CMNW Council

Gifted athletes: The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio plays Beethoven

CMNW’s March mini-fest delivered all of the maestro’s piano trios with elan.

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The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.
The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio made a triumphant debut under the auspices of Chamber Music Northwest with a Beethoven Mini-Festival, playing all nine of Beethoven’s piano trios in a stretch of three evenings (March 9, 14 and 16). All three concerts took place at The Old Church, which was packed at each event with a rapt audience. No wonder, since the ensemble has three top-tier artists: CMNW artistic honchos pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim, plus cellist Paul Watkins, who is well-known for his work as a member of the Emerson String Quartet before it disbanded last year. 

Formed in 2019, the Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed the Beethoven Piano Trio cycle at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2022. So they may have honed their artistry a bit for their performances in Portland. In any case, the ensemble always found the through-line of each piece with Chien leading the way. In this video, Kim and Watkins mentioned that in piano trios, the pianist is the one musician who is almost always constantly playing throughout each piece. Fortunately, Chien is one of the foremost chamber pianists that you could hope for. Her sterling pianism and extra-sensory listening skills are the glue in the terrific chemistry of this remarkable ensemble, which played the Beethoven trios with verve.

Rather than present the trios in strict historical order, the Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio grouped them thematically with a sense of artistic flow. The first concert theme was entitled “Dawn of a New Age,” the second, “Breaking Boundaries,” and the third “Triumph & Transcendence.” With this order, the audience still had a sense of how Beethoven’s style evolved over time, starting with the first piano trio that Beethoven wrote in 1792 and ending with the “Archduke” Trio (1811). 

Dawn of a New Age

After Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he began his composition studies with Haydn. So it was no wonder that his first piano trio had some Haydn-esque influences. In the hands of the Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio, the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1, No 1 fairly sparkled with a sunny effervescence. The ensemble’s taut playing turned sensitive in the slower second movement before speeding up again for the third and fourth, both of which contained humorously delightful passages.

Sixteen years later (1808), Beethoven wrote two piano trios. The first of these, the Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 (“Ghost”) received a superb interpretation from the ensemble. Straightaway, the sudden sforzandos interrupted fanciful, melodic lines with an urgency that contrasted well with the spooky and tragic sound of the second movement. The playful exchange of phrases between the musicians in the third movement conveyed a fresh breeze that left listeners at a pleasant vista.

Also in 1808, Beethoven finished the Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2, which started with a pensive mood and transitioned later to a conversation in which the musicians seemed to tease each other with droplets of notes. The trio excelled with the cantabile sound of the third movement and the shifting of the thematic line from one key to the next in the final movement before bringing the piece to a robust finale. 

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Breaking Boundaries

When Beethoven first came to Vienna in 1792, he wrote Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat Major for Piano Trio, which he published ten years later as his Op. 44. According to the program notes, scholars later figured out that the theme wasn’t original–Beethoven took it from Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s opera Das rote Käppchen (“The Little Red Cap”) after having played in the orchestra for a production of that opera in Bonn. Regardless, the Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio gave this piece with its fifteen variations a brilliant interpretation with each member of the orchestra getting a turn in the spotlight. After the opening statement, which was almost childlike, we heard a series of inventive sequences: dreamy, elegant, boisterous, sad, lyrical, and mysterious. It moved along seamlessly and wrapped up with a crisp ending. 

Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3 (1795) took listeners into a more intense, dramatic landscape with more extremes in which the musicians had to switch from very soft to very loud at the drop of a dime. Their lightning-fast reactions – always in sync with each other – reminded me of gifted athletes in highlight reels doing spectacular things. I sat just a few feet from Watkins and was constantly astounded by his quick fingers. The quiet and soft landing at the very end of the piece seemed uncharacteristic of Beethoven, but it just showed how he always sought to express his ideas in new ways.

The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.
The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The trio backpedaled timewise to Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 2 (1795) which opened with a playful intimacy. Hymnlike sections were imbued with a lovely melody from the piano, and the ensemble had a terrific way to grow and widen the tone. The furious pace at the close of the piece featured each musician taking a turn in the foreground before the emphatic final chords.

Triumph & Transcendence

The final concert took place on one of those perfectly sunny days when Portlanders are out-and-about, but The Old Church was nearly sold out and the audience in good spirits when the CKM Trio launched into Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 (1798). A lovely melody from Watkins and the poetic responses from Chien highlighted the second movement. The third touched on moods that veered all over the place – from mysterious to delicate to exuberant – with a fun-filled intensity.

Next came the Piano Trio “Kakadu Variations” in G Major, Op 121a (1803, revised in 1816) in which Beethoven created ten variations on “I am the Tailor Cockatoo,” a song by opera composer Wenzel Müller. From a fairly unremarkable theme, Beethoven gradually built a number of inventive diversions that won over this listener. The piece culminated with a playful slashing of notes by Kim and Watkins and a grand finish. 

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As Kim noted in his introduction, the ensemble saved the best for last – the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 (“Archduke”), a 40-minute gem with a symphonic scope that Beethoven uncorked in 1811. The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio show exceptional command of this piece, especially with the extreme dynamic range that constantly changed from pillowy soft to very loud. In the third movement, Kim executed whispery ascending lines to die for and later Chien propelled the ensemble forward with an insistent drive from the keyboard. The ensemble evoked a lighter, more hopeful space in the final movement, and thrillingly created the softest of sounds before accelerating with gusto to the wild finale. The audience collectively jumped out of their seats with a long and loud standing ovation. 

According to Kim, the Mini-Fest offered more pieces from Beethoven than will be heard at this summer’s CMNW Festival, which will celebrate Beethoven’s effect on music. But now I want to hear more piano trios from Chien, Kim, and Watkins. What might be next? Wikipedia lists a huge number of them. That should keep the Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio busy for a long time, which is a good thing for the rest of us.

The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.
The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed Beethoven for Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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