The Claremont Trio triumphs with concert of female composers at the Phillips Collection

Concerts in private salons rather than formal concert halls dot the history of music-making. But they can give the impression of being secondary events where no real music history took place. That makes the revelation of last Sunday’s final concert of the calendar year in the Phillips Collection’s Sunday afternoon concert series all the more striking.

Violinist Emily Bruskin, Pianist Andrea Lam, and Cellist Julia Bruskin of The Claremont Trio. Photo courtesy of Claremont Trio.

The program of music by all female composers by the exceptional Claremont Trio was grounded in the history of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. She was the sister of the vastly more famous Felix Mendelssohn, composer of the ubiquitous Wedding March and many other works. Fanny Mendelssohn was reduced to private performances of her own compositions in Berlin in the 1840s in what was literally a “Sonntagsmusiken” or Sunday home concert series. But in doing so she wound up producing a set of masterpieces that are only now coming to prominence.

The fact that the Claremont Trio – violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam – brought Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor to the Phillips Collection’s ornate Music Room, itself a renovation of the Duncan Phillips family’s own salon for private performances, made for an apt experience near the close of the 21st century’s second decade.

The Fanny Mendelssohn piano trio is a substantial, four-movement composition with some innovative touches that make one want to listen to it again and again. The first movement could easily be used in a parlor game, since it would be fun to have musical “experts” listen to it and have to guess which famous male composer produced such a robust piece of music.

It begins with a burst of pianistic fireworks up and down the keyboard, which Andrea Lam expertly tailored to the Phillips Music Room’s acoustics to eventually yield back to an accompaniment for the violin and cello lines. The music is alternately stormy and lyrical in the way that many early Romantic compositions are in their first movement. Julia Bruskin on the cello would alternately play either lower octaves or a harmony to Emily Bruskin’s violin melody, and then would provide a countermelody of her own according to Fanny Mendelssohn’s score.

The two middle movements in major keys are lighter in mood but in no way slight or trivial. In particular, Fanny Mendelssohn used the innovation of calling the third movement simply Lied, which would be exactly like an American composer calling the third movement of his or her symphony “Song.” It’s set up by a more introspective second movement that nevertheless doesn’t wallow in any kind of despair, with very long-limbed melodies that occasionally intersect in harmonies between the two string instruments and at other times have one of the string instruments follow behind the other on essentially the same melody line. 

Violinist Emily Bruskin, Cellist Julia Bruskin, and Pianist Andrea Lam of The Claremont Trio. Photo
courtesy of Claremont Trio.

Three compositions by living female composers – all of them commissioned by the Claremont Trio earlier this decade – complemented the Fanny Mendelssohn work on the Phillips program. The most compelling was Four Folk Songs by Peruvian-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. It doesn’t take away from the appeal of live concert-going to note that a full, high-quality video of this work performed by the Claremont Trio five years ago is also readily available on YouTube.

There’s no question that it’s a challenging listen on the first go-round, but the programmatic aspects of each of the four songs invariably will lead each listener to pick one or several they can relate to. The first depicts the setting in the Andean highlands for what is known as the María Angola church. But it was particularly noteworthy how in the second song, called simply “Children’s Dance,” the two Bruskin sisters on violin and cello – yes, they are twins – develop sounds that evoke specific Peruvian toys such as wooden llamas and shakers. Both sisters put away their bows for the third song, which practically imitates the kind of guitar accompaniment found for singers in many Peruvian pubs and eating houses.

The fourth song in Frank’s suite is perhaps the toughest and sounds almost violent in invoking Peru’s imagined past back to indigenous cultures. Julia Bruskin’s rather amazingly substantial volume on the unamplified cello helped put numbers like these across during the Phillips concert. It almost made one forget how difficult it can be to pull off “piano trio” music, which involves the 88 keys of a piano and the higher pitches of a violin with natural advantages over the cello. The Claremont Trio, who have been more or less together for 20 years around their other activities – Julia Bruskin, for example, is now also a member of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra – have no such balance problems.

Rounding out the program was a suite called Three Whistler Miniatures by Helen Grime and a piece called Queen of Hearts by Kati Agocs. Contemporary classical concert-goers will recognize the contrast between the “tonal” composition by Agocs and the spikier, modernistic suite by Grime. But adding to the contrasting music and various conversation-starters of the afternoon was a clever touch at the end. The trio returned for an encore introduced by Julia Bruskin, who joyfully announced, “We play music by men, too!” Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla’s Primavera Porteña or “Buenos Aires Spring” thus provided a jazzy finale to the concert.

The Claremont Trio performed in the Sunday afternoon concert series on Sunday, December 15, 2019, at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC. The Phillips concert series resumes on January 12, 2020. For tickets, call 202-387-2151 x277 or go online.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.

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