Walking down the stairs at Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday, November 15—a desolate fish tank hanging overhead—for the only New York appearance of Tre Voci, I can’t stifle my skepticism about the choice of venue. It is sadly paradoxical that a world-class chamber ensemble finds itself, in New York City, where chamber music has a huge following, performing in a basement club, with strobe lights flashing and food and drinks being consumed during the concert.
Regardless, expectations are high for this rare appearance of Tre Voci, featuring Kim Kashkashian on viola, Maria Piccinini on flute, and Sivan Magen on harp, each recognized internationally as a virtuoso on his or her instrument.
As audience members take their seats at cocktail tables, the house lights dim. The musicians, in informal attire, take the stage. Grammy-award winner Kashkashian announces the evening’s program. Due to the limited existing repertoire for viola, flute, and harp, they will perform arrangements of compositions originally written for different instrumentation. This ushers in an evening of surprisingly fresh new takes on a Bach sonata, Debussy’s Children’s Corner,and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
A few bars into the Bach, the lush richness of the sound casts a spell on the room. The awkwardness of the club setting, its imperfect acoustics and tacky lighting, all recede. The audience—including the waiters—prick up their ears; their attention becomes tangible. The Sonata in G Major (BMV 1039) for two flutes and harpsichord has been arranged by the performers themselves, in the spirit of a courtly evening of the baroque era, when musicians would pick up a score and adapt it to their instrumentation.
Composed during Bach’s stay in Weimar (1708 – 1720), the piece, though not his most daring, serves as an introduction to the wondrous way these performers make music together. Each musician is fully engaged in the search for a common tone, color, and interpretative direction. The listener is drawn in, focusing in turn on one or the other musician, as if following a highly disciplined three-way conversation. The voices talk to one another, debate and interrogate, without overpowering one another. Soon they form one composite sound, progressively blending each individual contribution into that balanced unity of sound from which, as the score requires, the flute, the viola, or the harp becomes more prominent, then recedes.
Debussy is a central figure for Tre Voci: the group was formed in 2010, at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, in order to work on his hauntingly beautiful 1915 Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. It became the centerpiece of its spellbinding ECM recording, Takemitsu, Debussy, Gubaidulina, released in 2014.
In this evening dedicated to arrangements, the Debussy selection is Children’s Corner, one of the composer’s best-known solo piano pieces. Arranged by the legendary Carlos Salzedo (1885 – 1961)—whom the Israeli harpist Magen, introducing the piece, calls “the father of the modern harp in the Americas”—this version of Children’s Corneropens new vistas on a beloved composition. Its playful inventiveness, melodic daring, humor, and airiness are transported into a new dimension. Now fully warmed up, the trio sounds even better. A sudden unison—a viola and harp pizzicato, a sinuously luminous flute line—transports the audience. The expressive unity of the group shines through essential details: the precision of their entrances, the beauty of the pianissimos.
The three convey their sheer delight in playing together. As Magen points out, in the opening to the first suite, “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” Debussy pokes fun at Clementi’s tedious exercises for young pianists; here and there he winks at Wagner; and in the closing suite, “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,”he uses jazz rhythms, perhaps for the first time in classical music. The players seem to literally breathe together, expertly molding the dynamics and phrasings as if they had been playing together for decades. In truth, the logistics of their lives and careers make concerts rare events: Kashkashian lives in Boston, Piccinini in Vienna, and Magen between New York and Israel.
From Debussy to Prokofiev a reversal unfolds: first an expansion from solo piano to a trio arrangement; now a paring down of an orchestral piece to a chamber one. The Italian-American flutist Piccinini introduces Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, in Gilad Cohen’s arrangement, commissioned by Tre Voci. Surprisingly, in this arrangement, the story ends before the tragic denouement. Prokofiev wrote music for a ballet based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietin 1935, adding tenor sax, mandolin, and viola d’amore to the more conventional orchestra instrumentation. The flute, viola, and harp arrangement captures the essence of Prokofiev’s sonorities, his rapturous ebb and flow, as well as the composer’s recognizably radiant colors. Throughout the program, the trio’s sound was alternately warm, buoyant, crystalline, and dramatic. Chamber music at its best: not the sum of three brilliant soloists, but an ensemble with steadfast unity of purpose.
This concert at Le Poisson Rouge was part of a November tour that brought Tre Vocito Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY, and concluded on the 16th in Boston. At this concert, after thunderous applause, the group returns to perform an interlude by Jacques Ibert (the composer of the score for Orson Welles’s Macbeth), in Kashkashian’s words, a farewell “nightcap.”
Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.