Originally published on May 25, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Memorial Day weekend came to San Francisco with a preview of the cold and grey days we usually expect in August; but the Old First Concerts series, at the Old First Church, provided an excellent refuge from the cold with a chamber music recital by the MusicAEterna trio. This piano trio was founded in 1999 by Aenea Mizushima Keyes, who studied violin with Dorothy Delay and composition with Meyer Kupferman at Sarah Lawrence College and is currently on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This recital provided Keyes, in the company of cellist Monica Scott and pianist Miles Graber, to exercise both of her skills in a program entitled “Past to Present.”
From the past Johannes Brahms provided the most warmth with his Opus 8 B major piano trio. This work was published in his early twenties but almost entirely reworked 35 years later. The most important addition to the later version is the third Adagio movement, which I previously described as foreshadowing his explorations of the intermezzo form in his late piano compositions. MusicAEterna offered a performance that captured both the youthful exuberance of the initial effort and the more forward-looking speculations of the later.
As composer Keyes was represented by a short suite entitled Snapshots from Japan, reflecting on her personal experiences in that country and inspired by ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Each movement is an impression of a different artist. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s movement is entitled “GHOST,” evoking his Thirty-Six Ghosts series, and is coupled with the concept of sorrow. This is followed by “GARDEN” and the concept of balance as a reflection on Kitagawa Utamaro, best known for his studies of women. The final movement, entitled “FESTIVAL” and coupled with the concept of joy, honors Katsushika Hokusai, whose “Great Wave off Kanagawa” in his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series is said to have inspired the composition of Claude Debussy’s La Mer. With little familiarity with the source material for Keyes’ inspirations, I found it difficult to form many impressions, although I was left wondering whether the scurrying sounds of the first movement may have been triggered by the rats in one of the prints from Thirty-Six Ghosts (illustrated above).
This work was preceded by “Between Tides,” by Toru Takemitsu (who had also approached the subject of ghosts in his soundtrack for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film of four stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan collection). I have been listening to Takemitsu’s music for about forty years and have been struck by the diversity of his approaches. His orchestral sounds can be as spare as those of Anton Webern or as rich as those of Alban Berg. However, this may have been my first encounter with his chamber music; and the sonorities tended towards the richer end of the spectrum. A meditative, somewhat static, quality is established through a modest repertoire of motifs, each of which returns over different intervals of time, thus providing an acoustic representation of tidal ebb and flow that captures both the predictability and unpredictability of the physical process.
The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 564 G major piano trio, the last of his compositions in this genre. Mozart has a particular skill in capturing a sense of intimate conversation in his chamber music, even when an ensemble like a piano trio imposes major questions of balance. Unfortunately, the senses of both conversation and intimacy seemed to elude this particular performance, leaving me to wonder if Mozart had been neglected after all the attention given to Takemitsu and Brahms (as well as Keyes’ own composition).