The Lincoln Trio
Desirée Ruhstrat, violin
David Cunliffe, cello
Marta Aznavoorian, piano
June 29, 2021
Rush Hour Concerts
Robbie Ellis, pre-concert talk host
Augusta Read Thomas – …a circle around the sun… (4′)
Ernst Bacon – Piano Trio No. 2 (32‘)
I. Lento – In Deliberate March Time
II. In an easy walk
III. Gravely expressive
VI. Vivace, ma non presto
Hailed by The Strad as “Sensational” and “Bewitching,” and by Gramophone as “Models of vibrancy and control,” the celebrated, Grammy-nominated, Chicago- based Lincoln Trio — Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano — takes its name from its home, the heartland of the United States, the land of Lincoln. Formed in 2003, the trio has been praised for its polished presentations of well-known chamber works and its ability to forge new paths with contemporary repertoire. The group’s reputation as a first-rate ensemble draws an eclectic audience of sophisticated music lovers, young admirers of contemporary programs, and students discovering chamber music for the first time. Bringing together performing experience spanning the globe, each member is an artist of international renown. Violinist Desirée Ruhstrat has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe, appearing at the White House and performing on a live radio broadcast heard around the world with the Berlin Radio Orchestra; cellist David Cunliffe has performed with the BBC and Royal Scottish orchestras as well as touring as a member of the Balanescu Quartet; pianist Marta Aznavoorian has garnered critical acclaim for her engagements with orchestras and at concert halls worldwide including Chicago’s Symphony Center, the John F. Kennedy Center, and the Sydney Opera House.
The trio has performed throughout the United States, including appearances at New York’s Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie’s Weill Hall, the Bryant Park Festival, Ravinia Festival, Green Center, Barge Music, Le Poisson Rouge, Indianapolis Symphony Beethoven Chamber Music Series, University of Chicago, Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series and, in Springfield, Illinois, where the trio was chosen to celebrate the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration with President Barack Obama. International engagements include performances throughout Europe, Asia, and South America. Champions of new music, the Lincoln Trio has performed numerous compositions written especially for them, including premieres of seven trios by members of the Chicago Composers Consortium, an award-winning work dedicated to the trio by young ASCAP winner Conrad Tao, a Chamber Music America Award commission by composer Laura Elise Schwendinger, and works by Cedille Records affiliated composers Stacy Garrop and Mischa Zupko, among many others.
The Trio’s extensive discography for Cedille Records includes their Grammy-nominated Trios From Our Homelands; the complete works for multiple strings and piano by Joaquin Turina; and their debut album, Notable Women, which features Grammy and Pulitzer prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Lera Auerbach, Stacy Garrop, Augusta Read Thomas, and Laura Schwendinger. The Trio has also appeared on the Cedille releases Composers in the Loft, In Eleanor’s Words: Music of Stacy Garrop, and The Billy Collins Suite, plus the Grammy-nominated Naxos release, Annelies, based on The Diary of Anne Frank.
Staunch proponents of music education, the Lincoln Trio has had residencies at the Music Institute of Chicago, San Francisco State University, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and SUNY Fredonia, and is currently Artist-In-Residence at Chicago’s Merit School of Music.
The music of Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964 in New York) is nuanced, majestic, elegant, capricious, lyrical, and colorful — “it is boldly considered music that celebrates the sound of the instruments and reaffirms the vitality of orchestral music” (Philadelphia Inquirer). Championed by such luminaries as Barenboim, Rostropovich, Boulez, Eschenbach, Salonen, Maazel, Ozawa, and Knussen, she rose early to the top of her profession. She is a University Professor of Composition in Music and the College at The University of Chicago. Thomas won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, among many other coveted awards.
Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964)
…a circle around the sun… (2000) (4′)
…a circle around the sun… for piano trio was commissioned by The Children’s Memorial Foundation in honor of George D. Kennedy for the Amelia Piano Trio. The work was given a private performance at a party celebrating Mr. Kennedy in thanks for his generous contributions to and support of the Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
My favorite moment in any piece of music is the moment of maximum risk and striving. Whether the venture is tiny or large, loud or soft, fragile or strong, passionate, erratic, ordinary or eccentric…! Maybe another way to say this is the moment of exquisite humanity and raw soul. All art that I cherish has an element of love and recklessness and desperation. I like music that is alive and jumps off the page and out of the instrument as if something big is at stake.
This work’s title refers to Mr. Kennedy. He gives energy to children in need, like a circle around the sun, giving strength and warmth. The music starts with a G (G for George) when, slowly, orbits of sonorous and fragile notes unfold and spiral outward creating a gracious and vibrant resonance. After 60 seconds, the piece burst forth with a good deal of energy, like a sun-flare or like children scattering on a playground in all directions and later returns briefly to the opening materials on the pitch G.
—Augusta Read Thomas
Ernst Bacon (1898-1990)
Piano Trio No. 2 (1987) (32′)
In many ways, Ernst Bacon’s career was a mirror image to that of his contemporary, Leo Sowerby. Bacon was born and grew up in Chicago, but the majority of his musical activity took place on the East and West coasts. Like Sowerby, Ernst Bacon was a pianist, composer, educator, and Pulitzer award winner (in 1932 for his Symphony No. 2 in D minor). Both men were also influenced by Glenn Dillard Gunn (1874–1963), pianist, conductor, noted music critic for several Chicago daily papers, and founder of the American Symphony in Chicago, who was a strong advocate for American composers in the early 20th century. In contrast to his Chicago confrere, though, Bacon is primarily remembered as a composer of secular vocal genres: choral music, operas, and hundreds of art songs, especially settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. After studying mathematics at Northwestern University and history at the University of Chicago, Bacon travelled to Vienna for private study in piano, music theory, and composition. Returning to the U.S., he was hired as an opera coach at the Eastman School of Music. Bacon then moved to San Francisco, where he was appointed as Director of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project (1934–1937) and founded the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935. In the late 1930s, he moved East and served as an music administrator, first at Converse College (South Carolina) and later at Syracuse University. He was awarded three Guggenheim Fellowships and authored several books, including Words on Music (1960) and Notes on the Piano (1963). Many of his compositions were published by major houses, including Universal Edition, G. Schirmer, and Carl Fischer. Bacon retired to Orinda, California (near Berkeley), continuing to compose into his late 80s (including the present piano trio).
Much of Bacon’s chamber music was written for two players: a solo string or solo wind instrument plus piano. Many chamber compositions from the early part of his career were influenced by literature or folk songs, bearing descriptive sectional titles such as “Frog in the Well” or “Monadnock at Dusk.” The two piano trios in his oeuvre are late compositions, written in 1980 and 1987, respectively, and are not labelled with programmatic descriptions. Trio No. 2 is a six-movement work with mostly Italian traditional tempo markings, but the musical content is infused with American influences including marches, folksong-like melodies, and jazz rhythms. Overall, Virgil Thomson’s 1946 assessment of Bacon’s music remains applicable here: “full of melody and variety; honest and skillful and beautiful.”
In her program note for a 1998 performance in New York’s Merkin Hall, celebrating the composer’s centennial, Bacon’s widow, Ellen, wrote:
“The Trio No. 2 was composed when Bacon was in his late 80s. Its large proportions combine the vigor of more youthful works with the increasing profundity of age. Bacon believed that all music, whether vocal or instrumental, should retain an essential connection with humanity — not only with the human voice in its rich scope of expressiveness, but also with the body and its movements of walking, running, waltzing, romping, and so forth. Like most of his chamber works, the Trio No. 2 is full of melodic ideas derived from his own art songs, as well as from folk songs and dances.”
The two-part first movement begins in a contemplative mood with layered, conversational melodies in the violin and cello, the piano commenting in the background. Dramatic intensity builds with string tremolos and syncopated, open chords doubled in the piano and violin. A somber, reflective melody (inspired by Bacon’s own setting of Dickinson’s “The Sun went down — no Man looked on —”) is sprinkled with expressive dissonances and shared by all three instruments, as the compass of the music becomes more wide- ranging and expansive. Part Two, marked “In Deliberate March Time,” continues with the same tonal center. Its opening melody is a hiking song, reminiscent of a Civil War-era tune. As it develops, phrases lengthen while fragmented melodic materials appear in sequential repetitions.
The second movement, “An easy walk,” begins with rambling dotted rhythms in the piano against arpeggiated multiple stops in the strings. Delicate pizzicato statements in the violin and cello comment on wandering triplet figurations in the piano that develop into the spontaneity of a cadenza. The easygoing opening material returns, now transformed into a more insistent discourse among the three instruments, ending in a recombination of elements from the movement as a whole.
The third movement is a nocturne. Marked “Gravely expressive,” much of it presents the cello in quiet meditation (marked “as if gently singing”) against expressive harmonies in the piano. The fourth movement, labelled simply “Allegro,” is a jazz-influenced romp — practically a hoe- down — with playful, syncopated passages exchanged among all three instruments. Often virtuosic, occasionally sentimental, it is a toe-tapping musical excursion.
The brief fifth movement, “Commodo,” features flowing melodies in the piano with a gentle breeze of an accompaniment in the strings. The initial melody (based on Bacon’s song setting of A.E. Housman’s “Farewell to a name and a number”) is taken up successively by the violin and cello as the piano’s commentary, marked “a mere murmer,” sorrowfully concludes the exchange. The trio’s final movement, “Vivace ma non presto,” features insistent triplet passages that morph into a syncopated folksong melody (specifically “Green Mountain”) in a strong, rhythmic discussion between violin and cello. A new section offers variations on the folkdance theme in the cello and violin, now in a quieter mood against a flowing piano accompaniment. The movement builds in intensity with an accelerating, repeated note figuration leading to the emphatic final cadence.
In his book, Words on Music, Bacon expressed his persistent confidence and commitment to the “authentic musical speech of America.” Noting that “art can passively reflect its times, or it can actively mold its times,” Bacon advocated for music that “continues to sing of ecstasy, reverence, grandeur and lovingness.” At the end of his life, in an article signed “Ernst Bacon, composer-in-eclipse, for the present,” he proclaimed a manifesto of sorts: “Excellence means making the best music with the resources at hand. It implies vitality, enterprise, much independence, and exalted leadership… It means that native America, long beyond musical maturity, deserves its say in a serious way.”
© 2020 Dr. Elinor Olin
Dr. Elinor Olin is a professor at Northern Illinois University School of Music and has a background in both music performance and music history.
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The Rush Hour Concerts series is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council Agency. Rush Hour Concerts are produced in partnership with St. James Cathedral and WFMT.
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Tuesday July 6, 5:45pm