The Eroica Trio returns to Ravinia with light, engaging program

Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Eroica Trio returned to Ravinia Monday night.

It’s been eight years since the Eroica Trio’s last Ravinia appearance and the ensemble’s return to the Martin Theatre Monday night marked the group’s first Highland Park visit since Susie Park joined the group, replacing Adela Pena in 2006.

The program may have been on the light side but it served as an engaging calling card, demonstrating  how well the Australian violinist has fit in with her colleagues. Park’s refined tone is rather slender but with a luminous purity and power in reserve.  The Eroica’s violinist maintains pinpoint intonation and accuracy even in the most virtuosic moments, a nice complement to the rock-solid keyboard foundation of Erika Nickrenz and the uninhibited intensity of cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio.

The ensemble flipped the usual presentation Monday with the populist material on the first half and the musical meat coming after intermission with  Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1.

Few need to be reminded of Mendelssohn’s gifts, but hearing so much of the composer’s music in this bicentennial year makes one appreciate even more the remarkable quality and consistency of his music and the loss to the music world by the composer’s early death at thirty-eight.

Mendelssohn’s Trio in D minor combines fecund melodic richness with bravura writing for all three musicians, and the Eroica members provided first-class advocacy of this intensely demanding work.  The opening movement’s blend of stormy drama and lyricism was deftly assayed, with the relaxed intimacy of the Andante—one of Mendelssohn’s most indelible “Songs without Words”—rendered with glowing refinement by Park and Sant’Ambrogio.

If the Scherzo was a bit light on charm with accents too heavy and emphatic, the  finale was terrific with a combustible physical excitement to the closing pages, and Nickrenz’ steel-fingered pianism especially impressive.

The opening half of Gershwin and Bernstein provided a lively start to the program even if the three separate arrangements proved a bit too much of a good thing.

Kenji Bunch’s retooling for piano trio of excerpts from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess retains the usual suspects, opening with the overture and working in most of the opera’s greatest hits. The Eroica members performed the arrangement with their characteristic mix of dynamic verve and soulful lyricism, cello and violin artfully taking the vocal lines in the duet Bess, you is my woman now. Elsewhere, Bunch’s transcription turns a bit predictable with most of the melodies starting in the cello, before moving to the violin, pianist Nickrenz largely reduced to accompaniment and transitional passages.

Raimundo Penaforte is the trio’s fifth Beatle in a way (or fourth Eroica-ite), providing many of the group’s best arrangements. His revamp of three songs from Bernstein’s West Side Story is done with characteristic wit and audacity, with throwaway curveballs added to I feel pretty and America, in which surprising instrumental effects make due for the punchlines of Sondheim’s lyrics.

As always, Nickrenz remains the firm rhythmic fulcrum of the group, and Park was excellent as well, bringing a chaste radiance to Somewhere. Cellist  Sant’Ambrogio showed her usual burnished tonal richness but on Monday in the heat of the moment had more than a few technical lapses and bouts of wayward intonation, here and in Penaforte’s retooling of Gershwin’s Three Preludes.

The Eroica’s cellist was heard to better advantage in the encore, Sant’Ambrogio’s own arrangement of Saint-Saens’ The Swan. Her transcription gives both strings a chance to loft the celebrated cello theme and Sant’Ambrogio and Park bestowed just the right graceful elegance.

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