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Follow the leader? ­­­— Music in the Mountains presents Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor and the Brahms Serenade No. 1

Anthony Barcellos
Special to Prospector
Music in the Mountains will present works by Medelssohn and Brahms as part of the chamber music program this weekend.
Submitted photo to Prospector


WHAT: Music in the Mountains presents Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor and the Brahms Serenade No. 1

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday. Doors open at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Peace Lutheran Church, 828 West Main Street, Grass Valley

TICKETS: $30 in advance, $40 at the door, $10 for 17 and under, free for 10 and under

INFO: Visit http://www.musicinthemountains.org or call the box office at 530-265-6124

“Take me to your leader!” If friendly visitors from a distant planet were to use that classic opening line in Grass Valley this Sunday, they would be in for a shock. There is no leader!

Music in the Mountains is presenting chamber music this weekend, which requires no conductor to lead the performers. Works by Mendelssohn and Brahms are on the program, which will be performed at Peace Lutheran Church at 3 p.m. Sunday.

“The great joy in playing chamber music is that each of the musicians share leading and supporting roles,” said Brenda Tom Vahur, who will be playing the piano part in the concert’s opening piece, the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in C minor. “It is very much an interactive way to play.”

Robin Mayforth, concertmaster for Music in the Mountains, who will be the violinist in the Mendelssohn trio, agrees: “Since there is no one conducting, as in an orchestra, we take turns leading with the music as our guide.”

This ensemble mode of music-making puts a premium on the individual’s sensitivity to the partners in the performance.

“The interchange between the musicians is one of intense listening to and sensing each other,” said Mayforth.

Vahur notes that a successful performance involves “responding to the most subtle shades of sounds, characters, shifts in lengths of notes, dynamics, body language, and breathing from each of the players.” She adds that the pianist has the most notes to play in the piano trio, but Mendelssohn did not simply write a piano showcase. Rather, the composer drew on the contrasts among the three instruments for whom the piece is scored.

“The nature of what a stringed instrument can do is everything that the piano cannot: sustain notes while changing the timbre and intensity within a particular note, as a singer would,” Vahur said.

People familiar with today’s music genres are aware of the use of “sampling” by modern artists in their compositions, borrowing bits of music from other performers and incorporating it in their own. The practice precedes today’s digital cut-and-paste technique by centuries. Mendelssohn does it in the final movement of his piano trio.

“In the last movement, Mendelssohn gives the first-time listener a surprise by quoting a well-known theme and folding it seamlessly into his work,” said Vahur. “The first time that I heard it, I was shocked, then immediately filled with joy as Mendelssohn proceeded to show that there could be no other progression of notes at that point in the piece — it was inevitable.” (Mendelssohn’s inspiration? Bach!)

Mayforth and Vahur will be joined for the Mendelssohn trio by Janet Witharm on cello. Witharm is director of the Silicon Valley Strings Chamber Music Institute. Mayforth is concertmaster for Symphony Silicon Valley, and Vahur has performed with the San Francisco Ballet Symphony.

The second half of Sunday’s program is devoted to Serenade No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. It may come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the Serenade as an orchestral work that it got its start as a composition for chamber ensemble. While still hesitating to follow in the symphonic footsteps of his idol Beethoven, Brahms experimented with smaller-scaled orchestral works. Serenade No. 1 is one of the earliest of those compositions, a part of his Opus 11 (1857). He let his First Symphony wait till Opus 68 (1876).

Brahms did not consider that the premiere performance of the Serenade went as well as he had hoped, but the audience clearly disagreed. The enthusiastic attendees demanded the appearance of the composer and gave him their vociferous approval.

An ensemble of 10 performers will present the Serenade, which consists of six movements.

The string complement includes Rae Ann Goldberg and Carolyn Carl on violin, Lynne Richburg on viola, Janet Witharm on cello, and Bill Everett on bass. The woodwind contingent comprises Jane Lenoir playing the flute, Tom Rose and Geordie Frazer on clarinet, and Carla Wilson on bassoon. Horn player Richard Burdick will provide the bright sound of brass.

Anthony Barcellos is a freelance writer and classical music fan who lives in Davis and teaches math for fun at American River College in Sacramento.


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