May 1, 2024

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Presents Evening of Chamber Music

By Nancy Plum

Members of professional orchestras often have successful performing careers on their own, both individually and as part of chamber ensembles. Princeton Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Alistair MacRae maintains a bi-coastal performing life, with faculty and principal appointments on the West Coast in addition to New Jersey. One of his affiliations is as a member of the Puget Sound Piano Trio, ensemble-in-residence at the University of the Puget Sound School of Music in Tacoma, Washington. Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented MacRae and his colleagues in the Trio, violinist Maria Sampen and pianist Ronaldo Rolim, in a concert at Princeton’s Trinity Church last Wednesday night. With the music of Franz Joseph Haydn, Miguel del Aguila, and Felix Mendelssohn, the Trio showed how its four-decade history has created both musical cohesion and high-level performance.

“Papa” Haydn may have been the father of the string quartet, but his other more intimate works have the same charm and refinement. The 1797 Piano Trio in E Major was the second of three piano trios Haydn composed for a keyboard virtuoso colleague, with the piece noteworthy for its technical demands. The musicians began Haydn’s three-movement Trio with pianist Rolim leading the way, executing extremely quick right-hand passages against string pizzicato. Violinist Sampen and cellist MacRae consistently communicated well with each other, as Rolim’s unbroken piano accompaniment flowed effortlessly. The second movement was marked by a dark and brooding atmosphere and an ostinato walking bass line under a rich cello melody. The Puget Trio clearly likes to emphasize the drama in the music by making the most of silences within a piece, and brought a chipper Viennese character to the closing movement.

American composer Miguel del Aguila drew from baroque musical practices for his 2020 Barroqueada for piano, violin, and cello. The eight movements of his work are a contemporary interpretation of the 18th-century suite, infused with modern Latin dances and the composer’s intent to “stir intense emotion in performers and listeners.” Throughout the piece, MacRae provided a rhythmic foundation to the piano and violin, often with pizzicato accompaniment.

All three Trio musicians executed quick and agile playing in the “Samba Corrente” movement, capturing the “running” implicit in the title. The “Pasapié” movement featured a “walking” effect between piano and cello against decisive extended solo piano passages. The players found a range of dynamics in the music, which became more cinematic toward the end of the work. A galloping rhythm in the strings against continual piano accompaniment (with a great deal of crossed hands) closed del Aguila’s suite with Latin fire and baroque clarity.

The Puget Trio closed Wednesday night’s concert with a Mendelssohn work capturing the essence of the composer’s brilliant melodic capabilities. The 1846 Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor incorporated elements of Mendelssohn’s renowned and lyrical Song without Words collection, as well as a chorale by Bach. In the Trio’s interpretation of this substantial work, pianist Rolim led the way through the first movement with non-stop playing accelerating the ebb and flow of the music. Sampen and MacRae maintained a graceful dialog between their two instruments with lyrical melodic passages. All three of the players were required to turn up the virtuosity in their playing, with the piano accompaniment in particular seeming like a piece unto itself.

Mendelssohn’s vocal elegance was heard in the second movement, with a graceful duet between violin and cello in clean harmonic fashion. The Trio built collective intensity effectively, with Rolim’s accompaniment maintaining a graceful flow. All of the works performed in this concert required nonstop piano accompaniment, and Rolim never faltered. He presented the chorale theme in the closing movement regally, against sweet harmonies from violin and cello. The Puget Sound Piano Trio showed their musical solidity in bringing Mendelssohn’s lyrical but dramatic work to a close, giving the Trinity audience on Wednesday night the chance to hear a long-standing ensemble which likely does not perform in this area often.