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Review: Cellist Shao and friends mix finesse with drama at Union College concert

Review: Cellist Shao and friends mix finesse with drama at Union College concert

Review: Cellist Sophie Shao played her annual concert Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial C

Cellist Sophie Shao played her annual concert Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the Union College Concert Series and brought two friends with her: violinist Frank Huang and pianist Gilles Vonsattei.

The program of piano trios by Haydn, Schumann and Brahms was one of two concerts the performers gave, the other being on Saturday at Amherst College where Vonsattei teaches. The level of play was extremely high as all of them are competition winners and two are recipients of the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Huang is also the concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. As such, anything technical was done with the greatest of finesse and phrasing was of the utmost musical sensitivity and grace.

They began with Haydn’s Piano Trio in A Major (1794-95). One of 12 that he wrote on his second visit to London, the three-movement work is one of Haydn’s most delicious creampuffs. Amateur players of the 18th century must have relished being able to tackle it as the work is not the most difficult.

The music was pretty, transparent and very accessible. Shao and friends played with an unforced, delicate touch, gentle attacks. The finale had a sprightly tempo tinged with some of Haydn’s ephemeral humor. The mood was vibrant and enthusiastic.

This was in complete contrast to Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor (1847). Romantically lush, but dark harmonically with swooning phrases, the musicians dug in to produce a bigger, fuller sound for more drama. While most of the first movement had rippling piano against melodic strings, there was an odd little section in which Shao had to play harmonics against the piano, which was tinkling high in the treble. This became darkly turbulent and passionate. Balances were exact.

The second movement was a frolic with a catchy unison motif that made for playfulness. The third was a sad and lonely lament that ended as an unresolved search, only to awaken into a richly tapestried finale that was brighter and ended in a happier place. The playing was excellent.

Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major (1880-82) had a dramatic surface but a mellow joyousness underneath. From the first movement’s dense forest, listeners moved into a sunlit glen by the final two movements, which showed Brahms at his most bon vivant. Shao and friends played exceptionally well.

The next concert on the series is Dec. 22 with the Boston Camerata in a French Christmas and a silent auction to benefit the series.

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