Northeast Ohio audiences were met with some welcome news at the tail end of a concert season unlike any other with the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s return to live, in-person performances. The second of the three-concert series brought to the stage the youthful and exuberant Junction Trio, comprised of Stefan Jackiw (violin), Jay Campbell (cello) and Conrad Tao (piano). All have distinguished careers as soloists and the three of them banding together yields something of a supergroup.

Junction Trio
© Cleveland Chamber Music Society

One could hardly have asked for a more adventurous first half, devoted to two American iconoclasts: John Zorn and Charles Ives. Zorn’s 2015 work Ghosts takes its cue from Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio, using the earlier work’s famously eerie textures as a point of departure. Extended techniques (including plucking the piano strings) were employed liberally, creating a spectral, otherworldly soundscape. Matters often felt disembodied, as fragments floating through a phantasmagoric realm, resisting the urge to coalesce into a full melody. The music was generally restrained until a sudden outburst in the final moments, showing in no uncertain terms the trio’s thorough command of this daunting music.

Ives’ Piano Trio was written as an homage to his college days at Yale. The three movements are said to depict a lecture, revelry and a Sunday church service respectively. Completed in 1911, the work didn’t receive its first public performance until 1948 – an event which the program notes reveal took place in the Cleveland area. The opening Moderato was sparsely textured, beginning as a dialogue between the cello and piano. The same material was subsequently repeated in scoring for violin and piano, and finally for all three instruments. Searching and discursive, Ives' music seemingly probed for answers in exploring the same theme through various voices.

Labeled “TSIAJ” (humorously, an acronym for “This Scherzo is a joke”), the central movement was as eclectic as it gets, interpolating a wide array of American folk tunes. The ensemble performed with a manic drive, sailing through the note-spattered pages and rhythmic complexities with apparent ease. The finale opened pensive and pious, markedly Ivesian in the way a lyricism was cultivated amongst the spiky dissonances. A resonant cello melody and impassioned pianism were amongst the highlights, and the work touchingly ended with a setting of the church hymn Rock of Ages.

The latter half (when accustomed to the abbreviated programs of the pandemic era, even an intermission feels like a novelty!) was devoted to Beethoven’s magnificent “Archduke” Trio. Majestic, spacious beginnings showed the composer at his most noble and life-affirming. The ensemble astutely navigated through the inventive development, with the pizzicato passages especially striking. I found the pianist to be a bit too percussive here, although I suspect the temperamental acoustics of the capacious church posed a challenge. 

The Scherzo opened in the strings, answered in due course by the stylishly playful piano, and the slow movement proceeded as a radiant set of variations on a beautifully voiced chordal theme, sumptuous in its depth of feeling. A finale made for a joyous and unencumbered closing, but not without suitable contrast from stormier sections.

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