November, 1995 issue of The Strad , Volume 106, Number 1267

"The Making of a Medium"

Henry Roth meets the Verdehr Trio, pioneers of the unusual
instrumental grouping of violin, clarinet and piano

In the stressful quest for economic and artistic survival and recognition, some violinists have become trailblazers. One has pioneered solo and chamber music in Alaska [Paul Rosenthal], another has conjured up nationwide publicity through collaboration with television weather reporters [Gil Shaham], and others establish summer festival and string schools at scenic sites in America and Europe. Still others become prominent by writing instructional and pedagogical material, and a few even achieve repute (or disrepute) in the field of music criticism. Violinist Walter Verdehr and his clarinetist wife, Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, in company with pianist Gary Kirkpatrick--who joined the pair in 1980--have been garnering a brilliant career by means of concert performances and unprecedented repertoire building in a lesser-known medium: the violin, clarinet, and piano trio.

The Trio, first formed in 1972, came fully into its own in the late '70s, and the number of major new works it has commissioned is now nearing one hundred. Together with its residency at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, the highly personable group, its members now in their early 50s, frequently plays as many as 60 concerts per year, and often gives masterclasses or demonstrations of new music performance-techniques in conjunction with their concerts. The Verdehrs are also professors at MSU with some 16 students each during the school season, while Kirkpatrick enjoys a similar position at William Paterson College in New Jersey.

During the Verdehrs' recent California sojourn, I was able to discuss their work and aims with them. Verdehr states: 'Our ambition is to forge a chamber medium with a distinctive personality and repertoire which can eventually take its place alongside the piano trio, the string quartet, and the woodwind and brass quintets as a major musical entity. This is not a modest goal, but in more than 20 years of endeavor, we feel we are well along the way. In the process we are striving to establish a performance standard for the ensemble that is very different from that of a temporary group. We work assiduously to achieve blending of instrumental sound, balance, and homogeneity of attack. And of utmost importance is the quality of music written for us.'

'In commissioning new works, we try to get the composers we respect and admire most, representing as many different stylistic modes as possible. The most famous contemporary composers are often elusive, or either too busy of too expensive to engage. However, we have persuaded a good number of them to write for us, and we have also uncovered quite a few gems from scarcely-known composers. The Michigan State University administration has been very supportive of our commissioning efforts.'

'What about your own solo playing?' I ask. 'It isn't easy,' he smiles, 'I still practice every day and publicly perform most of the standard concertos. Recently I did the Sibelius with orchestra, and I play a large number of major sonatas in recital, including some like the Elgar, Diamond, Nielsen, Corigliano, Bolcom, and Lekeu that receive fewer performances that they deserve. I've also performed 20th-century concertos by Weill, Menotti, Arutiunian and others. To me, this makes playing the Beethoven and Mozart concertos all the more enjoyable and meaningful.'

The trio also plays settings of classic works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Frescobaldi transcribed by Ludewig-Verdehr, as well as a large assortment of standard 19th- and 20th-century composition and transcriptions from Schubert to Wagner and Berg to Bartok. In his earlier years, Verdehr's musical tastes were quite conservative. Today they are eclectic. 'Our repertoire of commissioned works runs the gamut from what is generally know as "conservative modern" to the most musically and instrumentally challenging, even experimental, inventions. However, we draw the line at works that patently abuse the instruments to create bizarre, sensationalist effects. Certain of our commissioned pieces may sound "far out" to conservative ears, but we select only composers whose previous composition display strong evidence of instrumental craftsmanship and skilful technique. Sometimes we commission a work from a little-known composer on the basis of having heard one of his or her pieces on a radio broadcast or tape. We have sought out composers from the US, Europe, Australia, Asia and South America. And about 20 of our commissioned works have been published.

'What if they commission a work and you are not pleased with the result? 'It has happened occasionally,' he says, 'If so, we learn it anyhow, and give it a good half-dozen performances. Sometimes we change our opinion.'

I ask about the difficulty of obtaining engagements for an instrumental grouping that is unfamiliar to the average concert audience. 'We have been fortunate in having had the US Information Service sponsor many of our world tours. Our programmes have included the premieres of Thea Musgrave in Istanbul; Ned Rorem in Bombay; and Alan Hovhaness in Islamabad.'

'However, we also do a great deal of our own management both here and abroad.'Ludewig-Verdehr adds: 'Walter is the "ideas man" for our enterprise. My organizational function is attending to the "nuts and bolts" of things.'It must be a strenuous life, practicing, teaching, learning complex new works, performing, and managing their careers? 'Yes,'Verdehr admits, 'but we've successfully plied this regime for many years. And we have one big advantage over piano trios and string quartetsÖ we don't have to buy and extra plane ticket for the cello! Seriously, it is not as difficult as it seems. A good number of our concerts are scheduled on weekends, or during school vacations.'

Verdehr feels that the instrumental challenges posed by contemporary music in an unusual medium have served to make them better players. 'We have to fashion the performance style of a work that has never before been played, formulate its interpretation, overcome its technical obstacles--which are often extremely difficult and unorthodox--and, above all, search out its musical message. And it is quite another matter to coordinate the sound of a violin with a clarinet than with a cello. Elsa is a very powerful clarinetist, as well as a subtle one, and I have had to learn about achieving tonal rapport with her. We have encountered similar problems in amalgamating the violin-clarinet sound and articulation with that of the piano. Luckily, Gary is a very sensitive, flexible pianist. He can play with great vigor when the music requires it; yet he is never guilty of overwhelming his partners, as is the case with some piano trios. Our combination can actually produce more sheer sonority and resonance than most small chamber groups.'

In listening to the CDs of the Verdehr Trio--on such labels as Crystal, Leonardo, Corelia and Amadeo--I have to agree. One of the most significant achievements of the trio is the commissioning and performance of triple concertos with orchestra. So far they have commissioned five, 'all quite different in character', by Stanislaw Skrowaczewsky, Thomas Christian David, Alexander Arutiunian, William Wallace and David Ott. 'Some of our concerto performances have been with Vienna's Tonkünstler Orchestra, the Honolulu Symphony and the Prague Chamber Soloists, and we are scheduled to perform with the National Orchestra of Spain, the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra and others.'

In all their travels they must have encountered some unusual incidents? 'Yes,'says Verdehr. 'I remember we arrived in Rangoon, Burma, and the piano was a semitone flat.'Did they have to cancel the concert? 'No, we played. You see, Elsa always carries an A-clarinet along with her B-flat instrument, and I merely lowered my strings a semitone. It was far from our best performance, but we received vociferous applause. Another time we were in Chengdu, in the Szechwan province of China. Surprisingly they had a beautiful Hamburg Steinway piano, and had the foresight to call in their piano tuner to prepare it for us. But the tuner locked it after completing the job, absent-mindedly took the key, jumped on his bicycle and disappeared. We only discovered this around an hour before our concert--and the tuner had no telephone in his home! Somehow they got the instrument unlocked. We began to play and the electricity went out. So they lit the hall with candles. Then, mid-concert, the lights flashed on suddenly, upsetting both the audience and us. However, the balance of the concert went well, drawing cheers from the listeners.

'Probably unique in its field is the Verdehr Trio's The Making a Medium video series, comprising three hour-long videos each featuring two composers and hosted by the music commentator Martin Bookspan. As well as complete performances of the new works, each video includes interviews with the performers and composers, adding a significant new dimension to the performances.

The first video features the composers Alan Hovhaness and Karel Husa. Written in 1990, Hovhaness's trio Lake Samish contains nothing that can be construed as atonal or avant-garde. At one point the pianist strikes the same note rapidly and successively to approximate a novel pseudo-sostenuto. The work is overtly descriptive of its title, Lake Samish in Washington state, near the Canadian border. The spirited finale, Jhala, is flecked with exotic middle-Eastern overtones, and also recalls sounds of India and Japan. In his oral presentation, Hovhaness gives the impression of one who has discovered fully his creative muse and is satisfied to direct his energies towards exploring the limits of that milieu.

The Czech-American Husa, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer, is an entirely different matter. His eclectic Sonata a Tre (1982) sports many varied effects, some insolently dissonant, but never quite stepping over the line into mindless cacophony. At one point, the piano has notes with the strings plucked both with and without the use of fingernails; the violin has tremolos, harmonics and double-harmonics, plus a tremendously difficult cadenza soliloquy. Each instrument has many sharp contrasts of mood and clashes of sound, with consistent batteries of virtuoso effects. The movements titled ' With intensity,' ' With sensitivity', and ' With velocity' are aptly named. This is a video that needs to be heard and seen more than once.

Ned Rorem's End of Summer(1985) is especially well balanced and smartly constructed. A Pulitzer Prize recipient best known for his vocal works, Rorem handles the instruments with dexterity. The work has flickers of Brahms and Satie, and its influence of hopscotch ditties and Protestant anthems often imparts an early-American flavour. The opening violin cadenza, a heroic finger board outburst, displays some of Verdehr's most impressive playing. The violin and clarinet exchange roles as the soprano of the trio with polished interplay, culmination in a rather lugubrious but intriguing motif. The nostalgic final section builds into a furious climax, concluding a work that is both stimulation and satisfying.

Gunther Schuller, who began his career as a French-horn virtuoso, has also been a conductor, educator, administrator, music publisher, and record producer. His work is simply entitled Trio (1990). In the video he bitterly decries the lack of classical music on television. He also asserts, rather controversially, that he does not believe music should be interpreted--just 'realised'. Schuller's comparatively short opening movement enters into a headlong pace, rife with complex rhythms, and ends in instrumental unison. The second movement is calm and somewhat eerie, a meandering narrative. A restless third movement, dominated by a wistful clarinet solo follows, and the finale is agitated, impassioned, often tumultuous, intersected by a meditative segment that leads back to a thundering discordant ending. It is a work that sustains interest throughout, and succeeds in using dissonance in a provocative manner.

Leslie Bassett is another Pulitzer Prize winner whose music is widely performed in the US. Of his five-movement Trio (1980) he declares that he envisions the violin and clarinet as one force; the piano, as another. His music has a pronounced analytical aura, is highly charged, forceful and dramatic, with contrasting placid and lyrical sections. It finds the Verdehr Trio in peak form, surmounting the composition's many technical hurdles with aplomb.

Best known for her operas, Scottish-born composer Thea Musgrave presents a special challenge to the trio in Pierrot (1986) a Commedia del Arte formation in collaboration with Jennifer Muller's three-member dance company. The starting point for the idea was a chance rediscovery of Debussy's La Serenade Interromptu. But Musgrave's music in no way apes Debussy's impressionism; rather it has an impressionist aura of its own which underscores the familiar Pierrot--Columbine--Harlequin programme skit with Pierrot once again losing out to his more virile rival. It is tastefully burnished music played with grace and elegance. And it serves to whet the appetite for the forthcoming new videos, due for release after 1996, featuring works by such eminent modernists as Menotti, Sculthorpe, Bolcom, Manoury, Arutiunian and Schickele, played by this crusading trio.

This article is from the November, 1995 issue of The Strad, Volume 106, Number 1267

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