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Piano Trio

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

A concert review by Dato' Danny Goon.

When Stars align.....

It is often believed that when stars are said to align, it is a sign that something good or fortunate is about to happen. That been so, then nothing less than the constellation aligned within the hallowed walls of the Yeap Homestead, Wawasan Open University on Saturday, 13 May 2023. That evening, Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) welcomed the YST Faculty Trio from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore to open PPO's Chamber Series for 2023/24.

The YST Faculty Trio comprises 3 of the University's Professors, namely, Qian Zhou, Head of Strings, Qin Li-Wei, Head of Cello and Albert Tiu, Head of Piano. Citizens of the USA, Australia and Singapore, respectively, the 3 Professors aligned to present a most wonderful evening featuring Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op.8, Rachmaninov's Trio Elegiaque No. 1 in G Minor, and Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor. Op.50. Clearly, Penang has not experienced such musical splendour in its history. The full house of classical aficionados were duly seated in the historic mansion awaiting an experience of a lifetime, or as the soothsayers would say, waiting for the stars to align.

It must be admitted that Shostakovich is not often performed publicly here. This 20th Century composer is reputed to have written some of the most cryptic music of that century at a time when the Russian revolution was in full swing. Was he a radical or a conservative composer? A communist or a dissident? It was said that he was very aware of being watched always. Did it surprise you then that his compositions opened Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut...... and featured in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies? Still, his Piano Trio No. 1 in C minor, OP.8 was said to have been written when Shostakovich was a mere 17 year old. It was a worthy introduction.

Would teenage composers have played any part in the Faculty Trio's selection of Rachmaninov's Trio Elegiaque No. 1 in G Minor as their next piece? Rachmaninov was said to be only 18 when he wrote the piece. This work is cast in one movement, in contrast to most piano trios, which have three or four. The elegiac theme is presented in the first part by the piano. In the following parts, the elegy is presented by the cello and the violin. The theme is ultimately recast as a funeral march. Prof Albert Tiu took pains to point out that the piece has a distinctive connection to Tchaikovsky's Trio in A minor, which was the next offering.

The key to the connection is that while the Rachmaninov has a repetitive opening theme, a four note rising motif, the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio has the same rhythm opening but in a descending motif, which Prof Tiu deftly demonstrated on the Steinway Concert Grand to the bemused audience. Would anyone have noticed otherwise? This was the only work Tchaikovsky ever wrote for the combination of piano, violin and cello. His benefactress, Nedezhda von Meek, had asked for such a piece. But he refused, saying in a letter to her that "...I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me....I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin with cello. To my mind, the timbre of these instruments will not blend....". Perhaps he changed his mind. He composed the piano trio without being asked again. Still, he lamented that having spent his life writing for orchestras, and only taken late in life to chamber music, he feared he may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. Hence, he was not sure whether he had been successful. Listening to the YST Faculty Trio's rendition that evening, the audience lapped it all up and saluted not only the great man, but also the delightful threesome who must have satisfied not only the most discerning ear of the composer, but the evening's rapt audience, as they leapt to their feet in celebration of a great classical evening within the intimate walls of a 100 year old mansion. The acoustics were brilliant.

The YST Faculty Trio was not let off without an encore. As the clapping receded, they obliged the attentive audience with Edward Elgar's Salut d'Amour.

Classical instrument enthusiasts may wish to know that Prof Tiu performed on the PPO's Steinway Concert Grand while Prof Qian played a violin made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini in 1757, on a generous loan from the Rin Collection. Prof Qin normally plays on a cello made by Guiseppe Guadagnini (Son of G B Guadagnini) in 1780 on generous loan from Dr and Mrs Wilson Gan of Singapore. Unfortunately, a late seat hitch by the airline meant the cello could not board. Nonetheless, Prof Qin mastered his locally borrowed instrument quickly and the concert went on as scheduled without anyone missing a beat.

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