There are plenty of great string quartets. String trios, not so much. Mozart wrote a massive one, which he modestly titled a divertimento; Beethoven and Schönberg also composed for the combination of violin, viola, and cello.
But that’s about it — until now.
Camerata Pacifica, the Santa Barbara–based chamber-music ensemble, is kicking off its 25th season this weekend with the world premiere of a string trio by John Harbison. The 30-minute work is also featured on the group’s first-ever CD, an all-Harbison disc that has just been released on the internationally distributed Harmonia Mundi label.
“I had been putting off writing a string trio for about 50 years,” the composer said in an interview from his Massachusetts home. “I tried to write one when I was about 15. I learned enough to understand how difficult the combination was. I remember thinking when I was 17 that I’d come back to this when I had more experience.”
Harbison certainly took his time, but he has hardly been idle. Now 75, he has established himself as one of the greatest living American composers, winning the Pulitzer Prize and enjoying performances of his work by many of the world’s most prestigious ensembles.
“I’ve always liked his music,” said Adrian Spence, Camerata Pacifica’s founder and music director. “I really admire his command of form and structure and counterpoint. All the reasons we love Bach are reasons to love Harbison.”
Spence initially approached the composer with a different project a decade or so ago. Harbison was intrigued but realized he couldn’t fit it into his busy schedule. They stayed in touch over the years, and when Spence decided he wanted a string trio for the three principle players at the core of his ensemble — violinist Catherine Leonard, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Ani Aznavoorian — Harbison was the first person he called.
“He said no repeatedly,” Spence remembers. “It took four or five years, I think, before he agreed to do it. When he was ready, I’d been ready for a long time!”
Spence chuckled. “There’s the reason we’ve been around for 25 years — early in my career, I coined the phrase that ‘no’ is just the first two letters of ‘not yet.’ That is still my philosophy.”
Harbison’s reticence was understandable. “It’s no accident that there aren’t very many string trios,” he said. “[The problems raised by] a string quartet are a lot more solvable than a string trio. The one [additional] player somehow makes a huge amount of difference.”
Figuring he might as well follow the example of the one composer who incontestably mastered the form, he decided to mimic the outline of Mozart’s string trio, right down to the unusual number of movements (six). “When I was working on the piece,” Harbison recalled, “a couple of friends who know the repertoire asked, ‘Is it going to have one movement too many, the way the Mozart does?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“My second movement is the slow movement, as in the Mozart,” he said. “I thought that, in a piece of that size, that’s the right time for it. The final movement, somewhat to my surprise, wound up with a character which is somewhat aggravated and impatient. I was somewhat surprised that was what I was dealing with, but I thought I’d better go with it.
“The string trio is not a medium for which listeners have much of a context for,” he added. “It’s a very different world from that of the quartet. I tried to make the discourse as clear as I could and tried to focus the ear on the individuality of each player.”
The long gestation period did result in one casualty: Violinist Leonard has since left the group. But her replacements — Amy Schwartz Moretti on the CD and Movses Pogossian in concert — have been more than up to the task, and Spence is thrilled with the results.
“It’s one of those wonderful pieces that bears repeat listening,” he said. “The more you listen to it, the more you’ll get out of it.”
The CD, of course, will afford opportunities for multiple hearings. Spence turned down previous opportunities to record the group, saying that his focus has always been the live concerts. “But when Harmonia Mundi came knocking, that was an endorsement I couldn’t turn my back on,” he said.
At the request of the engineer/producer, the group landed at the recital hall of SUNY Purchase in January to record. “It was a nightmare,” recalls Spence. “The day all the musicians were arriving was the day the polar vortex descended on New York. We lost half a day of recording because of the blizzard.
“The hall had been closed over the Christmas holidays. When we opened the doors, we found snow inside — it had blown in under the doors! We had electric heaters all around the group. It was -2 degrees outside, and I think it was -1 inside.”
CamPac’s world-premiere concerts will be under more favorable climactic conditions, though. They kick off a season that concludes in May with Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos — the same repertoire played on December 3, 1990, in the Lobero Theatre, at Camerata Pacifica’s first performance.
Camerata Pacifica plays the music of Mozart, Schubert, and John Harbison at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall (1070 Fairview Rd.) on Friday, September 12, at 1 and 7:30 p.m. They’ll also perform at Temple Beth Torah (7620 Foothill Rd., Ventura) on Sunday, September 14, at 3 p.m. Call (805) 884-8410 or visit cameratapacifica.org for tickets and info.