★★★★★ Thoughtfully conceived programme exquisitely performed.

Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon
November 24, 2015

Melbourne’s Sutherland Trio is named for distinguished Australian composer and all-round musical trailblazer Margaret Sutherland, and pays tribute to her legacy in several significant ways. Over half of Sutherland’s compositions were chamber works, reflecting her long-standing commitment to writing for small ensembles; she also championed emerging composers whose works explored new techniques and forms, and Sutherland exemplified high-calibre musicianship of international standing. Since forming in 2010, the Sutherland Trio has maintained a busy concert schedule, performing regularly at the Melbourne Recital Centre and the Iwaki Auditorium.

Tonight’s performance of Charles Ives’ Piano Trio was instigated by cellist Molly Kadarauch (Californian, now resident in Melbourne and a former member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra). Her colleagues were initially unconvinced, as she explained in her introduction to this work, but thankfully this was short-lived. Completed a century ago, the Trio is replete with highly original experimental techniques now accepted as standard, including polyrhythms and polytonalities. Fascinatingly, Ives’ father George was a bandmaster during the American Civil War, and taught his musically-inclined son important skills that included playing the piano in one key while singing in another. Although much of his compositional output remained unperformed during his lifetime, Charles Ives received significant accolades in the final decades of his life from Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Bernard Hermann, among other musical luminaries.

Ives’ Trio is an American modernist journey through his time as a music student at Yale University in the late-nineteenth century, incorporating American folk tunes, hymns (Ives was an organist) and fraternity songs, skewed and elongated for humorous effect – in fact, the Presto second movement is called TSIAJ (This Scherzo is a joke). It’s not all in-jokes and wonky songs though, and the Sutherland Trio navigated the work’s twists and turns with spirited excitement and exuberance, guiding their audience through to an expansive and lushly lyrical final movement.

Ives’ Trio was paired with another by a composer who also had a tremendous interest in American folk traditions: Antonín Dvořák, director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City in the 1890s while Ives was at Yale. But in this work, the Piano Trio No 3 in F Minor, it was to the Czech heritage of his homeland that Dvořák looked for inspiration. Pianist Caroline Almonte spoke movingly of her Czech lineage as she introduced this passionate, intensely emotional work, which Dvořák began writing shortly after the death of his mother during a time of personal anguish and artistic conflict. The second movement uses a dumka, a Czech dance, and the final movement is also based on another dance, the furiant (fiery in character), emotionally charged with dramatic pauses and reignitions. The playing was uniformly excellent, with violinist Elizabeth Sellars soaring through Dvořák’s lyrical lines, and Almonte particularly at home here, leaping warmly through the thrilling rhythms.

The Sutherland Trio was most impressive in this thoughtfully conceived and deeply personal programme, exquisitely performed and with great passion.