Cohesive chamber trio performs with power

The small audience that braved the snow Friday night for the Nordica Trio concert at the University of Southern Maine's Corthell Hall in Gorham was rewarded with one of the best chamber music performances this winter. I would call it a jewel, except that the word implies smallness, and the trio, augmented by French horn player John Boden, had a surprisingly powerful dynamic range.

This was particularly evident in the last work of the evening, the great Brahms "Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn," Opus 40, played by Boden, violinist Graybert Beacham and pianist Yuri Funahashi. The playing was little short of inspired, and led to a well-deserved standing ovation. Beacham and Boden exploited Brahm's harmonic sweetness to its full extent, but the crowning achievement was the trio's near-perfect coordination of tempo, volume and intonation. Couple that with real passion and enthusiasm, and one has a performance to remember. The melodic adagio was outstanding and the rapid repeated horn notes of the finale were executed in virtuoso style. Funahashi drew gigantic Brahmsian chords from the hall's controversial new Steinway without ever overpowering the other voices.

I haven't looked up the genesis of the trio, but its opening theme is a motif reminiscent of American Indian materials used by Brahms' protege Dvorak in his "New World" symphony. The thought was prompted by the publication date of 1865, just at the end of our Civil War. I have heard this trio in the alternative version, with viola rather than horn, and horn is better, much better.

The Nordica Trio consists of Beacham, Funahashi and Karen Beacham, clarinet, but has been working with Boden, principal horn of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, for some time. Another result of this collaboration was a marvelous "Trio for B-flat Clarinet, F Horn and Piano" by American composer George Rochberg. The trio, written in 1948 and revised in 1980, is tonal and easily accessible on first hearing. It is also fiendishly difficult and extremely tightly written. There is not a self-indulgent note in the score. That it was negotiated so well, and still managed to convey deep feeling, should have indicated that a good Brahms was to come. (One always hopes.) The adagio, in which minor thirds are explored by the clarinet and muted horn, did indeed sound like a new "single instrument," as Boden asserted in his opening remarks.

The evening began with the late Hovhaness trio, "Lake Samish," Opus 415, composed in 1988 on the shores of that lake in the Pacific Northwest. The composer uses typical Armenian and other folk materials to paint a tonal picture of the lake in various moods, more successfully than most ventures in that form. Hovhaness's own program notes, with their "celestial motets of interstellar space," read like a press release, but the work, lovingly played, lived up to the notices.

– Christopher Hyde

Sunday, February 4, 2001, page 9E, © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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Nordica Trio performs flawlessly

Half a churchful of fortunate people braved icy roads Saturday night to hear the Nordica Trio at the United Baptist Church in Lewiston. The concert, which included five full-length pieces, seemed all too short.

The Nordica Trio, consisting of Karen Beacham, clarinet, Yuri Funahashi, piano, and Graybert Beacham, violin, has been playing together for about six years, and has discovered a wealth of interesting music for its particular mix of virtuosity.

A wonderful Bartok piece, "Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano" was written by the composer in 1938 at the request of violinist Jospeh Szigeti, who wanted something he could play with Benny Goodman. It was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1939, with Goodman on the clarinet.

"Contrasts", which consists of a dance-like first movement, a slower "restful" midsection, and a fast finale, is built around tritones, intervals of an augmented fourth—from F to B going up the scale—that early classical musicians called "the Devil in music." Just to show how uninhibited he was, Bartok composed one section for a violin in special tuning that permitted it to play two of these compositional no-nos at once.

Bartok seemed to think that the clarinet and the violin didn't really belong together, and in "Contrasts" emphasized their differences. He may not have heard the two Haydn trios that began the program, in which the voices are so perfectly woven together that it is sometimes hard to tell which is which.

The two works played after intermission were also great finds. The first was a suite by Darius Milhaud, which includes a fantastic parody of the type of trio music that used to be played in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel, yoked to some infinitely sad melodic lines, as if a friend were continually urging the composer to cheer up.

The last work on the program, a pleasant suite by the contemporary Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, was a reminder that there is a lot of life still left in tonal music based on folkish themes.

Both the individual playing and the total ensemble were virtually flawless in every work, no matter how difficult. Better still, the musical character of each was shaped with taste and imagination. This concert will be played again, under the auspices of the Maine Music Society on Saturday at the Second Congregational Church in Norway. It should not be missed.

– Christopher Hyde

Monday, January 18, 1999, page 3C, © 1999 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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USM faculty recital allows violist to shine

The middle-sized instrument of the string family is the butt of more than its fair share of jokes. Acoustically, the viola is undersized for its lower pitches. And in the real world, many ad hoc violists are really violinists who may be accustomed neither to the viola's larger size nor to the C clef in which its parts are written.

So it was a pleasure to hear Graybert Beacham splendidly play this maligned instrument at his USM faculty recital in Gorham Friday night. In three works spanning two centuries, Beacham demonstrated agility, accuracy and good musical sense, all to deft piano accompaniment by Yuri Funahashi.

This duo is two thirds of the Nordica Trio. From fine musicians in a long performing association with each other, good things might well be expected, and the audience in Corthell Hall was not disappointed.

In Henry Eccles' down-to-earth English baroque sonata, Beacham gave us a stately Largo whose gravity rose to pathos and a vigorous shake in its miniature cadenza, followed by a brisk Corrente accented by feather-light rolled chords to open its phrases and a flurry of double stops to end.

After a dignified Saraband in slow 3/4 came a catchy Gigue in a faster 3/4 (not the usual 6/8!) with nimble fingering way up the viola's neck in its coda. Funahashi played with solid reliability throughout: always there, yet never in the way.

Neither this sonata nor the Schubert one which followed were originally written for viola: Eccles composed his piece for double bass, also the instrument on which Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata is most often heard. We have a violist named Milton Katims to thank for both arrangements heard here.

The three-movement Schubert was refreshingly light and lyric (for all Beacham's viola has an unusually rich and full sound) compared to other performances we've heard on galumphing great basses. Our favorite movement of this one was its final Allegretto, a rondo packed with mood swings and embedded binary forms.

In his last years Brahms wrote two clarinet sonatas which he also arranged for viola. Beacham played his Sonata in E Flat Major with panache and poignancy, while Funahashi shone in its dramatic piano part's fat chords, tricky rhythms and tasteful rubato. The house gave both musicians a good hand at the recital's end, and rightly so.

– Nick Humez

Saturday, March 1, 1997, page 8B © 1997 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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USM faculty recital exudes excitement

The Nordica Trio—Graybert Beacham (violin), Karen Beacham (clarinet) and Yuri Funahashi—gave an exciting performance of four sonatas from three centuries Friday night.

Their faculty recital at the University of Southern Maine drew a near-capacity audience to Corthell Hall on the Gorham campus, and the crowd loved what it heard.

The ensemble, based in Farmington, excelled in Khachaturian's orientalist "Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano," redolent with a folk declamatory style harking back to the mountainous Caucasus district of the composer's youth.

This piece was a banquet of dead-accurate double stops on violin and lyric, soaring melodies on clarinet. Sometimes the Beachams doubled each other at the octave or played in fourths while Funahashi's driving keyboard provided a solid rhythmic underpinning.

Karen Beacham plays wonderfully: now velvet-smooth, now agile. It would have been a pleasure to hear her in other works. But the violin-piano sonatas which made up the rest of the recital were by no means inferior.

In Telemann's miniature "Sonata in A Major," which opened the program, Graybert Beacham showed a judicious use of vibrato and a deft, light touch appropriate to this rococo piece.

Unfortunately, Beacham's violin would have been better balanced in this piece by a delicate realization of figured bass on harpsichord. Though Funahashi played with admirable restraint, the heavier sound of her piano tended to overpower Beacham in his lowest octave. But most of the sonata was satisfying, the adagio especially so.

A similar problem dogged Beethoven's "Spring" sonata: Early 19th-century keyboards were far lighter in touch and fugitive in tone than modern concert grands, making left-hand chords which were distinct for Beethoven sound muddy today. And once again, alas, Beacham's low notes tended to get buried.

But these were minor distractions in an otherwise charming performance of this familiar work, in which, for the most part, Beacham and Funahashi were a tight duo—sometimes thrillingly so, as in their extended shared trills at the end of the adagio second movement and the witty, staggered-stress scherzo of the third.

Most effective of the three violin-piano works was the final offering on the program, the "Sonata No. 3 in D Minor" by an aging and increasingly disillusioned Brahms.

Its tempestuous opening was a vigorous workout for Funahashi, who mopped her brow before she and Beacham settled into the melancholy grandeur of its adagio, an aria full of luscious double stops and an almost unbearable sense of pathos.

This sonata demanded consummate technique and control from both violinist and pianist, and they delivered handsomely. Tension built through the final two movements to a climax which drew loud applause and two curtain calls, with Karen Beacham returning to the stage for the last long hand.

– Nick Humez

Saturday, March 18, 1995, page 4B, © 1995 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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Recital to shine spotlight on Nordica Trio

Not all ensembles burst on the music scene in a dazzling flash of publicity and a flourish of trumpets. Despite recitals last season at several halls in Maine, the Nordica Trio—Graybert Beacham (violin and viola), Karen Beacham (clarinet) and Yuri Funahashi (piano)—has seemed almost reticent about promoting itself.

Friday's recital at the University of Southern Maine may change all that, thrusting these reluctant virtuosos into the limelight willy-nilly.

In the fifth of this winter's faculty recitals (Graybert Beacham teaches at USM and Karen Beacham at Colby), the trio will play works of Beethoven, Khachaturian and Brahms in Corthell Hall on the Gorham campus, starting at 8 p.m. Admission is $8 ($4 USM faculty and staff, senior citizens and students).

– Nick Humez

Sunday, March 12, 1995, page 3E, © 1995 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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