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A Trio for a Trio: CSO String Musicians to Make Chamber Debut

The Chautauqua Trio will make its chamber music debut in an all-strings performance featuring two pieces the members consider classics of their repertoire, and one piece they’ve only just discovered.

The Chautauqua Trio’s show is the third concert in the Chautauqua Chamber Music Resident Artist Series and will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. The trio will play three pieces: Zoltán Kodály’s “Intermezzo for String Trio,” Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major, Op. 10 and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio No. 3, Op. 9.

The Chautauqua Trio is composed of violinist Vahn Armstrong, violist Eva Stern and cellist Jolyon Pegis. All three are also members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and longtime Chautauquans — Armstrong is here for his 27th summer, Pegis for his 26th and Stern for her 19th. The group was formed this year; they’ve played in quartets before, including with a pianist last year, and decided this year to form their own string trio — a unique sort of group that comes with delights and difficulties.

“There’s a sparseness to the string trio sound,” Pegis said. “It’s a very lean sound and it’s a little bit, sometimes, like walking on a tightrope. You don’t have that fullness of sound (of a quartet), so you hear absolutely everything, and that’s a good thing — if you like what you hear.”

All three trio members love the three pieces — other than that, there is no set theme to the concert.

Kodály’s “Intermezzo” is lesser known than the other two pieces, and like much of Kodály’s work, is influenced by Hungarian folk music. Kodály was one of the first ethnomusicologists, and worked to preserve the musical traditions of Hungarian natives and common folk; his experiences in this endeavor contributed to his style of composition.

Much like the Hungarian language, the piece has heavier accents at the beginning of phrases, making it a catchy melody.

“I’m a little bit surprised it’s been so much under the radar,” Armstrong said. “It’s a very charming piece, … very lovely.”

Dohnányi’s Serenade is a five-movement piece that is a classic part of many musicians’ repertoire. All the members of the trio have played it many times before throughout all stages of their careers. Pegis first played the piece when he was 11 or 12 years old, and his own son first played it at that age as well.

“(It’s) so fun to play and so fun to listen to, and it has beautiful, beautiful tunes,” Pegis said. “It’s a piece I’ve known for a long time, and I’ve loved it every minute I’ve known it.”

One thing that is interesting about string trios, Armstrong said, is that many musical pieces utilize four-part harmonies, and it’s a bit of a “magic trick” for the composers of trios to figure out how to create the fullness of that harmony with only three instruments.

Beethoven wrote several pieces that do this, of which String Trio No. 3, Op. 9 is the most musically ambitious, Armstrong said. It is also in C minor, an important key for Beethoven and some of his most famous works, such as Symphony No. 5.

“It’s interesting to hear this very early work of Beethoven,” Armstrong said. “There are things in this trio that we’ve been noticing as we’ve been working on it that really foreshadow some of his most sophisticated final pieces that he wrote at the end of his life. It’s quite remarkable.”

There is a difference between playing in the CSO and playing chamber music; whereas being in the orchestra is about working well as a part within the whole, in chamber music the audience can hear everything each person is doing. This means there is less room for error, but more freedom for individual expression. Additionally, the nature of chamber music is that there is no conductor.

“You make all the musical decisions, including what to play,” Pegis said. “You decide every nuance of the piece: color of sound, tempo, everything you’re going to do, who’s got the important voice at the time that needs to come out — and so it’s harder when you are the one responsible and it’s also extremely satisfying.”

Playing in a smaller group also gives orchestra players a chance to better hear themselves, which allows them to notice minor hiccups in their playing that might have otherwise been overlooked.

“It’s rewarding to play chamber music, but I think it’s also good for us,” Stern said.

The trio hopes Chautauquans find something to enjoy and something new to discover at the concert, and plans for this to be the first of many performances as a group.

“I’m sure we will do more trio concerts in the future,” Pegis said. “Definitely.”

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The author Julia Arwine

Julia Arwine is a rising junior at Miami University in Ohio, where she studies journalism and interactive media studies. She will be covering the School of Music this summer. Julia’s three main ambitions in life are to write for National Geographic, to be a chef and to own a sheep farm in Scotland — not necessarily in that order.

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