Catching up with Michael Torke and the Eroica Trio in Pasadena

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
The usually upbeat Eroica Trio turns melancholic with Michael Torke's 'Winter Trio' at Caltech

Michael Torke's "Winter Trio," which the Eroica Trio premiered at Caltech on Sunday afternoon, begins in an unusually melancholic mood.

He is a composer known for bright, buoyant music. Here, however, he recalled the onset of winter in Milwaukee, where he grew up, and how the lack of light, the wet and the cold trigger depression.

But if winter's gloom felt foreign to Torke's style, winter itself seemed an alien season on a Sunday spring afternoon in Pasadena. The sun was strong, and the temperature was in the 80s.

The Eroica is, moreover, an upbeat ensemble that radiates good cheer. Pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Sara Parkins and cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio were dressed in summery, bright-colored, long, strapless gowns. And the fact was that, whatever the season, this Sundays with Coleman program in Beckman Auditorium was a long overdue chance to catch up with both Torke and the Eroica.

Both the composer and the ensemble made a splash while still students. Torke's "Yellow Pages" and "Ecstatic Orange," from the mid-'80s, composed during his Yale days, announced a major new voice that molded an energetic post-Minimalist bounce with Chaka Khan.

The Eroica Trio was formed in 1991 by three women studying at the Juilliard School. This was a time when all-female ensembles — especially young women with a fashion sense — were as much of a novelty as a Khan bass line was in classical music.

Both composer and trio have gone on to have productive careers but in the last decade haven't had the prominence they once enjoyed. Little of Torke's latest music is widely disseminated, although he has been involved in intriguing projects, including a pop-music reworking of Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" in Paris three years ago.

"Winter Trio," which is dated 2013, is an incidental piece, nostalgic, not forward-looking. The bounce is still there, even in the opening movement, "Panels of Melancholy." The crisp string pizzicatos and bell-like piano attacks of the middle movement, "Icicles," evoke the bright shards of light reflected on ice.

The last movement, "Skating," is propulsive dance music, with syncopated rhythms out of phase. When describing the piece to the audience before the performance, Torke couldn't stand still onstage but kept bouncing back and forth while he spoke. "Winter Trio" is, likewise, unstill winter, not meditative but, rather, a Midwesterner embracing the cold and seeming happy to reflect from a warmer vista (long a New Yorker, he currently lives in Las Vegas but said Sunday that he missed the action and planned to return to the Big Apple).

The Eroica plays everything with enthusiasm. The program began with a piano trio arrangement by Anne Dudley brightening and colorizing the powerfully dramatic chaconne from Bach's Second Partita for solo violin. Pastels were then the shades for another arrangement for trio, this of the fetching Berceuse from Benjamin Godard's 1888 opera "Jocelyn."

Sant'Ambrogio is a cellist able to sustain a long line, and she was very effective in the slow movement of Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat, Opus 100, the afternoon's big work. But the Eroica is not a trio with a more metronomic style. Each passage is something to jump into. Schubert is usually better served by more nuance, but the E-Flat Trio is long and also needs propulsion, which it got.

There was time, after the Eroica Trio, to get to the last part of L.A. Bassoons, a day-long California Institute of the Arts extravaganza at REDCAT downtown; coincidentally, it was a performance of "Rushes" by Michael Gordon, who came out of the same composition program at Yale as Torke and around the same time.

"Rushes" is an hourlong work for seven bassoons, written in 2012, the same year as Torke's 50-minute, 10-piano pageant "Miami Grands," one of the few recent Torke scores to be released on CD and indicative of what all the fuss was about.

"Rushes" remains more aggressive and radical than the dazzlingly rippling "Miami Grands," but both share the same post-Minimalist DNA, and both are addictive scores.

At REDCAT, amplified buzzing bassoons relentlessly worked through slow patterns, providing a gripping full immersion into the furthest reaches of bassoonery. Mark Menzies conducted an impressive performance.

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