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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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