A four-way chat about Dvoˇrák
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