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Eroica Piano Trio Performs With a Playful Ambition

Music review: This savvy '90s act manages to bring some theatrical flair to the usually dowdy world of chamber music.

July 17, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

"Eroica" is a formidable name in classical music. It is the name Beethoven gave to his Third Symphony. And it is in honor of this famous and great symphony that three stately young women have named their piano trio, which opened the Los Angeles Philharmonic's series of summer chamber music concerts at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Monday night.

The name gives pause and so, too, does the Eroica Trio. Piano trios are not normally heroic utterances, although that is not out of the question. And the Eroica Trio clearly enjoys the startling contrast between its own aggressive style of playing and its appearance, given that violinist Adela Pen~a, cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio and pianist Erika Nickrenz have a fondness for striking, slinky gowns and spiked heels. (How much, one has to wonder, did the Eroica pick its curious name because it sounds so close to a name it wouldn't dare use?) Nonetheless, the Eroica Trio looks good and sounds good, and the ladies know it. There is a playful exaggeration in their mannerisms--soulful, closed-eye, rhapsodic gestures from Pen~a; wily Garboesque poses from Sant'Ambrogio; and the Vanna White smile of Nickrenz. They take great pleasure in their exceptional technique, trading off self-satisfied smiles as they toss off feats of virtuosity. They cultivate a remarkable unanimity of style that extends to the sacrifice of individual biographies in the program for a single ensemble blurb.

This is a savvy '90s act, bringing some sophisticated visual and theatrical interest to the usually dowdy world of chamber music, and it is an enjoyable one as far as it goes, especially in so gracious a setting as the Ford. Unfortunately, it doesn't yet go far enough in some ways and goes a little too far in others. The Eroica wants to be both showy and serious. But the showiness is just slightly too cute and not quite polished enough. The serious side, on the other hand, could use a little more cute and a little less calculated polish.

*

What that translated to in performance Monday was a simple lack of spontaneity. The Eroica did not choose heroic music, it chose spirited, youthful, lyrical, alluring music. But the ensemble lived up to its name more than necessary in Mendelssohn's Trio No. 2 in C Minor, imposing drama where lightness and grace would have been enough. In Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio, where those Slavonic soulful laments suddenly leap into a wild dance, the players seemed to get into predetermined grooves that, impressive as they were, lacked real abandon.

Where the Eroica came to life, however, was in Paul Schoenfield's "Cafe Music," written, the composer says in the program notes, after he sat in one night for a pianist in Murray's Restaurant in Minneapolis. The result is a kind of lounge music full of witty left curves. They are the kind of left curves that Schoenfield has become increasingly well known for, works where, say, klezmer and country go hand and hand. In the inspired middle movement of "Cafe Music" a mysterious Hasidic melody was made all the more haunting for the syncopated vamping Schoenfield slid in under it.

In music like this, the Eroica players suddenly sounded like naturals. They seemed to innately sense the flow, where the drama was as the music sped up or slowed down. They were actually showier here than in Mendelssohn or Dvorak, which worked better, because the show fit the substance.

With the Schoenfield, the ladies demonstrated that they clearly are on to something. They've got the technique and, in the right music, they've got the style. Now if they can get to the point where they can make all the music look and sound like the right music, there will be no stopping them.

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