Spiritual String Trios in Black Oak Ensemble's Marin Concert

Click for full photo. L to R: David Cunliffe, Desirée Rhustrat, and Aurélien Fort Pederzoli (Abby Wasserman photo)

By Abby Wasserman

Black Oak Ensemble’s Jan. 28 concert at Mill Valley’s Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church, one day after Yom Ha Shoah, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, presented two works by Jewish composers who met death in Nazi concentration camps: Gideon Klein and Sándor Kuti. The concert, presented by Chamber Music Marin, also included works by other rarely heard 20th century composers. 

The Black Oak three—Desirée Ruhstrat, David Cunliffe, and Aurélien Fort Pederzoli—related to the audience how earlier in the day they had hiked in the Marin hills (“without jackets!”), seemingly a welcome relief from icy Chicago, where they live. Entering the concert space, they decided to add Aria from The Goldberg Variations to the program. That performance communicated a freshness of green hills. Violinist Ms. Ruhstrat’s instrument, though not a Baroque fiddle, sounded very baroque with a raw, honeyed edge and piquant surface ornamentation. The musicians effortlessly connected to one another, varying dynamics and phrasing with sublime musical accord and flowing synergy. Each had space and time to shine.

Originally the program had included Beethoven’s C Minor Trio, but a recent death in the family of one of the members necessitated a scaling back, and the composer’s D Major Serenade for String Trio, Op. 8 (minus Adagio and Scherzo) was substituted. The Serenade was light and bubbly, like champagne. It begins and ends with a march, but it was the performance of the long Thema con Variazioni that was the standout, a stately dance theme that led into a series of charming variations, with Mr. Fort Pederzoli’s viola line and Mr. Cunliffe’s rich cello sound providing perfect support as Ms. Ruhstrat’s violin part pranced gaily above.

Henri Tomasi’s Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement from 1943 rounded out the concert’s first half. In a spoken introduction, Ms. Ruhstrat revealed that she and Mr. Cunliffe had discovered the score in Corsica when they were on tour, and it had never been recorded until now. It’s clear from this sensitive and passionate performance that the three players feel a special connection to the music and the composer. One of its four movements, Nocturne, is based on a Corsican lullaby which Tomasi might have heard as a child, because although he was born in Marseille, both his parents were Corsican. Mr. Cunliffe’s cello part intoned the lullaby’s bass while Mr. Fort Pederzoli’s viola crooned its rich tenor and Ms. Ruhstrat’s violin undulated as though rocking a cradle. Tomasi’s connection to Ravel and Debussy is clear, and there are also small dissonances and shifting tempos reminiscent of Bartók. The mood moves from a shepherd’s song into a wild gypsy fling.

Following intermission, the musicians returned to perform Klein’s Trio for violin, viola and cello (1944). In 1940, the young Moravian Jewish composer received a scholarship to London to study, but the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia prevented his ability to escape. Interned at a concentration camp outside Prague, he wrote music of beauty. His Trio in three movements was written in 1944. He was killed a few days before liberation in a camp at Fürstengrube. He was 26. The music, which the musicians affirmed is “close to our hearts,” touches deep despair yet is full of the life force. Its harmonies are golden and exotic, and this was an intimate performance.

Sándor Kuti’s Serenade for String Trio came next. A Hungarian Jew, Kuti (1908-1945) was extraordinarily gifted, according to his childhood friend, the conductor Georg Solti, who stated that had Kuti lived, he would have become one of Hungary’s greatest composers. Kuti died at age 43 in the Auschwitz camp, leaving a legacy of compositions for strings, piano and chorus. This emotional one-movement trio ended on what Ms. Ruhstrat suggested might be a note of hope but what I heard as the ultimate question: what is the meaning of this life? The answer Kuti’s music gives is clear: to create.

Concluding the program was the stunning first movement, Trés animé, of Jean Cras’s Trio à cordes. A largely self-taught composer who favored chamber music, the Breton (1879-1932) held dual careers as a composer and French Navy Admiral who required a piano be on shipboard whenever he set out to sea, sometimes in perilous circumstances of war. Also influenced by Debussy and Ravel, Cras’s music is suffused with the rhythms of the sea. I could imagine the ship’s engine, the vast horizon, sea birds and passing clouds. The last movement was played as a pirate dance, which Mr. Cunliffe explained he could relate to because he has a pirate ancestor. The whole performance shimmered and hummed, then grew as calm as sunlight on waves.

The audience clapped enthusiastically throughout the concert, but had stayed seated. Now they rose to give a standing ovation. The musicians responded with, in Ms. Ruhstrat’s words, “something quick and fun”: a flashy Czardas by Vittorio Monti (1868-1922), and the concert whirled to an exuberant close.

Published at classicalsonoma.org, February 3, 2024