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With skill like this, glamour's optional

The Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio performs Shostakovich, Mozart and Part unforgettably.

November 09, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Nothing could be easier than to take the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio for granted. It made its debut at the White House in 1977, a long-ago time when a U.S. president wanted classical musicians (and not just the starriest) at his inauguration. Now the ensemble is pushing 30.

This has never been a particularly glamorous group. It has done its bit for new and American music, but only a fairly conventional bit at that. Its repertory is not particularly large or adventurous. It has made recordings but lacked the kind of contract with a fancy international label that would give it cachet. It discourages even the slightest evidence of flair, such as calling the trio the KLR. Heaven forbid that the KLR should put out a CD with a stylish, well-designed cover.

But what excellent musicians are pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson. And how superbly they play together.

Monday night the Philharmonic Society brought them to the Irvine Barclay Theatre (which, by the way, got an update once it became the IBT). A crowd of complainers showed up. When Kalichstein started to say something interesting about a small piece by Arvo Part that the trio was about to play, one woman griped that he should "just shut up!"

The whole thing might have been enough to give chamber music in Orange County a bad name. But it didn't. The trio quieted everyone by giving a startlingly pointed performance of a trio by one of music's most audacious malcontents.

The program, Kalichstein announced, was one of anniversaries. Shostakovich's two trios were bookends -- next year is the composer's centennial. Mozart's 250th birthday is also next year, and his Piano Trio in B-flat, K. 502, was included. Before it came Part's "Mozart-Adagio," in honor of the Estonian composer's 70th birthday two months ago.

Shostakovich's two trios tell an interesting tale of promise and fulfillment, but not happiness. The early trio is juvenilia, written by a 17-year-old. The composer's ear is attuned to the harmonic experiments of Scriabin, the rhythmic vitality of Prokofiev. But he already has his own voice. The themes are individual, if he doesn't yet know what to do with them. A hint of the morbidity that would make him famous can be detected, but not the shattering whine that would take years to cultivate.

The other trio, considered one of Shostakovich's masterpieces, was written 21 years later. World War II has taken its toll on Leningrad, where the score had its premiere in 1944. According to one account, Shostakovich had just learned of the German death camps and in the bizarre last movement wanted to represent the Nazis dancing on the graves of their victims.

The Kalichstein Laredo Robinson performance was tight and startling in its unwillingness to wring emotion. The opening is amazing, the cello playing high harmonics, then the violin coming in much lower. The melody is melancholic as only a disconsolate Russian could write. The world is turned upside down. The piano's cold precision announces the fighting spirit.

The three players avoided underlining Shostakovich's crazy ferocity, especially as he leans over the psychotic deep end in his scherzo movement. What they brought instead was tense precision, which proved a more devastating display of horror than predictable wild wailing.

It was a magnificent reading, especially impressive for Laredo and Robinson's seeming telepathic communication (they happen to be husband and wife). Kalichstein is a refined, no-nonsense pianist with the talent to make every chord stand out while complementing, rather than competing with, the strings.

Mozart's trio was lovingly played, highlighted by Kalichstein's exquisite phrasing. But it was Part's "Mozart-Adagio," written for the ensemble in 1992 and revised in 1997, that was special. Kalichstein told us Part faxed more changes two weeks ago, apparently trying to get ever closer to Mozart's spirit.

Over a little more than six minutes, Mozart gradually morphs into Part's mystical world and morphs out again unscathed. Kalichstein Laredo Robinson played forthrightly but took nothing for granted. The effect was unforgettable.

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