Review: October 12, 2004

Chamber Music: A New Star Group

By Heuwell Tircuit
San Francisco Classical Voice
October 12, 2004

Sunday afternoon’s concert by Triple Helix in Old First Church was so refined in all small details that what they were playing seemed nearly unimportant. I had the feeling that, had they programmed an arrangement of “Chop Sticks,” the result would have proven enthralling. But for the record, they opened with Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio (1990), followed by two pillars of the Trio repertory: Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, and Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49.

The Boston-based ensemble have been active both as a group and individually as teachers, lecturers and recording artists. The one thing the three musicians have in common, apart from their acumen, is that all three did their graduate work at Yale University: violinist Bayla Keyes, cellist Rhonda Rider and pianist Lois Shapiro. Their unity of style and musicality was most remarkable and there was consistently polished excellence of the individuals as well as the ensemble sum of their parts.

Besides superb intonation and balance, Triple Helix’ tempos were flawless. They managed a lively brilliance, but always within the context of lyrical warmth. Among their numerous awards and citations, The Boston Globe has three times consecutively named them Best Chamber Music in Boston, a city famous for the purchase of more chamber music recordings than any other in the country. Triple Helix Trio is likely the most important new American chamber group to appear since the emergence of the Emerson Quartet on the international scene.

Keyes and Rider had their best chance to display their skills during Sheng’s Movements. Sheng, professor of composition at the University of Michigan, draws heavily on Chinese folk materials for his piece. His Four Movements consists of two slow movements separated by two quick ones. Those lyrical slow movements adopted Asian instrumental and vocal techniques into his sound palette. Thus the strings are required to play sliding portamentos between melodic lines, plus the occasional microtonal variation of normal western scales. Then, too, Sheng used an interesting idea to accommodate traditional Chinese unison melody, something akin to Charles Ives’ off-kilter moments.

Rather than playing in octaves, the two strings play an extremely tight canon, one line only a tiny bit behind the other, and just occasionally slipping into a unison. Not having heard the piece before, I cannot be absolutely certain of the perfect performance; but the whole of what Keyes and Rider offered was so convincing that it would certainly seem on the mark. The beauty of the music, as well as its content, proved a delight, as did the final nocturne-like nostalgia. That said however, the two fast movements — a short scherzo and what the composer described as “a savage dance” — struck me cliché-ridden and, bluntly, kitschy.

Pianist Lois Shapiro rather became the star of the event, especially with her outstanding playing during the Beethoven. Her performance was marked by pleasant surprises. The variety of timbre, piece by piece, constituted a major strength throughout. Shapiro’s touch could change in an instant from into-the-keys playing, for resonance and additional overtones, to feathery glistening. Best of all, she never overpowered the proceedings. When necessary, she could step forward to project major materials. Yet, on the whole, hers was a strength called upon only when appropriate. Artistry and intellect were perfectly balanced in her playing, and — make no mistake — this is obviously a highly artistic pianist. I would love to hear her do a performance with orchestra, for she’s the closest thing I’ve encountered, since, to the great Clara Haskil in subtlety.

Triple Helix is a name to mark and remember.

(Heuwell Tircuit, composer, performer and writer, was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the SF Chronicle, previously for the Chicago American and Asahi Evening News.
©2004 Heuwell Tircuit, all rights reserved)