By William Albright
HOUSTON — The Montrose Trio, which made its Houston debut Jan. 29 in Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater, has several connections with Texas’ largest city – but the trio’s name is not one of them. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who founded the ensemble in 2014 with former Tokyo String Quartet members Martin Beaver (violin) and Clive Greensmith (cello), teaches at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. Pierre Jalbert (rhymes with Albert), whose Street Antiphons received its Houston premiere at this concert, is professor of composition and theory at the Shepherd School, where he has taught since 1996. And clarinetist Richie Hawley, who joined the troika for Street Antiphons, is also on the faculty there (he is Jalbert’s elder son’s teacher).
Thus, Houstonians can be forgiven for thinking the Montrose Trio was named for the street that runs from the Museum District up (with a name change) into the historic Heights area and, by extension, the increasingly gentrified midtown neighborhood associated with starving artists and Houston’s gay community. In fact, however, the ensemble was named for the centuries-old Château Montrose Bordeaux winery in western France.
Performed between Haydn’s Trio in E major, Hob. XV:28, and Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor, Op. 50, Jalbert’s Street Antiphons was commissioned by Da Camera of Houston, the Boston Chamber Music Society, San Antonio’s SOLI Chamber Ensemble, and Dallas’ Voices of Change. (The 49-year-old Vermont native was composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 2002 to 2005, and among his many honors is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2006-7 Stoeger Prize, given biennially “in recognition of achievement in the field of chamber music composition.”)
As Jalbert outlines in a program note for the Da Camera concert, the piece for piano trio and clarinet “attempts to present and contrast secular and sacred music. The ‘secular’ music (music of the street) comes in the form of rhythmically driving sections, while the ‘sacred’ music is often lyrical and suspended…The final movement is a set of variations—the theme is a Gregorian chant.”
Street Antiphon’s first movement, labeled “Driving, in a groove,” opened with a suggestion of street drummers. Beaver and Greensmith chiseled sharp, strongly syncopated pizzicatos while Parker thumped the piano strings he damped with one hand inside the instrument. Serenely suspended musical lines took over as some agitated string-scrubbing gave way to a violin and clarinet duet, and Greensmith plucked his cello’s strings as though he were a jamming jazz bassist.
The “Reverberant, sustained” second movement begins eerily with hushed, long-held high string harmonics punctuated by lacy chime-like chords on the piano. The volume snowballs and, urged on by febrile trills from the other instruments, the clarinet also explores its highest register to create a mood simultaneously tranquil and tense. Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps is scored for the same forces, though Jalbert also adds a bass clarinet to the mix. Parker, Beaver, and Greensmith provided an edgy overlay to Hawley’s foundation of sustained sepulchral tones.
The “Timeless, mysterious” finale is a set of variations. After the piano opens the meeting with tinkly tolling, the clarinet voices the simple, 1,000-year-old theme over drone-like support from the strings. Each variation is more agitated and musically and rhythmically complex than the one before. The last variation is jagged and stabbing, but peace breaks out as Jalbert’s striking 20-minute mashup of sacred and secular ends hauntingly, tenderly, and pensively.
Jalbert’s more than 50 works are often colored by medieval Gregorian chants and the timeless spirituality they embody. Symphonia Sacra, written in 2001, was inspired by the splendor of Roman churches and cathedrals and incorporates plainchant melodies, and his 2005 big sky, a Houston Symphony commission, was inspired by the cathedral-vast open spaces of Texas’ Big Bend National Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if spirituality and awe also figure in upcoming Jalbert works: String Theory, which the East Coast Chamber Orchestra will perform in Philadelphia in May; the new string quartet— his sixth — he is writing for the Nebraska-based Chiara String Quartet; and the concerto for two violins to be performed by the Los Angeles and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras.
The Montrose Trio is only two years old, but its members have a history. Greensmith and Beaver, who now teach at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, were the Tokyo String Quartet’s cellist and first violinist for the 11 years before the ensemble disbanded in 2013, and Parker was the group’s last guest pianist.
Their shared experience produced the relaxed and cohesive music-making that marked the concert-opening Haydn trio. Displaying lovely buoyancy and precision, the three amped up the energy level considerably for the Jalbert quartet and the Tchaikovsky trio. Parker describes the often-turbulent Tchaikovsky as more like a triple concerto, a work for “three solo instruments battling it out,” and the Montrose performance was a victory for all concerned. Beaver and Greensmith conjured up extra tonal depth, richness, and delicacy in the first movement’s songful middle section. Parker provided lightness and grace as well as powerhouse virtuosity in the second movement and tossed off his mazurka-style music in the finale with springy stylishness while Beaver and Greenhouse played their extended con sordino duet with gorgeous smoothness and transparency.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.