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Swirling with gusto: Palatine Piano Trio teams up with SoundsTruck NW for outdoor concert of Pacific NW composers

The trio of violinist Inés Voglar Belgique, cellist-composer Nancy Ives, and pianist Susan DeWitt Smith performed music by Tomáš Svoboda, Ernest Bloch, David Schiff, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Ives.

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Palatine Piano Trio (L to R: Inés Voglar Belgique, Susan DeWitt Smith, Nancy Ives) performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Palatine Piano Trio (L to R: Inés Voglar Belgique, Susan DeWitt Smith, Nancy Ives) performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

A beautiful evening on a leafy college campus provided a relaxed setting for an outstanding outdoor concert featuring the Palatine Piano Trio and music by composers from the Pacific Northwest. At Lewis & Clark College on September 1, as part of the SoundsTruck NW summer series, the trio (violinist Inés Voglar Belgique, cellist and composer Nancy Ives, and pianist Susan DeWitt Smith) played selections by Oregonians Tomáš Svoboda, Ernest Bloch, David Schiff, and Ives herself–plus a piece by Gabriela Lena Frank, who lives in Northern California. The two works by Svoboda, in particular, were a teaser for the Palatine Piano Trio’s upcoming album of his music.

One of the perks of the concert came about through the placement of SoundsTruck, a new state-of-the-art mobile venue, in front of Evans Music Hall. The amplification of the music from SoundsTruck’s built-in speaker system was enhanced by the buildings to the right and left, resulting in excellent acoustics. Another plus was SoundsTruck’s Yamaha N3X AvantGrand piano, which generates a sound that is remarkably close to an actual grand piano. Most people in the audience probably didn’t even know that the Yamaha is a hybrid baby grand with real piano action and digital triggers instead of strings (read more about that in our interview with SoundsTruck NW co-founders Yoko and Jon Greeney).

Svoboda–whose catalog of works number over 200 and include symphonies, chamber pieces, solos, and a Grammy nomination for his Marimba Concerto–is firmly ensconced in the state’s musical pantheon (read Brett Campbell’s memorial here). The Palatine Piano Trio opened its concert with Phantasy, which he wrote in 1985. It is an episodic piece that transitions from intimate spaces to more outspoken and rhythmically pronounced ones. Phantasy closed in a peaceful way by returning to the sparse, quiet sound that was linked nicely to the beginning measures. 

Next came two selections from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Folk Songs for piano trio (2012). The first, “Canto para La Maria Angola,” offered a rhapsodic but elusive Peruvian-inspired melody. The second, “Children’s Dance,” humorously suggested kids dancing and singing at a playground, and it put a smile on the faces of many in the audience.

Palatine Piano Trio (L to R: Inés Voglar Belgique, Susan DeWitt Smith, Nancy Ives) performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Palatine Piano Trio (L to R: Inés Voglar Belgique, Susan DeWitt Smith, Nancy Ives) performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

The first of Ernest Bloch’s Three Nocturnes (1924) established a mysterious atmosphere, pairing extreme low notes with ultra-high notes. They might have triggered a crow to caw in the distance, which added to the moment. The lovely melody of the second nocturne changed the mood to one that was gentle and lovely. The third stirred things up with a rollicking theme and finished with a smooth finale.

The ensemble created a sly, slinky sound with “Five Spot” from New York Nocturnes by David Schiff, who happened to be in the audience. The piece had a positive vibe, evoking a breezy nightclub with a lightly jazzy, springy sound that made me want to hear more.

This was followed by the world premiere of “Soliton” from Nancy Ives’ Wild Beauty, which she just finished a few weeks earlier. In her introductory remarks, Ives revealed that the piece was inspired by the seascape photographs of Terry Toedtemeier that she viewed at the Portland Art Museum. “Soliton” refers to a phenomenon in which two ocean waves hit each other at right angles.

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A light sprinkling of notes from the piano elicited droplets, and the very high sounds from the violin and cello created an image of water that was twisted and knotted. A stuttering of bows and a shift to the lower part of the keyboard signaled a dramatic change – perhaps the other wave – and that set off a chaotic scene, which gradually subsided and returned the piece to a restful place.

Palatine Piano Trio cellist and composer Nancy Ives performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Palatine Piano Trio cellist and composer Nancy Ives performed in the SoundsTruck NW at Lewis & Clark College. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.

The concert closed with Svoboda’s Passacaglia and Fugue (1978-1981), in which the piano, violin, and cello seemed to swirl with gusto around the initial theme. The piano often created bell-like phrases that fluctuated between emphatic and gentle statements. The whirling sonic style must have struck a chord with the crow, who chimed in again during the passacaglia.  In the fugue, the music took a leap forward with a gnawing tone from the strings and lots of propulsive energy. At times it seemed as if all three musicians were racing each other to get to the goal line, but they crossed it together with an glorious crescendo.

It’s great to know that Svoboda’s music will be featured in a recording by these esteemed artists. Their superb playing should make the album a winner for those of us who want to hear more of his music.

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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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