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September 29, 2009

Concert review round-up: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Monument Piano Trio

Last weekend offered reassurances that two of the area's fine, homegrown musical resources are entering the new season with flair and imagination.

On Saturday night at the Gordon Center, the Concert Artists of Baltimore offered a wonderfully off-beat program, the sort it can do so well, since it's the only professional chamber orchestra and chorus around.

The choral component was featured in the five a cappella songs of Brahms' Op. 104, beautifully crafted pieces that seem to glow with autumn colors (yeah, I know -- autumnal Brahms is a cliche, but it really does fit). Edward Polochick guided his singers expertly through the music, coaxing a smoothly blended, expressive sound.

The chorus did admirable work as well in Mozart's Solemn Vespers, K. 339, with elegant support from the orchestra. The soloists, among them soprano Jennifer Edwards in the Laudate Dominum movement, handled their assignments with flair.

In between the vocal items came two rarities for strings. Polochick drew out the spice and structural brilliance of Bartok's Divertimento so persuasively that it was possible to forget about some rough patches in the playing. Schnittke's Moz-Art a la Haydn was presented in all its theatrical cleverness (it calls for players to arrive and depart individually on a darkened stage); the resonances of 18th century idioms and 20th century piquancy made their intended effect tellingly.

The only serious disappointment Saturday was the turnout. I've said before that folks here don't know what they're missing. The Gordon Center has superb acoustics, and Polochick and the Concert Artists can be counted on to deliver unusually engaging programs.

Speaking of engaging programs, the Monument Piano Trio regularly

devises them, too, as was the case Sunday afternoon at An die Musik.

A standard score, Beethoven's C minor Trio, Op. 1, No. 3, got things started. Violinist Igor Yuzefovich, cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and pianist Michael Sheppard demonstrated their familiar rapport and technical poise; the performance had a good deal of drama and poetic inflection.

Then a big novelty -- a transcription by Sheppard of Brahms' Symphony No. 2. The pianist was the first to admit, in remarks to the audience, that the presence of such a transcription on the concert raised the question: Why? Well, because Sheppard loves Brahms, that's why. Works for me. Besides, as I've written before, I have a fondness for transcriptions, from solo piano Wagner or Mahler to souped-up orchestral Bach.

Brahms' Second lends itself to a chamber reduction quite well, for the most part, and Sheppard clearly revealed an ability to preserve the essence of the symphonic tapestry. (The first movement repeat wasn't taken, a common enough, if lamentable, practice in orchestral performances, but I hope that doesn't mean Sheppard didn't include the first ending in his transcription.)

Not surprisingly, the keyboard part turned out to be particularly successful. The voicing of the chords sounded so authentically Brahmsian that it was easy to imagine that the composer had made the transcription himself. A few unsteady violin notes aside, the playing was again polished and powerful throughout from all three musicians, who reached a sweeping virtuosity in the finale. The performance answered the "why" question with an emphatic "why not?"


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:18 AM | | Comments (6)


Tim, I'm curious how your other readers feel about this kind of transcription. For me, I'm just not interested in hearing this kind of thing. In fact, I considered going to see the Monument Trio on Sunday but when I saw the Brahms transcription on the program I decided not to go.

But I'm always on the lookout for their performances and will gladly go the next time I see them performing a program that suits my interests more.

If they want to depart from the traditional piano trio rep, I'd rather see them do what they've done at times in the past, ie. bring along a couple of buddies and play a piano quintet or two. The Schnittke quintet would be great! (I realize this may not always be possible because with their other obligations with orchestras etc. the guys may not have the time to prepare for such performances).


Like I said, I'm weird enough to enjoy transcriptions, but I well understand why they would not appeal to everyone. And, of course, there is plenty of piano trio literature to play, so you don't even need to invite friends in for quartets and quintets. I should have mentioned that there is interesting precedent for this sort of thing, since symphonies and concertos were occasionally reduced by the composers themselves into chamber pieces. Beethoven did a piano trio arrangement of his Second Symphony, for example. I thought of Michael Sheppard's faithful transcription in that vein. And, except for some heated development passages in the outer movements where the full symphonic weight was missed, I thought he created a viable chamber work that was fundamentally Brahmsian. But enough of my rambling. I invite my bloggie pals to weigh in on the issue. TIM

"beg the question" does not mean "ignore the question." It means to assume the truth of the matter you're trying to prove.

And that was the least of my typos. I meant to say "raises the question." TS

Personally, I found the trio version of the symphony to reveal with greater clarity the greatness of Brahms's structural and architectural skills as a composer. While I love the 2nd symphony, it has become so familiar to me that it took the novelty of this pared-down version to make me appreciate just what a genius its composer was. The themes and their development emerged in a purer, clearer form, without giving up too much of the "oomph" that the orchestral coloring provides. A piece this great will work when sensitively arranged and performed, even in such a reduced format from its original conception.

Thanks for commenting. One thing about the transparent texture of this version was that you could really appreciate the brief, but dramatic, descending motif that occurs in each of the four movements -- one of my favorite things about a score loaded with unifying devices. TIM

The "logic" of transcriptions used to bother the purist side of me, but coming across more and more examples of them, even by the composers of the original settings, has persuaded me to open up to the idea. Musicians have always borrowed stuff they admire to perform in a different format, making a new piece out of the original and making a compliment to its composer. Sheppard also explained why he chose Brahms' 2nd over the other symphonies, another view into the art of transcription. And what about transcription in the other direction? Bach's organ works or various movements from string quartets arranged for full symphony orchestra? These are also performed often enough with persuasive results.

My sentiments exactly. There's plenty of room for the originals and the transcriptions. TIM

Transcribing any musical work, when done with love and intelligence, is the highest compliment one composer can make toward another. (Of course, you could say the same thing about the "variations on a theme by..." as well, but a successful transcription takes more work.) It's also a darn good teaching tool!

(Personally, I'd like to hear more Brahms symphonies in chamber form [I'm sorry that I missed this one!] -- this was Brahms' best, most natural environment, after all -- the symphonies were actually the oddballs, and they don't affect me to nearly the same degree as the chamber works or lieder.)

In fact, I consider transcribing to be an art form, and we have a wealth of 19th-century (and early 20th) music still largely unexplored by the public in this form. Remember: the average person was _much_ more likely to encounter great orchestral music in a very small venue (e.g., chamber, parlour) a century ago. Admittedly, plenty of hacks did the transcribing work, too, especially with popular pieces -- the publishing houses had to make a buck! -- but plenty of gems exist amidst the marbles.

Interesting points, guys. Maybe next time I won't pass on this kind of performance, after all. And I respect Sheppard for all the hard work that went into his transcription.

I agree with Doug about Brahms being at his best in chamber music. Particularly his works for piano trio, quartet and quintet are some of my all-time favorite pieces.


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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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