by Zoë Gorman
Longleash Trio, a chamber ensemble formed earlier this year, draws its name from a Cold War CIA operation aimed at exporting American avantgarde art to Europe in order to contrast the U.S.' cultural excellence and expressive freedom with the Soviet Union’s moratorium on art. The operation came under fire both from a skeptical Truman administration, and from artists reluctant to have their expressive freedom marketed by the government.
But being tied to a "long leash" proved a strength last Thursday at Opera America, as the ensemble shaped a seven-piece program that juxtaposed experimental contemporary composers with standard repertory. Cellist John Popham said that the contrasting sounds of the piano and strings become particularly difficult to reconcile in contemporary music, which often puts a greater emphasis on timbre than its more melodically focused predecessors.
The trio, made up of Popham, Pala Garcia (violin), and Renate Rohlfing (piano) kicked off the concert with the third movement of Reiko Füting's refraction: shadows/palimpsest 2 (2007), using the cello as the launching point and foundation. The piece evoked harmonies centered around a single pitch—D—and utilized strong pizzicatos, interrupting string snaps, and repeated motives.
A U.S. premiere, Silbertseitan I (2002) by Younghi Pagh-Paan evenly blended the three instruments to prolong the resonance of pitches. Employing sharp, clear violin harmonies, slides along the fingerboard, and lengthy, massaging vibrato, Pagh-Paan expanded the sound by overlapping the instruments. As in Gottfried Keller's poem "Jugendgedeken," which Pagh-Paan used for inspiration, the notes "echoed even until this day/although the string has long since snapped."
Embedded in the middle of the program, Haydn's joyous Piano Trio in E Major was marked by clear phrasing, strong cadences, sweeping melodies, interfeeding parts and steadily progressing scalar patterns.
In stark contrast, Cold War-era Retour an Dich (1986) by Beat Furrer brought the audience to the edge of the avantgarde. Scraping and plucking on the piano strings were combined with sharp bow taps on the cello, rapid violin fingering similar to guitar shredding, and short vibrations at the bow's tip, mixed with long, forceful strokes that sounded like rough shards of glass under water. Occasional smooth strokes in the strings recalled piercing beams of light. As the voices came together, then separated, the musical imagery was all about timbre—not melody.
Similarly, Icebloom (2012) by Chris Swithinbank, focused on friction and absence rather than melody. Icebloom was inspired by Schubert’s "Frülingstraum," which immediately preceeded it, adding Davone Tines's rich, vibrato-filled bass-baritone voice to the mix.
The Longleash Trio navigated an incredible breadth of musical styles with technical expertise and expressive innovation. Keep an eye out for future perfomances from them.