In the opening of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio in E minor, a bleak cello melody resounds through the hall, evoking an image of the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps.
Comprised of violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan and pianist Rieko Aizawa, the Horszowski Trio will perform on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Sprague Hall. The program includes the Shostakovich trio — which Shostakovich composed during World War II, following the death of his friend Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky — Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Trio No. 4 “Dumky” and five of Elliott Carter’s 12 “Epigrams.” The three works, composed in greatly varying time periods, have contrasting styles.
“We think of ourselves as museum curators who want to design a room so that the public can progress from one painting or sculpture to the next, where the works of art complement each other,” Ramakrishnan said of the concert’s program.
The Horszowski Trio, which has been described by the New Yorker as “the most compelling American group” to come on the classical music scene, formed in 2011. Its members have known each other for far longer. Mills and Ramakrishnan met as preteens at the Kinhaven Music School, a summer training program for young musicians. They reunited at the Juilliard School’s pre-college program, in college and at the Marlboro Music Festival.
Mills and Aizawa performed together frequently while freelancing in New York City. The two are now married.
“Our initial connection was musical, and I always admired her as a musician as well as a person, so the ground was laid for all three connections,” Mills said.
According to Mills, the decision to form a trio stemmed from a “funny story.”
“The three of us really wanted to go to Hawaii, but [Ramakrishnan] didn’t have the heart to tell the concert presenter that he did not have a piano trio, so we scrambled together recordings and decided to form the trio,” Mills said.
Over the last eight years, the trio has performed in many locations including London’s Wigmore Hall, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, Saint Paul’s Schubert Club and Atlanta’s Spivey Hall. They toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, East Asia and India, performing both works from the classical canon and new commissions.
Aizawa was the last pupil of pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski — the trio’s namesake. At the age of 16, Aizawa studied with the 96-year-old Horszowski for four years at the Curtis Institute of Music.
“We felt like we wanted to honor and promote his legacy because he’s someone many don’t know about even though he is so amazing and such a sincere artist,” Mills said.
The Horszowski trio will open the concert with the “Dumky” trio, Dvorak’s most famous piano trio. “Dumky” refers to a form of Slavic folk music that alternates between melancholy and lively sections. The contrast between the fast and slow parts is evident in each of the piece’s six movements.
“We like opening concerts with this piece because it’s very emotional,” Mills said. “Nothing is expected, and there’s always an element of surprise. It’s incredibly satisfying.”
The ensemble will then perform an excerpt of “Epigrams” by Carter. Carter was an American modernist composer known for elaborate rhythmic layering; his “Epigrams” were no exception. Carter composed the piece, his last composition, in 2012, when he was 103 years old.
The trio has a personal connection to the work — Ramakrishnan’s teacher at Juilliard, Fred Sherry, was a friend of Carter. He helped Carter write some of the work’s string parts, and Carter acknowledged Sherry explicitly in the written score.
Ramakrishnan, who met Carter through a performance with his previous quartet — the renowned Daedalus Quartet — said, “One can hear that vitality in Carter’s music from throughout his life. Even in his last work, there’s a lot of humor in it.”
The concert’s final piece, the Shostakovich, is anything but humorous -— each of the work’s four movements conveys the composer’s anger and sadness. Ramakrishnan described the first movement as a journey “through anguish from the ghostly harmonics at the beginning, which sound like whistling through the graveyard … that slowly builds up to some kind of torture.”
Even the “Scherzo” movement — usually a light, joking dance — feels sarcastic and tortured. The third movement, “Largo,” was played at Shostakovich’s funeral three decades after its composition. The final movement tells the story of Jewish people sent to their deaths during the war and ends with the same bleak melody that began the piece.
“The way that they share their music-making with an audience stands out to me,” said violinist Sam Panner ’21, who heard the trio perform the Shostakovich piece this summer. “I felt like I was almost a part of the performance watching them.”
The concert is 2019’s final concert in the Oneppo Chamber Music Series.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org