The Lincoln Trio: On New Music and Performance

The trio talks to Chris McGovern backstage at Le Poisson Rouge before their concert

Chicago-based ensemble The Lincoln Trio have invited me to come hear them at Le Poisson Rouge in NY--And I sadly had to leave early to get a train back to CT (long story; it's always trains, cabs, directions and timeline issues with me). What I did manage to hear was such a great program of works (some brand new) by Lera Auerbach, Stacy Garrop and Joan Tower among others, and there was absolutely nothing regrettable about having a chance to hear any of that, particularly the jarring modernism of the Stacy Garrop piece Seven (I have to stress that when I hear new music, I'm usually watching it played by people dressed in street clothes or the color black; these people had gowns and a nice suit on, and it has to be the first time I've seen a lady in a gown so gorgeous as Marta Aznavoorian's while she was playing inside the piano).

Sitting down with them before the show backstage, the trio discussed the difference between new music and the classics. "Well, the most obvious that there's no recording of the new piece, so you have no preconceived idea of what it should sound like--a completely clean slate", explains Aznavoorian. "That can work two ways, it can be a fabulous opportunity to totally explore the piece and your own interpretation, just have fun, get dirty and get into it. On the other hand, there's a lot of benefits to listening to a recording--you already have a shape of what the piece sounds like, how difficult it is, so, it could really work both ways. I personally enjoy the freedom of new music, however I love the freedom of expression in all the music, and we try to incorporate both in all of our performances."

"Contemporary music has its challenges", added violinist Desiree Ruhstrat. "The thing with doing a Haydn, Beethoven or a Brahms is you've done it so many times that you can try and fool around with something new in performance, and maybe not even talking about doing it but just making it happen...For the time being, with newer pieces you know the exact science of fitting a puzzle together because we're not quite comfortable enough with it that if somebody took that extra beat, that it would all fall together very naturally. A lot of times, in one of our pieces in particular--Laura Schwendinger purposefully has what we call "the floating beat" where there is no pulse, or we're all having a pulse at a different time, so the challenge is for the contemporary music to be able to feel as "at home" as you do when you play Haydn or Beethoven. One day you just decide to take a faster tempo because you're in the mood, and, you can be more spontaneous. I think the challenge of being able to create, especially when we have the opportunity to work with the composer, to recreate what that composer wanted, or even work with the composer and [ask] 'What do you think about this?', where he or she might have intended something else happening, that when you hear it for the first time, that they actually rethink. To have that opportunity is a really great thing."

On playing new music, cellist David Cunliffe adds "We are all so reliant on each other for these little cues, these little gestures (Marta mentions "A head nod!"), and it can be a sort of domino effect--Fortunately that doesn't happen very much!"

On programming old and new music together, Desiree gives an interesting perspective: "I think it depends on the audience we're playing for. Programming is so important, and you know what will work, and what will get a certain demographic excited about music--I think it's more, not so much with the favorite composers but being able to program pieces that wherever we're going that we think that the people will enjoy it, and one of our missions has always been that amongst the Brahms and the Beethoven that we have always programmed one contemporary piece, ever since our inception. That's kind of a fun thing to do--Tchaikovsky, and then say 'We're going to play Higdon', and see this look of 'ugh!'--And then at the end, everyone's so excited--'Oh, I had no idea I would enjoy it so much! and how much they loved it!"

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