Highbrow Humor

The Peabody Trio in a Residency Concert. Lotte Lehmann Hall, Thursday, January 25.

Reviewed by James Hanley Donelan

Lotte Lehmann Hall at the Music Academy of the West is just like your living room — if it were 1925, you were J.D. Rockefeller, and you had invited your friends over to hear some of the finest chamber musicians in the world. The Peabody Trio, with Violaine Melançon, violin, Natasha Brofsky, cello, and Seth Knopp, piano, gave us a thoughtful, beautiful, and, at times, very funny performance on Thursday night in these elegant surroundings. The concert began with Mozart’s Quartet for Flute & Strings in D Major, K. 285, and included Jill Felber, flute, and Helen Callus, viola, from UCSB’s Music Department. This wonderful work (which Mozart composed while in Mannheim, where he was trying to get a job) has everything: stunning melodies, rich harmony, perfect balance, and elegant precision.

The funny part came next. Seth Knopp introduced Charles Ives’s Trio with an eloquent mix of history, biography, and musicology, revealing that among the melodies woven into this complex, modernist work was the familiar “ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.” Indeed, it came, along with a wild mixture of highly original and shamelessly stolen tunes, deliberately sour notes, clashing rhythms, loud bangs, and eerie quiet passages. Ives loved a gag — the scherzo has the mysterious letters “TSIAJ” before it on the program, which turn out to mean “This Scherzo Is A Joke” — but his real intent was always serious. He wanted to open up our ears to sounds we usually miss and make us more attentive listeners. The Peabody Trio’s precise, intelligent performance of his Trio fulfilled this purpose admirably.

Shulamit Ran’s Soliloquy (1997) followed the intermission and gave our newly opened ears a real workout. As Knopp explained, this short piece tells a story taken from Jewish folklore about the dybbuk, a ghost that returns to possess his lover’s body. The work sounds possessed, too — it contains some of the highest notes ever played on a violin and all kinds of sound effects, but at its core are some exquisite melodies. Brahms’s Quartet for Piano & Strings No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 finished the concert with even more emotion — sighs, whispers, shouts, and hurrahs, rendered in rich chords and glittering runs. As we left, we could hear the spirits in the winds all the more clearly for having had this brilliant experience.

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