is underscored by the character of the Triple Concerto. It's in three movements: a fast march-like movement (about 17 minutes), a lovely slow middle movement (about six minutes), and a frisky Polish rondo (about 12 minutes). Though it's solidly crafted, the most memorable moments don't really involve the orchestra. In the best passages, the orchestra sort of ooohs and aaahs while the trio weaves its own brocade, filaments of cello bronze and violin silver lacing together a gnarly fabric from the piano. Mostly, the trio would fare better on its own. Carrying the orchestra along, though, there should be plenty of opportunities for thrusting and slashing, severally and ensemble.

The Symphony will bookend its valorous guests with Johann Strauss Jr.'s urbane Overture to Die Fledermaus, and with the Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. Brahms was so intimidated by Beethoven's symphonic genius that he spent many years working on his own first symphony, fearing to let anyone see it. He completed it, finally, when he was 43, and it was worth the wait. Here, Brahms distills Beethoven's passionate titanic grandiloquence into lucid Olympian power. Brahms is mature Beethoven without the neurotic excesses. His first symphony, like the other three, is itself pretty heroic. It ought to provide a stirring close to a pleasant evening out.

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