Since medieval times, the classical genre of chamber music has been cherished for its intimate and heartfelt qualities. Besides being deeply appreciated by audiences, it is also a favorite performance medium of musicians. As American writer Catherine Drinker Bowen said, "Chamber music is a conversation between friends." Sheridan Solisti Trio, a group of outstanding musicians who support each other's love and inspiration for music making, lit up Chicagoland with a series of four December 2017 recitals (December 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th) marking their debut as an ensemble. Saturday's audience at Anne & Howard Gottlieb Hall in the West Loop's Merit School of Music were treated to a sumptuous musical feast.
Sheridan Solisti Trio consists of three extremely talented musicians: violinist Michaela Paetsch, cellist Steven Sigurdson, and pianist Susan Merdinger. They prepared a recital program that brought together familiar music of the nineteenth century as well as new music of this century. Such a mixture of styles and musical approaches created an intense and diverse repertoire that enhanced the individual playing techniques of each musician and also underscored their ensemble playing skills. Two premieres -- the world premiere of Ilya Levinson's piano trio version of his 'Ghost Tango', and the US premiere of the trio 'Solar Rays' by Aaron Alter -- made this recital series a significant event in the cultural life of Chicago and its suburbs, especially considering the fact that both composers were present for these performances.
The program started with the C Minor Piano Trio (No. 2) by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Written in 1845, this composition has characteristics that make it sound today as essential as it was in the nineteenth century. Its complex and intense nature, with vigorous compositional developments and colorful musical themes, required the musicians to pay great attention to details and collaborate with each other in an intimate way as they presented its four unique movements. The sonorities of each of these beautiful instruments -- piano, violin and cello -- contributed to an expressive musical conversation, starting with a quiet announcement of the main theme by the piano, and then emotionally repeated by the strings. The second theme brought forth the lyricism and warmth so typical for Mendelssohn.
It was interesting to watch the soloists' emotions -- violinist Michaela Paetsch was almost dancing on her chair holding her magical violin in her hands and portraying her emotions with every feature of her face. Steven Sigurdson looked inspired and concentrated, as he always looks when playing his cello. Being a talented cellist noticeable for his sincere attitude to music and deep emotional response to each composition that he performs, Sigurdson added his own colors and passion to Mendelssohn's composition. His face said it all -- he didn't exist in our universe while he was playing. He was in the beautiful world of music, and he was ruling in that world. Pianist Susan Merdinger looked confident and inspired; once again she demonstrated her extraordinary playing techniques and capabilities. She found just the right way to present the complicated and energetic piano part of this composition.
The musicians kept their vibrant emotions, touching sensitivity and extreme attentiveness to each other throughout all the movements of this piece, including the ecstatic Scherzo where the strings demonstrated an interesting bouncing bow playing technique called 'ricochet', and the virtuoso Finale with its fiery piano part and elegant and uplifting string parts.
The world premiere of 'Ghost Tango' for Piano Trio written by Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson continued this memorable and passionate concert program. 'Ghost Tango' was originally commissioned for and premiered in 2012 by the iAN&ANi duo, which includes the popular Russian-born cellist Ian Maksin and the outstanding Bulgarian-born pianist Ani Gogova. In November, 2017 the composer specially arranged it for Sheridan Solisti Trio by adding a beautiful violin part. And just a few weeks after Levinson had finished his new arrangement, the Piano Trio version of 'Ghost Tango' is making its triumphal debut at these December 2017 recitals. This mysterious composition, consisting of three connected sections, attracted the audience's attention from its very first notes. The touching piano part, the melodious violin part and an extremely uplifting cello part once again highlighted the playing techniques of the soloists.
"I came up with a musical texture that was becoming gradually thinner and thinner and was shifting from key to key; this is when the title 'Ghost Tango' was born," said Ilya Levinson, professor in the music department at Columbia College Chicago. "While working out the rhythmic, melodic, and timbral details of the composition, I realized that some of them appear somehow a bit 'blurred' and dimmed. I felt that this all would also contribute to the 'night-ish' effect of the piece. The overall emotional feel of the 'Ghost Tango' is exaggerated; this is to illustrate the desire of the ghostly world to communicate with our real world," he added.
The piece ended with unique harmonies and diminishing sounds making the audience believe that the ghost had disappeared.
After the intermission, the trio performed the US premiere of 'Solar Rays' written by Chicago native composer Aaron Alter. This outstanding composer is known for compositions displaying influences that span the range from Medieval European music all the way to Jazz and Rock. His touching compositions keep getting more and more recognition in the United States as well as abroad.
'Solar Rays' for piano, violin and cello originally was conceived as a jazz song, but later it was reimagined as a classical piano trio with the violin part taking the role of the singer. "The title 'Solar Rays' came to me when I thought of two people in love, all alone in a large grassy field on a clear summer day, looking up to the sun and feeling the heat and seeing the light and feeling the love for each other at the same time," said Alter. "After the song theme is played by the violinist, each instrument has a solo that is all written-out, but sounds as if it were improvised. Each solo has a personality of its own. The violin solo is virtuosic, the cello solo is passionate, and the piano solo is monumental. In addition to showcasing each instrument, the solos give the listener some sonic variety, as opposed to having all the instruments playing in a uniform texture all the time, as in many piano trios. After the solos, the song theme returns, followed by a powerful coda." The audience members at the Merit School noted that the piece ended in a life-affirming and confident manner.
Sheridan Solisti Trio found the best way to present this unique composition. Their passion, which they had been expressing from the beginning of the concert, remained high and uplifting throughout the entire night. From one composition to another, it kept changing colors showing the whole palette of virtuosity from these great musicians.
The next piece, the Piano Trio in B Major written by Johannes Brahms in 1889, gave each of the soloists another chance to demonstrate their unique talent. This elegant composition demonstrated a touching communication between the instruments and was greeted by the audience with great enthusiasm. It led to a triumphal encore, which they chose to be a trio arrangement of Schubert's F Minor 'Moment Musical' (No. 3).
"I always feel so fortunate playing such great music," said Sigurdson. "Brahms, for instance, is an incredibly sensitive composer, while Mendelssohn is a genius of invention. Playing in this trio is such a blessing for me. Susan Merdinger, an internationally acclaimed pianist, is phenomenal and always extremely passionate. Violinist Michaela Paetsch is simply the easiest person to play with. She is one of the most amazing chamber musicians with whom I've collaborated."
The combined forces of these dazzling soloists, performing both old classical favorites and splendid contemporary works, made their December 2017 recitals unforgettable. Keep an eye out for future announcements of Sheridan Solisti Trio events, as this trio is always ready to impress its audiences with new and memorable discoveries.