Monday, January 23, 2006

The Verdehr Trio: Violin, Clarinet, Piano

From the Detroit Free Press:

The power of 3

After more than 30 years and 200 new works, the MSU-based Verdehr Trio has created a niche for its unusual pairing of violin, clarinet and piano


The wit and wisdom of the "Peanuts" comic strip often delivered profound truths about unrequited love, baseball and the perplexities of owning a beagle with an overactive imagination. But Charles Schulz also had a prescient ear for music criticism.
A strip from 1953 finds the Beethoven-loving Schroeder flipping through sheet music with Charlie Brown nearby holding a guitar-like instrument. "I'm sorry, Charlie Brown," Schroeder says. "I guess nothing has been written for piano and cigar box banjo."
If you want to play music for piano and cigar box banjo, you have to commission a composer to write it.
That gospel has governed the Verdehr Trio almost from Day 1. When the husband-and-wife team of violinist Walter Verdehr (Ver-DARE) and clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr founded the group at Michigan State University in 1972, only a handful of works existed for the unusual instrumentation of violin, clarinet and piano. More than 30 years later, the trio has commissioned about 200 works, including pieces by such leading voices as Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, David Diamond, Wolfgang Rihm, Alan Hovhaness, Joan Tower, Bright Sheng and Peter Sculthorpe.

The Verdehr Trio has single-handedly created a new medium, establishing its instrumentation as a viable ensemble by forging a new repertoire, documenting it on CDs and videos, touring constantly and inspiring the formation of similar groups worldwide. "When we started we wanted to define the personality of this ensemble through a great variety of repertoire," says Walter Verdehr, 64. "It's a strong personality. It's soloistic for each instrument, very colorful and mercurial in the sense that it has so many possible ways to go, from very dramatic to humorous to very loud and wispy and delicate."
The Verdehr Trio is celebrating the sesquicentennial of MSU during its 2005-06 season with concerts that testify to the group's own pioneer spirit. Today's concert is an all-American affair, featuring earlier commissions by Bolcom, Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Dinos Constantinides and a world premiere by Margaret Brouwer, head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music. In April, the trio performs an all-Michigan composer concert; last fall, the group showcased international composers.

A collaborative effort

On a recent Saturday, the trio convenes in Ludewig-Verdehr's campus studio to rehearse Brouwer's work with the composer. The violinist and clarinetist face each other in the center of the room, with pianist Silvia Roederer tucked in a corner. (Many pianists have performed with the trio; Roederer, a professor of music at Western Michigan University, has filled the chair since 1998.)
Brouwer's Trio is a spunky piece, audience-friendly in the best sense, with swift outer movements full of lusty melodic dialogue, spiky rhythms and radiant colors. In the slow movement, flickering tremolos conjure dark mysteries. Brouwer, looking younger than her 65 years in a stylish scarf, boots and reading glasses, sits against a wall with her nose in the score and a pencil in hand.
Her comments are specific and technical: "At measure 74, Walter, can you play that a little more off the string -- it needs to be lighter," she says.
Brouwer also takes suggestions, altering articulation and phrasing and even a particular note played by the clarinet in one spot when Ludewig-Verdehr stumps for an alternative. The exchanges are businesslike but warm, and the feeling is that bringing a new piece into the world is hard work but fun.
"A year from now it'll really sound good," says Ludewig-Verdehr says, packing up her clarinet. "A composer is hoping for an emotional effect, and we're still counting rhythms. Maybe by next week it will be in our blood."

The Verdehrs met at MSU in 1968 when Walter joined the faculty after finishing a PhD at Juilliard. Elsa had been teaching on campus since 1963. They are an interesting couple: Walter is lanky and professorial, an impression furthered by his Austrian accent. He was born in Gottschee, an Austrian community in Slovenia, and after World War II his family lived as refugees in Graz, Austria, before immigrating to Los Angeles in 1952.
Ludewig-Verdehr was born in Virginia, trained at the Oberlin and Eastman conservatories and toured for a time with the prestigious Musicians from Marlboro. She has a spark-plug personality. The couple married in 1971, and started their trio the following year so as newlyweds they could spend more time together. Their professional and personal lives have been inseparable for 35 years.
"We argued then and we argue now," says Ludewig-Verdehr with a twinkle in her eye. More seriously, she says: "You have to really know your part or they'll be trouble. But we don't have any rules. Part of being a musician is to be passionate. That is part of the pain and pleasure of chamber music."

A storied past

The violin-clarinet-piano trio is largely a 20th-Century invention, not unlike the wind quintet, brass quintet, saxophone quartet and Pierrot sextet (descended from Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire"). Still, the first works for the basic instrumentation were pieces by Jan Vanhal, an 18th-Century contemporary of Mozart. In the 19th Century, minor composers wrote a limited number of pieces. In the early 20th Century, a handful of quality works emerged, including pieces by Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Alban Berg and Darius Milhaud.
But it was the sheer force of Bela Bartok's "Contrasts" -- with its primal dance gestures, nocturnal murmurings and variegated colors and textures -- that put the instrumentation on the map. The Hungarian composer's bracingly original 1938 piece, was written on behalf of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who wanted a classical piece he could perform with violinist Josef Szigeti.
Shortly before Goodman's death in 1986, he came to hear the Verdehr Trio play "Contrasts" in New York. A Mr. Goodman had requested tickets to the concert, but the group had no idea it was the great man himself until he came backstage at intermission.
"We asked him about the Bartok and he said that it was so hard technically and rhythmically that Szigeti had a hard time with it," says Verdehr. "I later heard from others that Szigeti had said that it was Goodman who had a hard time. But Benny was amazed that we could play it so well and that it had become popular."

At first, the Verdehr Trio was content to supplement the few true trio works with violin and clarinet sonatas. But by the mid-'70s, the Verdehrs grew tired of playing the same works over and over and began to commission a library. They began with colleagues at MSU, including Jere Hutcheson and James Niblock, and soon branched out in all directions, from students to lesser-known pros to leading lights.
The stylistic range has been great, from a conservative neo-romanticism to a more rugged high modernism. But most pieces fall into a mainstream idiom: more-or-less tonal and accessible. The costs have been considerable at times. The best-known composers can charge $20,000 or more for a 20-minute piece. MSU has provided the lion's share of the commissioning costs, but the trio has also received National Endowment for the Arts dollars and private funds.
The Verdehr Trio's legacy is just now coming into focus as its commissioned works gain currency and other trios begin to form on the Verdehr model. The number is still small, about 10 worldwide, but it's growing.
"They absolutely inspired us to start our group," says Maxine Ramey, clarinetist in the Sapphire Trio at the University of Montana. A former student of Ludewig-Verdehr, Ramey says that whenever her trio performs music first written for the Verdehr Trio, it comes as a revelation to other musicians.
After hearing the Sapphire Trio perform pieces by Peter Schickele and Alexander Arutiunian at a conference in Tokyo last year, Wenzel Fuchs, principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic, raced up to Ramey and said, "I cannot believe that I am a clarinetist of this stature and did not know these pieces!"
The Verdehr Trio shows no signs of slowing down. New works are in the pipeline by the pop-inspired eclectic Michael Daugherty and the rigorous atonalist Augusta Read Thomas. Composers on Verdehr's wish list include superstars John Adams, Sofia Gubaidulina and Krzystof Penderecki. Of course, there have been regrets. Composers who got away include Samuel Barber, Olivier Messiaen and Gygory Ligeti.
But overall, Verdehr says the group has been lucky, coming along at the right time when they had access to a broad menu of composers who were intrigued by the challenge of exploring a fresh medium. "It's amazing how it's taken off," says Ludewig-Verdehr. "We spawned a monster."

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