On Thursday afternoon in the University of Montana Music Recital Hall, San Francisco violinist Ian Swensen raised his instrument to his neck, caught the eyes of cellist Tonya Tomkins and pianist Eric Zivian, lifted his upper body with a subtle jerk; and suddenly, a tempest erupted. For several minutes, a musical torrent pelted three dozen UM students and faculty as they listened to the visiting trio run through the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ famous Third Piano Trio – a piece that Swensen described moments later as “a growling, clear storm.”
The rapt audience erupted in loud clapping at the end. And then, the musicians onstage began to tear their performance apart.
For several minutes, they worked over a passage in which Tomkins switches from a singing musical line to a series of hard, staccato notes. After playing it through again, Tomkins turned to the audience.
“Eric’s been asking me over and over,” she said, “maybe ten times…”
“You all should know that these two are a couple,” Swensen interjected.
“Oh, but this can happen to anyone,” said Tomkins as the audience chuckled. “Every time I get to these three notes, he wants me to play it more like pizzicato (the musical term for plucking a string). So that time I really exaggerated it.”
“And I liked it,” grinned Zivian from behind the keyboard.
“Did anybody even notice?” Swensen mused.
The audience nodded in unison.
“Well then, see?” said Swensen. “We’re getting somewhere. Now let’s talk about the ending…”
For more than an hour, the trio continued to work on the movement – one of four in Brahms’ late-period work, which itself is one of three pieces of music that the trio will perform in a concert at the Music Recital Hall on Friday night.
Given the timetable, it may seem a little late for Tomkins, Zivian, and Swensen to be preparing for the performance.
But between them, the three musicians are hardly new to this music, let alone to the stage.
Tomkins currently serves as co-principal cellist of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Portland Baroque Orchestra. She has performed solo and chamber recitals on stages such as Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Recital Hall and New York City’s Lincoln Center.
Zivian has soloed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and has become one of the most notable modern specialists in the fortepiano, a precursor to the modern piano.
Swensen, a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, boasts past collaborations with the likes of Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, and Menahim Pressler, as well as members of the Beaux Arts Trio and the Juilliard, Cleveland, Emerson, and Tokyo String Quartets.
As a group, the three players have performed around the western United States, most recently at the Moab Music Festival in Moab, Utah.
Along the way, they’ve polished up a diverse repertoire of chamber music, including the three works on tonight’s program.
“We’ve actually rehearsed the Brahms quite a bit already,” said Tomkins in a telephone interview earlier this week, prior to the group’s arrival in Missoula. “But we’re exploring it still, and that exploration never stops. Even if you’ve played it 100 times before, you still come to it and explore it afresh each time; otherwise it sort of dies. Each time you play it you want to try new things.”
To those with only a cursory acquaintance with classical music, the idea of trying new things with such venerable music might seem a hopeless goal. Since its debut in 1886, Brahms’ Third Piano Trio has become a staple of the chamber music repertoire worldwide. Dozens of recordings of the work have been released over the years. Page upon page of analysis and history have been written about the music in academic journals and biographical tomes.
But, said Tomkins, if the music’s mystery were easily decoded straight from the pages on which it was written, there’d be no sense in performing it: One could simply read it.
That’s the case for all the enduring works of music, really.
It’s part of the reason why, more than 100 years after his death, Brahms remains a vital part of the classical music repertoire; and why, despite the ubiquity of CDs, radio, Youtube, and other media, classical music continues to have a flourishing life in concert halls around the world.
“I think these composers put a high value on the ability of chamber music to communicate their dreams and ideas and to create something that was beautiful and interesting and meaningful,” said Swensen. “This is music full of complex and fluid ideas and emotions, and so our job is to make sense of that while turning it also into a conversation between ourselves.”
On Thursday afternoon, that conversation was as much verbal as musical – involving not only the musicians, but also the audience. That was the point of the open rehearsal: to give a behind-the-scenes look at what kind of decisions and interplay are involved in putting together a polished performance.
But even when they take the stage tonight for their uninterrupted performance, the three musicians aim above all else to engage their audience in a sense of communal discovery and conversation.
“With chamber music, it’s a true democracy in terms of putting together a piece,” said Tomkins. “It’s the most interesting form of music for the player, I think, because it’s like having a conversation with your friends. This music is written for small rooms, written to entertain in a very sort of amusing but intelligent way, just like people would get together to play cards or talk and laugh and have fun. So there’s a constant interchange that hopefully extends beyond the stage into the audience.”
The University of Montana School of Music presents a Faculty and Guest Artist Series Recital featuring the Swensen/Tomkins/Zivian Trio tonight, Friday, Sept. 17, in the Music Recital Hall on the UM Campus. Tickets are $10 general, $5 for students/seniors, available at the door. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m.