News Column

Chamber concert highlights violin, clarinet, piano

June 27, 2014

By Shea Conner, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

June 27--When most people think of a classical music trio, they envision a traditional string trio (a violinist flanked by a viola player and a cello player) or a piano trio (a pianist accompanied by a cellist and violinist). Few, however, picture a clarinet player in the mix.

Classical composers often incorporated parts for the woodwind instrument in their large-scale pieces but avoided putting them together in small-scale chamber works with the violin, both of which play at relatively high pitches. Although Mozart and Max Bruch wrote compositions for such a combination, the clarinet-violin-piano trio wasn't truly considered common until the 1970s.

This was the challenge that Saint Joseph Symphony music director Rico McNeela faced when he put together the program for an upcoming chamber concert featuring him (on violin), Richard Yeager (clarinet) and Charles Badami (piano).

"The number of pieces for this combination of violin, clarinet and piano is relatively small," McNeela says. "So, when you're looking for music, you have to shine your flashlight in to the dark corners."

McNeela unearthed some thrilling pieces for the trio, which will perform at the Saint Joseph Symphony's first chamber concert of the "Summer Music at the Museum" series. The show will be held at 2 p.m.June 29 at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art.

One of the scarce works on the program is Waldemar von Baussnern's "Serenade in Four Movements." Before stumbling upon the piece on an obscure publishing website, the incredibly knowledgeable McNeela says he had never heard of the composition or the man who wrote it.

He quickly brushed up on the German-born composer, who died in 1931. He found out that Baussnern drew inspiration from poetry and his compositions were rooted in the styles of the 19th century, with Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms all serving as influences. The serenade was an exercise in contrast for Baussnern, as the movements range from graceful and calm to boisterous and lively.

"A serenade usually implies a sort of light, outdoor music, but this is very much like a Mozart serenade in that it has really beautiful contrasting movements and it shows off the instruments really well," McNeela says.

Contrast is a theme that also drives the program's final piece, which fittingly enough, is called "Contrasts." The expressive composition was scored by Hungarian BÉla BartÓk in 1938. McNeela says this BartÓk piece is "one of the great chamber works of the 20th century," and it was actually commissioned by famous clarinet player and American jazz band leader Benny Goodman.

"Contrasts" itself contains three contrasting movements. The first was literally a recruiting dance executed by a group from the hussar regiments to fetch young Hungarian boys for military service.

"You can hear this marshal cockiness to it," McNeela says with a laugh. "It's as though you can imagine the recruiter in all his color, finery and gold trying to entice people."

The second movement suggests rest and relaxation but has what McNeela calls a "volcanic build." The final movement races along with the asymmetrical rhythms of Hungarian folk music in a wild dance. While the movements sound quite different, McNeela says contrast purveys the piece -- right down to how BartÓk approached the clarinet, the violin and the piano.

"He uses the clarinet in a particular lyrical quality and it races around playing flashy arpeggios. He uses the piano like a percussion instrument as much as he does for creating melodies. And on the violin, he emphasizes classic gypsy playing in the last movement but also the double-stops and the harmonics that only the violin can produce," he explains.

The concert's opener was written by another composer who probably should have earned more fame than he did. Jan Vanhal was a prolific Czech composer who wrote many pieces in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He also was a contemporary and close friend of Joseph Haydn. In fact, McNeela says Vanhal would often get together with Haydn, Mozart and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf to read each other's quartets over a few drinks.

"Can you imagine an evening of that? 'Well, Joseph, you might tweak this note here.' 'Hey Jan, what do you think of this C-sharp here?'" McNeela says with great amusement.

Vanhal probably never earned the worldwide recognition that his peers achieved because he stopped writing symphonies and other grand-scale works in 1780. For the last 33 years of his life, he focused his energy on music for piano, chamber ensembles, Masses and other church music.

Vanhal's legacy lives on through pieces like the "Trio in E Flat Major," which McNeela will perform with Yeager and Badami.

Although names like Vanhal and Baussnern may not immediately ring a bell, those who attend the chamber concert will certainly know of Igor Stravinsky. The trio will perform adapted suites from the Russian icon's "L'histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale") just before the BartÓk piece on Sunday.

The piece tells the tale of a Russian soldier named Joseph who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for economic gain. But after he becomes wealthy, he begins to feel soulless and pines for his simpler life. When Joseph seeks the hand of a princess in need of healing, he once again encounters the devil and realizes he can only defeat him by playing his violin.

"When the devil plays the fiddle, you can really get into it. It's scratchy and ugly and aggressive and menacing. And the soldier's a little more graceful, but not much because he's a soldier, not a professional fiddler," McNeela explains. "So, in this piece, a little edge in the performance is necessary."

Because the concert will be held in the cozy theater at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, the performances of "The Soldier's Tale" and the three other pieces will feel more intimate than a typical symphony chamber show. McNeela says the atmosphere at the summer concerts also will be more casual than usual.

Admission to the concert is free, but a $10 donation is suggested. For more information about the concert or the "Summer Music at the Museum" series, call the Saint Joseph Symphony at 233-7701 or visit

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.


(c)2014 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

Visit the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Source: St. Joseph News-Press (MO)

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters