Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Finisterra Trio

A day ago I hinted that I would be talking more about the Finisterra Trio and their upcoming recital at Benaroya Hall. As is usually the case, the good stuff always happens by chance. Early last Saturday I was puttering around in my car when I heard an advertisement for a recital where the Trio No. 2 (Opus 67) of Shostakovich was on the program. I have admitted this a few times before, but I have a fondness for that particular piece. I rubbed my bleary eyes and tried focus on the who, what and where of the performance. Before the advertisement ended, I caught the name of the ensemble – the Finisterra Trio!

When I got back to the house that morning, I booted up the computer, misspelled the trio’s name on Google, and hoped I would get enough information to track down more information about this group.

Luckily, I found the group's homepage.

The Finisterra Trio was founded in 2003, and in a very short time they have established themselves as one of the most accomplished chamber ensembles in the Pacific Northwest. Not too long ago, the trio won the silver medal at the Zinetti International Chamber Music Competition in Italy. The Finisterra Trio has traveled and performed widely, even being invited to perform in Europe by the well-know Florestan Trio.

In a very short time, the Finisterra Trio has made a name for itself through its collaborative work with the Bill Mays Jazz Trio, as artists in residence at The Seasons concert series (in Yakima, WA) and in an evolving artistic relationship with composer Daron Hagen. They have premiered two of Hagen’s works for piano trio and are recording his four trios for a forthcoming NAXOS release.

Considering the numerous praises heaped upon of this trio, it should come as no surprise that Finisterra’s constituent musicians, Kwan Bin Park, Kevin Krentz, and Tanya Stambuk, are each accomplished in their own right.

Cellist Kevin Krentz has worked with the ubiquitous Gustav Meijer, performed at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and can be heard in the movie Bordertown. Pianist Tanya Stambuk has performed as a soloist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra, Virginia Symphony and the Bergen Philharmonic (to name a few). As a pianist she has recorded and premiered works by Norman Dello Joio. Violinist Kwan Bin Park has toured with Rod Stewart, Sarah Brightman, and Josh Groban. He is the first prize winner of the Stokes Competition and worked with Leonard Slatkin and Kurt Masur.

Needless to say, it was a pleasure for Kevin Krentz to answer a few questions about the trio’s genesis, the upcoming concert, and classical performance trends.

Zach Carstensen: The Finisterra Trio was founded fairly recently.  How did you become acquainted and what made you decide to strike out as an ensemble?

Kevin Krentz:  Kwan Bin and I met at the UW in 2001.  We both started, and sadly haven't finished, DMA programs.  Part of the deal at the time that we would be teaching as well and the School of Music would use us to form a trio that would then be the headline chamber music ensemble for the SOM that would then be sent forth to proselytize.   The SOM did very little with us as a trio and eventually, about 2003-2004 we all became so busy with our careers that we both left without completing our degrees.  However, right before the end of our time there, we played a concert together and finally realized what chemistry we have together.

With that success and with the goading of colleagues, we began to play a bit more together and really get excited about the direction of our group.  As our member’s average age was just past the cut-off age for American competitions (generally about 30), we went to Europe and won in the Zinetti International Chamber Music Competition with groups from every continent and 20+ different countries and continued to get more and more serious as a group.  That's when our pianist at the time wanted to move on to other things and we began a national search for a new pianist, which lasted about 8 months and ended with Tanya becoming our new pianist in May of 2006.  So it has taken about a year to really get up to speed with her.

The thing that makes it so rewarding and keeps us all coming back for more is not only the level of music making that comes with a history together, but also that we very much share a general philosophy of our music making. We believe that communicating this music is our paramount goal.  It sounds simplistic, but I dare say it is rare.  It is very easy to get tied up into coming up with an interpretation that no one has heard before or in the near perfection that is required these days on the stage.  But the truly great artists, say like Yo Yo Ma, don't reinvent the wheel with their interpretations, they simply communicate them better than anyone else.  In fact their interpretations are usually pretty much down the middle and I think that allows a larger portion of the listeners to relate to the piece.

ZC: As an ensemble, how do you approach an intensely emotional piece like the Shostakovich Trio which is at times elegiac, ferocious and tragic?

KK:  When we first began playing this piece, each performance was like climbing Everest.  The technical demands  are so high that for the first couple years of performing it, the emotional demands and technical demands together just whipped us in each performance.  Now we are more comfortable with the technical demands and, not being the type of people to conserve our energy on stage, we can pour even more emotional energy into the piece.

The challenge though, is not simply to have your own personal weeping session on stage, but to bring it across to the audience so that they feel it too.  The Shostakovich is such a masterpiece that the emotions are already largely there by simply following his instructions, although we have further tried to uncover other ways to make it all that it can be.  There are a lot of things in our interpretation that have been right there in the score since 1944 that you don't hear in many recordings.  They are difficult to do and oftentimes a bit counter-intuitive to the way string players in particular play, but they really add to the whirlwind.  Some pieces rely very much on the performers to bring them to life, but the Shostakovich is incredibly powerful even when played somewhat poorly. Still, we have worked very hard to do our part.

For instance, we create sound with our bows that we would never use in other genre like romantic or classical.  In the third movement where the strings tell their stories to each other like a couple of old men, Kwan Bin and I very deliberately press "too hard" and slow our bows down just enough to create a sound that is akin to an ancient person struggling to speak in a voice they must strain to make.  There are also quite a few times where Shostakovich has created music that seems about to explode with a hysterical energy and we allow ourselves to cross over into sounds that are akin to screaming so loudly that the voice breaks constantly.

The Shostakovich Trio really takes us on a journey.  Sometimes when you are a professional performer, you arrive on the stage in various moods that may or may not serve the music.  But with the opening notes, the Shostakovich is so evocative that it brings us to where we need to be. Although you must make sure you start that journey with plenty of energy and sleep in order to be able to do it, we don't really have to be more than willing participants as the thing takes shape on stage.  We have our plan, but it is like any great journey, it's all about how you react to the sights and sounds on the way.

ZC: You have premiered two of Daron Hagen's piano trios so far - his Trio No.3 (Wayfaring Stranger) and his Trio No.4 (Angel Band) - How did your relationship with Hagen develop and are there any new projects with Hagen in the works?

KK:  About a year ago, Finisterra Trio was looking for great American piano trios that have been written recently.  It is important to have a wide breadth of pieces to present to your audiences, it just makes sense. Further, in the last 20 years or so, composition has seemingly gone through some major changes and we have heard some truly incredible works in styles and voices that are really new and exciting and loved by audiences.
So we began to look for not only a composer like this, but one who has written a piano trio!  We talked to lots of people and also just searched the web, listening to composers web sites (they all seem to have one). Tanya finally came across Hagen's music and was really excited about it and
called me.

We emailed him the next day to ask him about where we could get some of his music. After we emailed him, he went to our web site and listened to our playing and really liked what he heard and saw and called me up and said that he had actually just written a movement of a new trio that was to have 3 more movements and that he would like to finish the piece for us.  He then went and spent a few days listening to our recordings until he really felt he understood us and then he finished the Wayfaring Stranger Trio.  It has become one of the most popular things we have ever performed and audiences love it. Then, for the end of this long story, the Director of The Seasons, a beautiful concert hall where we are Artists-In-Residence in Yakima, WA heard our recording of The Wayfaring Stranger and loved it so much that he and his family commissioned another trio from Hagen for the Finisterra Trio.  Daron wrote The Angel Band for us in May and based on its premiere in a concert hosted by Bill McGlaughlin of St. Paul Sunday, he has helped us with a deal to record all four Hagen Trios for Naxos over the next couple of years.

ZC: I have to admit that I was not familiar with Hagen's music.  When I listened to the snippets on your website I was surprised by what I heard.  Is tonality back?  Do you think tonal music is easier to understand as opposed to just easier to hear?

KK: As a group, we wrestle with the need to be current as well as the need to please our audiences and ourselves. For various reasons, many classical artists are compelled to play works that they themselves don't really like. Of course, this is probably bad business, so we work very hard to only play pieces that we enjoy and are convinced that our audiences, or at least a large part of them, will enjoy as well.

Composers have the same dilemma.   If they write something that is enjoyable for the majority of the audience on the first hearing, they risk being ostracized by the establishment.  With these competing forces one of them has to win out.  Though it really shouldn't be so, it seems that it is just not possible for both to win.

 But in the last 20 or so years, things seem to be moving towards the audiences corner and composers are writing things they would never dream of writing before in the middle of the century.  Hagen himself told me that, as a young man, he wrote things very much to impress people with how smart he was.  This clearly was for the audience of his academic colleagues. His earlier two trios reflect this quite a bit.  As a brilliant composer, Hagen could very much show off his intellect and that was his goal initially. Now his pieces are able to walk the fine line between both audiences.

Another way to look at it is that 50 years ago, you just couldn't write anything that was pretty or beautiful in a 19th century way.  Now, that flavor is not withheld from our composers, they may use it as well as, the wonderful dissonances and effects that we have become accustomed to in the modern musical language.  You'll also find a great deal more influence from world-music and popular culture as well.  You might say that we have really just become more balanced after the major pendulum swing of the emancipation of dissonance.  After all, as Yin must have Yang, dissonance without consonance is a very limited and ineffectual experience.

So yes, tonality has made a bit of a come back.  I have actually talked to very hard-core classical artists who feel that The Angel Band is too easy to listen to and that it should be more challenging.  I have also spoken to a small portion of our audience who felt it was still a bit too "modern" for their tastes and they didn't get it.  That means to me that Hagen has done his job perfectly.  What the composer who allows himself to cross over into the tonal world occasionally must do, as he told me himself in regards to this same question, is "if you make something beautiful, you must put some irony in it or no one will believe it."  There are some pieces that are beautiful, but have no irony, no sense of self or of perhaps a larger picture of things.  In his opinion, these pieces don't last.

We agree.  In fact, there are moments in The Angel Band that could be played very sumptuously or romantically.  When we first sat down with Daron and played his piece for him, we worked together to find a way that was satisfying, but that didn't cross over into the saccharine. Sometimes that can be the only line between art and Disney.

ZC: As a group you have collaborated with Bill Mays Jazz Trio and are embarking a new concert series called Nachtmusik which puts classical chamber music in an innovative setting.  Is innovation in concert programming and in concert setting the only way to grow classical audiences?  Do you think innovative programming and venues threatens the sanctity of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven,et al?

KK:  This is such a difficult subject and one that there are so many ways of looking at.  I have talked to so many smart people that I respect that feel strongly about very opposite views.  My own view is many sided.  In a larger sense of this question, about how to grow the classical audience, I think the last question gives us lots to think about.  The idea that tonality is off limits or that listening should be hard to a mainstream (although classical) audience, already tells me that there is a large and basic conflict if we say we want to both grow our audience and also to constantly make things hard for them and not give them much of what they seem to want.

I think the one big issue is that we have performers performing pieces they don't like and that they know the audience won't care for. Though we say it a lot, I am very skeptical about how much of our audience is hungry to be "educated" so much.  I am struck with a feeling a sadness when people tell me (at least once after every concert) that they don't know much about music. Being educated about the music should make it even more wondrous, but to make it the ticket to entry into even enjoying the music is too much.

As a group, we are after bringing the experience, the life-affirming experience of great music, to our audiences.  Because classical music is a music that needs a blank piece of time and space in order to present itself, it cannot be made to compete with other sources of stimulation. Sometimes the stimulation that is competing with it can be a general level of discomfort, or the huge distance in the modern concert hall, between the performer and the audience member.  By changing the venue, or mixing up the programming you can oftentimes make people more comfortable and thus, remove barriers to their reception.

I believe that we have seen such a move towards this sort of innovation not just because it is "cool" like the rockers and jazzers to play in bars, but because the modern classical music concert can be such a one dimensional experience.  The people who make movies or Broadway shows or plays have always known about the need to balance the serious with humor and the deep with the light.  I think artists are now finding that they can do this more effectively with both programming and setting and provide an experience where the audience is even closer to the art because they are more comfortable and that their emotional journey has been anticipated.

In the end, the setting is not really what the roof over the space is called, be it a bar or barn.  The setting for us is the understanding between the audience and performers.  Mozart, Beethoven, Hagen simply need an open piece of space and time with an audience that is expecting art.  If
the intimacy and comfort of the setting can bring the audience to that place, then we are all for it.

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