SAKURA & Mojave Trio: Common Ground

SAKURA Cello Quintet and Mojave Piano Trio team up for an exhilarating evening of lush sonorities and extreme virtuosity, including the music of Daniel Silliman, Daniel Allas, Thomas Kotcheff, Kajia Saariaho, and Nico Muhly.


Daniel Silliman - the wounded king
Daniel Allas - a dream in my throat
Thomas Kotcheff - Go in in in in & in
Kajia Saariaho - Light and Matter
Nico Muhly - Common Ground 

"Brilliant...superb" -Mark Swed, LA Times

A unique and versatile cello quintet, hailed as “brilliant” and “superb” by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, SAKURA is built on the artistry and virtuosity of its members: Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda,and Peter Myers. Drawing from the rich heritage of a repertoire that spans eight centuries, eclectic and unexpected programs are constructed around conceptual threads, with an overarching commitment to opening new vistas of beauty and expression by showcasing the great warmth and scope offered by the sound of five cellos.

Last season's highlights included the West Coast premiere of Olli Mustonen's Triptych for three cellos and a performance of Brett Dean's Twelve Angry Men in Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival. They were awarded a $5,000 grant from Tarisio to commission five composers (Daniel Allas, Brett Banducci, Derek David, Thomas Kotcheff, and Daniel Silliman) to write quintets to be premiered in 2017. This season, SAKURA performs in Sedona, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Los Angeles and is Young Ensemble in Residence of the Da Camera Society.

The quintet operates as a true chamber ensemble, rehearsing extensively and distilling its interpretations through time, and is named in honor of the great mentor and artist Ralph Kirshbaum, with whom all five members studied: 桜 sakura (Japanese) and Kirschbaum (German) have the same meaning (cherry tree).
The Mojave Trio – dedicated to presenting a wide variety of classical music from the standard repertoire of the 18th-19th centuries to new works of our time – will offer a dynamic program of music by Schumann, Shostakovich and others. The ensemble has performed on the "Sundays Live" radio broadcast from Bing Theater at the LA County Museum of Art, and more. Members of the trio are: Sara Parkins, violin; Maggie Parkins, cello; and Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano.

Mojave's Maggie Parkins answers questions about the program!

 As a standard of the classical canon, how has the piano trio evolved over time in your opinion?

Here is a quote from Kaija Saariaho:  “I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.”

The chamber ensemble of the piano trio with its plentiful classic beginnings of Haydn and Mozart, its deeper development of Beethoven and Schubert, to its late 19th century peak of a romantic explosion of Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Brahms, Schumann (Robert and Clara) Dvorak and Debussy, etc., has left an indelible mark on the repertoire for three mostly compatible instruments.

The early twentieth century has left some fantastic staples such as, Ravel, Shostakovich, Faure, Frank Bridge, Henry Cowell, Korngold, and of course Ives.  One can develop a long list of later 20th and early 21st century works but there seems to be a wane of multiple explorations into the genre by well-known composers as other types of chamber ensembles using different instrumental combinations have developed. Now we see sextets, duos, percussion groups, and many other variations that capture the contemporary landscape. Contemporary piano trios are generally used to “fill out” programs of concert length. One sometimes wonders why some notable 20th century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Barber didn’t write for piano trio.

The string quartet seems to have continued to capture the interest of composers more consistently than piano trio. There are multiple examples of quartets by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston, and John Adams.

There are built-in challenges for matching the timbres of the strings to the keyboard. Perhaps it is the weighty tradition itself and the focus to find fresh new combinations that satisfies the aural palette.

What are your thoughts about performing music from the classical repertoire versus works by living composers?

As a cellist focused on small ensemble chamber music, I find myself in a unique and enviable position. Conservatory trained on an instrument steeped in tradition, I am lucky to have studied with fantastic teachers handing down their classic wisdom and knowledge. I have had some amazing experiences performing at great festivals such as Tanglewood, Taos, and Banff, and in wonderful orchestras as well.

At the same time I have gravitated toward and truly enjoyed working with living composers, having shared the camaraderie and challenge of exploring new techniques with the ability to discuss performance issues with the composer to be so rewarding. My sister, who is a composer, initiated me into her world of composition through improvisation and dance collaboration and further opened up my eyes to possibilities of interpretation.  But guess what? I have decided that the two concentrations nourish each other. After a stretch of doing only new music I find myself listening to Beethoven or Brahms or performing a Bach Suite and thinking, “Now that is a really good composer!” How delightful to play a piece I have grown up hearing and knowing and playing. It is comforting.

My luck is having the opportunity and ability to do both. The thrill of premiering a new work and working hard on a piece to get it just the way a composer wants it is very enjoyable to me. Who knows, it could be a piece that gets played again and again.

Can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing on the program at Monk Space?

Yes, we are really excited by these new works for our ensemble. I have been really into Saariaho’s compositions for quite some time. This is the fourth piece of hers I have worked on. I find her voice so unique and commanding. You won’t be whistling a tune into the wee hours of the evening though. Her music is about abstract color, timbre and contrast. Close your eyes and listen. She takes movement such as trills into tremolo and glissando, puts it over the fingerboard and on top of the bridge, maybe inside the piano, and then the overtones pop out. Her language creates such a wide pallet, changing simple notions of loud and soft, and occasional new sounds. She has truly explored some of the now accepted techniques of sul ponticello and sul tasto. She isn’t afraid to make the motion just stop and meditate on static sound which develops over the longer periods of time. Her music is a little more challenging for the listener and it often needs several listenings, but what a lovely door to enter.

Like Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon is also interested in color as a basis for compositional beginnings. It influences melody for her. Higdon is quite appreciated for her soaring tunes, and Pale Yellowdoesn’t disappoint with its glorious romantic feeling. The music has depth too and feels authentic.

Nicho Muhly’s piece is all about rhythmic drive. Its energy is fun with bookends of material that have funky asymmetrical meters and conversational dynamic writing. The middle has a long melody popping through against the chatter. It’s a really fun piece to learn and play.

Program Notes

Daniel Silliman - the wounded king
In writing this piece, I sought to create conditions for a performance in which the interdependence of the ensemble was the primary means by which that performance could take place. Each action in the wounded king is cued by a previous action, creating an interlinking sequence of events as the musicians proceed from one moment to the next.
Also very much on my mind was Philip K. Dick’s interpretation-by-way-of-Wagner of the Parsifal legend, one in which the Holy Lance that pierced the side of Christ was both the weapon that gravely injured the king Amfortas, and the only means by which that king’s wound could be healed. I found the logic of the Lance circling back on itself akin to a music in which cycles and patterns twist and fold back – canons spinning out into a clear, enveloping darkness.
What obtains from all of this, I hope, is a situation in which the needs of the moment, and the needing of one another, can come into the foreground, as the musicians face in towards each another – watching, waiting, listening.

Daniel Allas - a dream in my throat
a surreal meditation, a repressed memory. the original gloom returning in a swathing cloud. given time; there is less weight, less pain.

Thomas Kotcheff - Go in in in in & in
go in in in in & in was written in the first half of 2017 for SAKURA cello quintet. Three of the five members of the ensemble and I attended The University of Southern California together and I had the pleasure of collaborating with them as a pianist on various contemporary chamber repertoire as members of USC’s new music ensemble Thornton Edge. I found that a lot of the inspiration for go in in in in & in came from knowing the players intimately in this manner. Each member of SAKURA brings their own unique personality and quality of playing to the ensemble, but collectively they are linked through their dynamism, deep musicianship, and highly expressive playing.
It was this particular combination of individuality versus the aggregate ensemble that led to how large sections of go in in in in & in unfold -- the whole group moving in a swarm like fashion through large musical gestures while individual players tangentially shoot off from the ensemble.
In the process of writing the piece, I had the pleasure of workshopping it multiple times with SAKURA which was incredible. Hearing the group live, having their input, and testing out various color combinations within the quintet deeply affected the quality of a majority of the timbers in the piece.

Kaija Saariaho - Light and Matter

I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.
When I finally decided to approach this instrumentation, my first musical ideas were of light and rapid nature, and I started to imagine a one movement perpetual motion piece. During the composition, I developed the form into three continuous sections, including more varied tempi and textures.
The starting point for the music is light kinetic energy, which is then developed into more dramatic gestures and rapid exchanges among the three instruments.
The piece advances in spinning motion, moving from the original luminous fabric into more thematic patterns or towards the inertia of slow choral textures, before returning into the original weightlessness and starting a new flickering spin.
As a result, we hear three musical elements - kinetic texture, thematic motives and slowly moving choral material - in constantly changing combinations and orchestrations.
I wrote this piece in New York, while watching from my window the changing light and colors of Morningside Park. Besides providing me with the name for the piece, perhaps that continuous transformation of light on the glinting leaves and the immobile trunks of the solid trees became the inspiration for the musical materials in this piece.

Nico Muhly - Common Ground

Common Ground employs three different repetitive techniques. The first third of the piece is a cycle of chords of expanding and contracting length, with the violin and cello trading agitated little lines. The second is a pastoral obsession over essentially one chord: light changing over a field. Here, the cello leads, and the violin and piano offer insect-like interruptions. After a metronomic interlude and a free-form interlude, the piano begins stating a ground bass – a repetitive line around which the harmonies constantly shift. This sort of thing pops up in Purcell, where I first encountered it as a choirboy. The piece ends with a hyperactive recapitulation and is approximately 9 minutes long.

Jennifer Higdon - Pale Yellow

Jennifer Higdon writes of her Piano Trio, the first movement of which is entitled “Pale Yellow”: Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music? I have always been fascinated with the connection between painting and music. In my composing, I often picture colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas, except I do so with melodies, harmonies and through the instruments themselves. The colors that I have chosen in both of the movement titles and in the music itself, reflect very different moods and energy levels, which I find fascinating, as it begs the question, can colors actually convey a mood?


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