A violinist stands up from her seat and recites dramatic lines about murder from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” She sits down and the recitation morphs seamlessly into an excerpt of a piano trio by Johannes Brahms. Meanwhile, a dancer, portraying Lady Macbeth, dances to the music.
The performance, “Those Secret Eyes,” tells the story of Lady Macbeth by combining chamber music, text and dance. This inventive approach is characteristic of the acclaimed piano trio Merz Trio.
“Everything felt really alive and really focused,” said Lee Dionne ’11 MUS ’13 ’14 ’19, Merz Trio pianist and co-teacher of the University’s undergraduate chamber music seminar. “We were all affected by that snippet of text that would precede every moment, and we performed in a way that was completely spontaneous and reactive.”
Dionne earned a degree in literature from Yale College and decided to pursue music after spending the summer before his senior year at the Norfolk Summer Chamber Music Institute. He, along with violinist Brigid Coleridge and cellist Julia Yang, are the Merz Trio. According to the trio’s website, Merz Trio’s name is inspired by the early 20th-century German impressionist artist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters coined the term “Merz” to describe his collages based on scavenged scrap materials.
On Sunday, Oct. 6, the trio was named a winner of the Concert Artists Guild Victor Emaleh Competition at Merkin Hall in New York. The trio’s awards also include First Prize at the 2019 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and First Prize and Audience Prize at the 2019 Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition.
During the final round of the Concert Artists Guild competition, Merz Trio performed four contrasting works spanning only 20 minutes: the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 70 No. 2 piano trio, a miniature by contemporary Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud, the trio’s own arrangement of an Alban Berg song and the finale of Maurice Ravel’s piano trio.
At the Concert Artists Guild competition, Coleridge recited a poem before the trio’s performance of the Berg song.
According to Dionne, the program reflects Merz Trio’s focus on diverse and “unusually programmed shows.”
Dionne referenced advice from music history and theory professor Michael Friedmann when choosing the concert program.
“[The audience] should be able to remember everything that happens,” said Dionne. “You want everything about the experience to be memorable for the audience.”
The trio also chose to include pieces composed over the course of the early 19th to 21st centuries.
“We’re thinking about the types of music that show our personality and what we like to express in the music,” Yang said. “One of the reasons we chose the Beethoven and Ravel was because of how joyful those pieces are.”
Merz Trio formed in January 2017, when Dionne and Yang were members of Ensemble Connect, a fellowship program in New York City run jointly by Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School. Coleridge had collaborated with Dionne several years earlier at the Vermont-based Yellow Barn music festival and was in New York at the time as a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“We [were] all at a point in life where we had a lot of chamber music experience,” Coleridge said. “We had each individually decided that chamber music is something we’re really passionate about and that we would love to be doing with our lives.”
The three musicians formed the trio with a focus on engaging “with audiences in a new generation with new ideas about how to keep classical music relevant and meaningful to audiences,” Dionne said.
Merz Trio’s website describes their programming as “thoughtfully curated,” combining works from the traditional classical canon with each member’s extramusical interests.
The Trio started without any formal mentor or training program and instead took the initiative to ask a wide range of chamber musicians in New York City for coaching sessions. Two and a half years later, they are based in Boston as the graduate piano trio-in-residence at New England Conservatory’s Professional Piano Trio Program.
According to Coleridge, the three members see their different backgrounds as an advantage. Coleridge grew up in Australia and studied English literature, French and violin performance at the University of Melbourne before continuing her violin studies at the Royal College of Music in London. Dionne also earned an undergraduate degree in literature, and Yang’s extensive list of musical accomplishments includes a solo performance with the New World Symphony Orchestra, where she served as principal cellist.
“Difference and diversity is our strength, and [we’re] constantly learning from our different experiences,” Coleridge said.
Merz Trio used their members’ interests in other art forms, such as literature, culinary arts, dance and theatre, to create projects like “Those Secret Eyes.” “Merz Launch” was a “walking tour” featuring German diasporic art, text by W. G. Sebald and music. Another project, “Merz Tastes,” paired music with conversation and dining through collaboration with artist chefs.
“We’ve never felt that we have to do these interdisciplinary things because we’re running out of audiences, but it’s because [we’re] passionate about them,” Coleridge said. “It’s amazing when you can bring that knowledge into direct conversation with music that’s brought to your audience.”
Merz Trio is currently touring the Midwest as part of a Double Gold Tour affiliated with their Fischoff Competition win. Their next performance, on Oct. 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center, will feature music by Brahms and Schumann.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org