A four-way chat about Dvoˇrák

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If cham­ber mu­sic by de­sign is an in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tion be­tween play­ers, then pi­anist and 2009 Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Com­pe­ti­tion Sil­ver Medal­ist Yeol Eum Son will have a lot to talk about with the string trio of sis­ters Laura, Re­becca, and Julie Al­bers dur­ing their per­for­mance to­gether in St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium on Tues­day, Jan. 26.

Al­though the Korean pi­anist (her name, Yeol Eum, is pro­nounced with an R sound, as in “your-room”) and the sis­ters, orig­i­nally from Boul­der, had never met when Pasatiempo spoke to them shortly af­ter Christ­mas, they will most likely find each other sim­patico in Santa Fe. They are all highly ac­com­plished mu­si­cians, for one thing, and for an­other, they all like to laugh.

Mod­esty and re­al­ism are other qual­i­ties held in com­mon. When asked what it took to win a sil­ver medal at the fiercely com­pet­i­tive Van Cliburn last year, Son said, “luck.”

“A lot of luck,” she chuck­led. Per­son­al­ity, mu­si­cal­ity, com­pe­tence, dis­tin­guished tech­nique— all th­ese things count as well, but, ac­cord­ing to Son, it ul­ti­mately comes down to the taste of the judges. “There are many good mu­si­cians in the world. It is not re­ally use­ful to try and fig­ure out who is bet­ter. The judges have their own val­ues.”

She will be play­ing at least six dif­fer­ent con­certs with 10 or­ches­tras dur­ing the next year, as well as recitals in four cities and en­gage­ments with the Al­bers Trio in Cor­pus Christi and New York in ad­di­tion to Santa Fe. Along with the sil­ver medal she won in Fort Worth last June came a three-year tour­ing and record­ing con­tract. Based in Hanover, Ger­many, where she moved sev­eral years ago in or­der to study with the Is­raeli pi­ano coach Arie Vardi, Son is hop­ing the ex­po­sure through­out the U.S. will help bol­ster her con­cert ca­reer, al­though she has al­ready per­formed widely in Korea and Europe, and pre­vi­ous en­gage­ments in­clude stints as guest soloist with the New York Phil­har­monic.

Ver­sa­til­ity is a word she uses in de­scrib­ing her­self— an as­set likely to have made her stand out in a group of com­pet­ing pi­anists. “Many pi­anists have their own reper­toire. Some can play good Ger­man, not French, not Rus­sian. I can do well in var­i­ous gen­res and re­ally en­joy it.” At the Van Cliburn, there were five elim­i­na­tion rounds— a con­certo round, one cham­ber-mu­sic round, and three recital rounds. She played Haydn, Schu­mann, and Liszt in the first round; De­bussy pre­ludes, an orig­i­nal re­quired piece, and a Bar­ber sonata in round two; a Brahms pi­ano quin­tet in her cham­ber round (which won her the Steven De Groote Memo­rial Award for Best Per­for­mance of Cham­ber Mu­sic); Bach, Schu­bert, and Beethoven in her fi­nal recital; and Chopin and Prokofiev con­cer­tos in the fi­nals.

“Ba­si­cally, I chose pieces I love so much that there were no frus­tra­tions. Ev­ery round, I picked dif­fer­ent com­posers. Th­ese days, a lot of pi­anists have their com­pe­ti­tion reper­toire— a Baroque piece, a tech­ni­cal piece, one slow, one fast— which I re­ally hate. I wanted to make some­thing like a con­cert. I have my own ideas.”

The Al­bers sis­ters, all pur­su­ing mu­si­cal ca­reers in var­i­ous cities around the coun­try, have their own ideas too. One of them was to start a trio— in or­der to hang out reg­u­larly and to con­tinue mak­ing mu­sic to­gether, like they had as chil­dren. Julie, the cel­list, told the story dur­ing a re­cent video con­fer­ence call from San Fran­cisco, in which all three had tem­po­rar­ily gath­ered and man­aged to squeeze into view on the screen. They said their trio ca­reer started three years ago, at Christ­mas­time, when they had gath­ered in New York.

“Laura was vis­it­ing, and we de­cided to read string trios, which we had never done be­fore. We had all trained as mu­si­cians— we’re from a mu­si­cal fam­ily, our mom is a vi­o­lin teacher, and we were al­ways sur­rounded by mu­si­cians — but we had never read string trios. We de­cided, this is re­ally fun, and it could be a great way to see each other through­out the year.

“That was 2006, and by 2007, we had sent out 150 press kits and made 150 fol­low-up calls, and we got 15 con­certs our first year.” The Al­bers don’t rec­om­mend this method for every­one, how­ever. Julie’s man­ager (the cel­list has been per­form­ing as a soloist since she was 17) agreed to share a con­tact list and said, “Use my name”— which was help­ful, the sis­ters agreed.

Their ré­sumés may have helped, too. Vi­o­lin­ist Laura is the as­so­ciate con­cert­mas­ter of the San Fran­cisco Opera. She grad­u­ated from the Cleve­land In­sti­tute of Mu­sic and The Juil­liard School and played with the Or­pheus Cham­ber Or­ches­tra. The youngest sis­ter, vi­o­list Re­becca, teaches at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, Ann Ar­bor; re­ceived her bach­e­lor and mas­ters de­grees from The Juil­liard School; is a mem­ber of Mark O’Con­nor’s Ap­palachia Waltz Trio; and per­forms reg­u­larly with the Saint Paul Cham­ber Or­ches­tra. Julie stud­ied at the Cleve­land In­sti­tute of Mu­sic, made her de­but with the Cleve­land Or­ches­tra, and has per­formed as a soloist all over the world. She is cur­rently in the mid­dle of a res­i­dency with the Cham­ber Mu­sic So­ci­ety of Lin­coln Cen­ter and records for the Artek la­bel.

What is it like when they get to­gether? Al­ber­strio.com in­cludes a blog, writ­ten by Laura, in which she goes into de­tail— lots of it. Tour­ing comes across as a com­bi­na­tion of slum­ber party and mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tion. There are missed flights, nose bleeds, hot tubs, girly drinks, and frayed nerves. The blog also has an ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nent: Did you know that mu­si­cians swear by YouTube?

Laura said that watch­ing con­cert videos on YouTube when learn­ing a new piece helps im­mensely. “See­ing it makes it more real… when I

am watch­ing some­one play, her body move­ments seem to tell a story. It’s hard for me to just sit and lis­ten.”

In Santa Fe, the trio may per­form us­ing a new prac­tice they have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with — stand­ing up. “I love it,” said Laura, who spends much of her year sit­ting in an or­ches­tra pit. “There’s free­dom for move­ment; it feels like a dance.”

“It de­pends,” in­ter­jected Julie, “whether there is a podium for me to sit on.” Keep­ing the mu­sic at eye level is all-im­por­tant, and, un­for­tu­nately, there is no way the cel­list can stand.

All three Al­bers re­port that the sis­ter dy­namic is ex­tremely help­ful on­stage. “We can prac­ti­cally read each other’s minds,” said Julie. Each of the girls be­gan play­ing in Suzuki vi­o­lin classes— taught by their mother — at the age of 2. “We’ve been see­ing each other play for all our lives, and we’re very close. We can un­der­stand the small­est nu­ances.”

Re­becca con­fessed to be­ing the most tem­per­a­men­tal sis­ter, al­though they get along pretty well. “At re­hearsals we have our is­sues. Small blow-ups are more per­sonal; we know each other’s but­tons, and we don’t al­ways speak to each other as pro­fes­sion­ally as we want,” she said.

Laura, used to play­ing with a sec­ond vi­o­lin­ist in quar­tets, said that play­ing in a trio is chal­leng­ing. “I’m more ex­posed,” she said. “My per­son­al­ity is that I want a lot of help from them. Of­ten the big­gest chal­lenge is to take the lead and do some­thing in­ter­est­ing that will in­spire my sis­ters to make mu­sic.”

On the pro­gram at the con­cert will be two pi­ano pieces to be per­formed by Son, a string trio by the Al­bers sis­ters, and a pi­ano quar­tet for the com­bined forces. Son be­gins with a short piece, César Frank’s Pre­lude, Fugue and Vari­a­tion, Op. 18 (ar­ranged for pi­ano by Harold Bauer), which was orig­i­nally writ­ten for or­gan. This is a new piece for Son. “I’m still learn­ing it,” she said. “I choose new pieces that I love. It’s short, writ­ten around the same time as the Saint-Saëns [ Danse Macabre, Op. 40, ar­ranged for pi­ano by Franz Liszt, also to be per­formed by Son], but very dif­fer­ent.”

Au­di­ence mem­bers may rec­og­nize Danse Macabre without know­ing ex­actly how. The piece has been used as back­ground mu­sic in movies and TV, from Jean Renoir’s 1929 film The Rules of the Game to Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer and Evil Dead II. It is even played non­stop, 365 days a year, at the Dutch amuse­ment park Eftel­ing, as the theme for its haunted cas­tle.

Son says of the Dvoˇrák Pi­ano Quar­tet in E-flat Ma­jor, Op. 87, which she will play along with the Al­bers Trio, “It’s a great piece of mu­sic, very Dvoˇrák.” That means, to her, “emo­tional, fun, not too se­ri­ous. It’s not Brahms,” she said. “It’s full of hap­pi­ness and the joy of mu­sic, which I love.”

The Al­bers will be pre­sent­ing the Beethoven String Trio in D Ma­jor, Op. 9, No. 2. “It’s a bitch,” said Re­becca, caus­ing all three sis­ters to laugh. “It’s writ­ten sim­ply, but it’s re­ally hard.” Julie sup­plied a lit­tle his­tor­i­cal back­ground. “It’s early Beethoven. He wrote trios be­cause he thought he couldn’t equal other com­posers who had writ­ten them.

“Some trios play them­selves,” she said. “But this one, you have to work to make it come to­gether, to have it come across.”

Why did the sis­ters pick such a dif­fi­cult work? Laura an­swered the ques­tion. “We re­ally like it.”

Yeol Eum Son

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