How fortunate for the Gardner Museum to have friends who keep its housewarming party going.
Opening festivities for the museum’s Calderwood Hall might have concluded last January, but supporters of the New York-based Claremont Trio took it upon themselves to commission three new works to honor the hall, pieces that the trio has been introducing one at a time at each of its 2012 Gardner performances, alongside trios by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The last of the three commissions, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Folk Songs for Piano Trio,” was introduced by the Claremont on Sunday afternoon.
Frank herself was on hand to frame the work for Sunday’s audience, describing it as inspired by her own complex ancestry as an American composer born to a Peruvian mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father. Through her frequent visits to Peru over the years, she began to view its geography and Andean culture with the double awareness of an insider-outsider, which of course can be a helpful perspective for the creative artist.
The movement titles of her brief yet substantive work may suggest some kind of Peruvian travel diary or series of musical postcards, but Frank here has written something that moves beyond the merely pictorial. What’s striking in fact is how persuasively, in each of the movements, Frank takes musical ideas perhaps linked to an evocation of place or atmosphere and abstracts them from their settings, cogently developing them on their own musical and expressive terms.
“Canto para La María Angola,” the first movement, is named for the famously dissonant bell of a historic colonial church in Cusco, and the music begins with crashing bell-like piano chords, rapidly picked up in the same breath by rhapsodically swaying string lines in tightly woven harmonies. A movement called “Serenata” turns violin and cello into harp-like folk instruments, issuing waves of pizzicato around an elegant piano soliloquy. The closing “Chavín de Huantar” imagines the music of the pre-Inca cultures, a surgingly dissonant Bartokian fantasy that pulls back toward an introverted close. The Claremont Trio — sisters Julia Bruskin (cello) and Emily Bruskin (violin), and Andrea Lam (piano) — gave the work an excellent launch, full of confidence and elan. One imagines this as the first of many performances.
The remainder of the program was given over to Mozart’s Piano Trio in E Major (K. 542) and Mendelssohn’s C-minor Trio (Op. 66). In the former work, the Claremont tended toward the decorously conversational and was less successful in conveying the expressive vistas that lie beneath Mozart’s polished surfaces. The Mendelssohn at least, came roaring off the stage, in a rewardingly full-blooded performance.