Review: What happens when an all-star trio gets interrupted by the couple arguing in the front row


Violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk were set to grapple with Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 on Wednesday night at the Soraya in Northridge. The great 1944 work, composed partly in response to the death of a friend, opens with a barely audible keening melody for the solo cello.

But as Isserlis began the soft harmonics, a disturbance in the front row caused him to stop. Bell lowered his violin. Denk waited too.

A couple in the front row had started to argue. Loudly.

“It was so much louder than my harmonics that I stopped, looked at them and was about to start again when they began to argue again, just as loudly,” Isserlis later explained to The Times. “I had to stop again and apologize: ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you.’ They evidently accepted my apology, because this time they let me start.”


What followed was a profoundly moving rendition of Shostakovich’s Trio — the centerpiece to a deeply satisfying night of chamber music, including Mendelssohn’s sunnier Piano Trio No. 1 and Ravel’s Piano Trio, completed at the start of World War I.

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It’s probably too soon to call Bell, Isserlis and Denk the Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky and Arthur Rubinstein of our day. So far, they have recorded a Brahms disc for Sony Classical, and the concert at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts is the eighth stop of their first U.S. tour, which consists of 10 concerts in 14 days.

Call it an impressive start. They certainly performed authoritatively, delivering seamless ensemble playing in the concert’s opener, Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1. Isserlis’ golden-toned cello set a mood of ardor and nobility in the trio’s two introductory themes, while Bell’s similarly warm tone and Denk’s fluent traversal of the composer’s virtuosic piano writing buoyed an account of Mozartean poise and romantic unpredictability. (The ensemble is recording Mendelssohn’s two trios in the studio later this week.)

Despite the blip at the start of the Shostakovich, the three performers quickly created a sense of intimacy in the 1,700-seat Soraya. There was absolute silence between movements — a gauge of the respect that the audience (well, most of the audience) showed the musicians — even after the wild exuberance of the second movement Allegro, performed with motoric force.

The ensemble gave the third movement Largo, the emotional heart of the work, a touching pathos. Denk’s opening chords, coupled with Bell’s despairing entrance on violin, sent shivers down the spine. Shostakovich, the great poet of 20th century anxiety, was also a sensitive folklorist. Bell and Isserlis conveyed the sad intonations of his dancelike Jewish themes in the Allegretto finale with bittersweet urgency and a gripping life-affirming anger.


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After intermission, the ensemble made a convincing stylistic leap to the more luxuriant textures of Ravel’s 1914 Trio. Denk elicited rich harmonic colors from the piano. He challenged his colleagues as they negotiated the fluctuating tempos and shifting accents in the second movement. In Ravel’s restrained third movement, the ensemble conjured a sense of nostalgia and loss. They made the sweeping Finale sing out in a thrillingly grand manner.

The near-capacity audience didn’t get to hear Rachmaninoff’s touching “Trio élégiaque,” which was part of the ensemble’s original program, because the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performed the piece in March. “We try not to duplicate,” Thor Steingraber, the Soraya’s executive director, told me before the concert.

The full Bell-Isserlis-Denk program can be heard tonight at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (Mendelssohn’s second Piano Trio will be the opener) and on Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.


Bell, Isserlis and Denk

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $38-$268

Info: (714) 556-2787 or


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