May 21, 2013

The Power of Three - CIM Launches Unique Piano Trio Program

Cellist Sharon Robinson always wanted to start a piano trio program for young musicians. It’s no surprise that piano trio repertoire and dynamic are close to her heart – she’s been a member of the renowned Kalichestein-Laredo-Robinson Trio for 36 years.

“I kept trying to develop a program,” she said. “But after seven years at Indiana University, it just never materialized.” When she and husband violinist Jaime Laredo came to CIM last fall, she pitched the idea to President Joel Smirnoff.

“There are very few – if any – trio programs at other schools,” Ms. Robinson said. “I think there is something similar at New England, but not quite like this. It’s really something special.” Without hesitation, President Smirnoff agreed, warmly embracing the concept.

Hoping to create an in-depth look at great piano trio repertoire, Ms. Robinson patterned the Advanced Piano Trio program after the success of CIM’s long-running Intensive String Quartet Seminar (ISQS) program. The trios focus on composers or thematically linked repertoire while growing together as a chamber ensemble.

The first semester, students in the program focused on Beethoven and performed as part of the Concert Series in December. This semester, students focus on Dvořák and Mendelssohn.

When asked for her favorite trio repertoire, she quickly referenced “the big romantic stuff,” but called Brahms her “desert island guy.”

“He really makes me happy and his language speaks to me,” she said thoughtfully. “Students need to trust the composers when it comes to Beethoven and Brahms. Brahms wrote what he meant, he was so careful and such a strong editor.”

“It’s my job to show students the tradition, how the works have been done in the past, but no one should feel that’s the only valid interpretation,” she explained. The instruments work together, developing a dialogue that gets passed along. Each member learns from one another and they can’t help but gain a deeper understanding of other instrumentation interpretations.

Partnering with piano faculty members Anita Pontremoli and Kathryn Brown, Ms. Robinson coached five trios last semester. Just like students in the ISQS who learn from CIM’s Cavani Quartet, APT students benefited from additional master classes with those in a premier trio ensemble - Jaime Laredo and Joseph Kalichestein.

“When I held auditions, I wanted preformed trios that already wanted to work together and really explore the repertoire with one another,” Ms. Robinson said, because she knows just how important chemistry is in a small ensemble. “It’s important to have fun and mutual respect for each other – musically and as people. We [Laredo and Kalichstein] all just want what’s best for the music. We are able to give one another corrections and not take it personally. We have a strong respect for each other as musicians and we have FUN together.”

APT lessons go beyond the music. Ms. Robinson knows that working in trios will teach these students more than what they’d learn “in a million private lessons.”

“It’s about working with people, and that’s an art. I want the mutual respect for my young trios that I have in mine. I want them to learn how to work through things together.” She encourages all her young musicians to read with people they love and mesh with musically. “I also want them to get out of the practice room and socialize with other members of their trio…go out to dinner, really enjoy each other’s company,” she says, knowing that has been the recipe for Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson’s decades of success.

Although the APT program is still in its infancy at CIM, Ms. Robinson is already thinking of ways to grow the program “one day.”

“Our Trio has commissioned some 25 works,” she said. “I’d love to have a class or seminar on some of those works. As musicians, we can’t call up Dvořák and ask for a specific interpretation, but I could’ve called Leon Kirchner before he passed. I hear other trios perform [Kirchner’s] works now, but never the way he taught it to us or performed it for us himself.” When a work is commissioned for KLR, the trio has exclusivity for a period of time, but after that, it can be performed by other trios, she explained.

Ms. Robinson feels that working directly with a composer on his intent for a piece is a valuable experience for musicians. “I encourage all young trios to contact composers about the works they want to play. They don’t realize that emailing a composer is an option…or that [understanding of a composer’s wishes] is a valuable part of performing a work.”

Ms. Robinson places such a high value on working directly with a composer, whenever possible, that each of her cello students has to commission a work each year from the composition students of Keith Fitch as part of their degree requirements. “Nothing long, just a short piece,” she said. “But they develop it together and then the work gets a premier at a composition or cello recital.”

This article originally appeared in CIM's Notes magazine, Spring 2013 issue.