July 27, 2022

PU Summer Chamber Concerts Closes Season with Engaging and Diverse Program

By Nancy Plum

When one thinks of classical music “trios,” what might come to mind is an ensemble of strings and piano, with plenty of works to perform from throughout music history. The chamber ensemble Zodiac Trio, formed in 2006 by musicians from the Manhattan School of Music, has broken this mold by dedicating a career to repertoire for clarinet, violin, and piano. Taking an unconventional route to success, clarinetist Kliment Krylovskiy, violinist Vanessa Mollard, and pianist Riko Higuma polished their ensemble sound with extensive study in Paris. Zodiac Trio brought an impressive and entertaining concert to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to close the 55th season of the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts series. 

The Trio opened the program conventionally, albeit with lesser-known works. Composer Paul Schoenfeld has infused his music with a scholarly command of mathematics and Hebrew studies, and his one-movement Freylakh also showed the influence of the Eastern European klezmer tradition. Zodiac Trio began Freylakh with a fiery start, immediately displaying a fierce piano part played by Higuma and the recognizable klezmer scales in Krylovskiy’s clarinet lines. The Trio consistently demonstrated exact rhythms, settling in well to the unusual sonorities of clarinet, violin, and piano together, and well representing the “merry” atmosphere indicated by the work’s title.

Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla was especially known for his use of Argentine dance forms, and this musical flavor was evident in the two short Piazzolla pieces arranged for the Trio by pianist Higuma. Chau Paris evoked a sultry Parisian night, with an understandably dramatic and demanding piano part. In this piece, Krylovskiy provided a lyrical clarinet line, joined by violinist Mollard for a swirling finish. Fugata introduced technically challenging melodic material one instrument at a time, with Higuma playing clean unisons between the two hands of the piano accompaniment. 

The principal work on the first half of the program was a concert suite of five movements from Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale), originally scored for seven instruments but also arranged by the composer for clarinet, violin, and piano. Zodiac Trio began the work with solid unisons and a percussive piano part, with Krylovskiy playing high in the register of the clarinet. Violinist Mollard commanded the second movement storyline of the fiddle which the devil is trying to buy from the soldier, demonstrating numerous double stops and a nonstop jagged melodic line. The fourth movement series of dances was seamless, with the three instruments creating a well-blended sonority. The closing “Dance of the Devil” was as demonic as one would expect from a movement with this title, with all instruments well up to Stravinsky’s technical demands. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to an ongoing Zodiac Trio project paying homage to clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman and other performers of his era. The arrangements of the 20th-century pieces played by the Trio in this set created a jazz club atmosphere, with each instrument taking a turn on extended solo lines. Numerous passages featured violin and clarinet playing cleanly together, and the arrangement of Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye in particular offered Krylovskiy opportunities for very expressive clarinet playing. All three musicians of Zodiac Trio played solid unisons and precise rhythms in the very jazzy I’m a Ding Dong Daddy which closed the Goodman set. 

The final work on the program, Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, was commissioned by Benny Goodman and combined the swing band style with the Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies for which Bartók was known. Bartók especially tested the violin part by requiring retuning the instrument for one movement to achieve a tritone effect within the Bulgarian rhythmic scheme. Violinist Mollard addressed this challenge by bringing two separately-tuned violins onstage and switching back and forth. Krylovskiy also expertly alternated between clarinets in Bb and A within the three movements of Bartók’s work. 

For 55 years, Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts has maintained a solid reputation bringing not only high-quality artists to Princeton but also unusual chamber ensembles to introduce audiences to new works and approaches to music. The Chamber Concerts series should be pleased that this year’s season both achieved these goals and went off without a hitch, re-establishing itself as one of the places to be on a summer evening in Princeton.