Music review: Butler Trio and the Austin Symphony Orchestra

(By American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

 

The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s concert this past weekend at the Long Center had two works by a living composer: “Tromba Lontana” and the better known “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” both by John Adams.

Adams (not to be confused with the other acclaimed American composer, the naturalist John Luther Adams) is probably still known best for his opera “Nixon in China.” But the 2003 Pulitzer-winner’s work for orchestras and chamber ensembles continues to reward listeners.

This was a deft pairing, with both of these short fanfares beginning with a pulse. An almost gentle glockenspiel in “Tromba” and a more insistent woodblock in “Short Ride.”

“Tromba” is textbook layering, with a trumpet joining the pulse as the background begins a motion of its own, with a sneaky, foreboding violin part. Minimalist works like these are welcome, approachable works.

The top-billing, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto featured the Butler Trio. They are cellist Joshua Gindele of the Miró Quartet, violinist Sanda Yamamoto, formerly of the Miró, now at UT along with pianist Colette Valentine.

 

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The orchestra and Peter Bay began with a rich depth of sound, which held throughout. The Butler Trio’s playing was articulate and expressive, despite a stage presence which felt cautious and restrained. Yamamoto’s dramatic movements were the exception.

The Triple Concerto is a worthwhile, but polarizing work. Full of fireworks, but not much in the way of a path.

Bay and the ASO offered a sensitive accompaniment, yet Gindele’s cello was at times inaudible. Not overwhelmed by the orchestra, but apparently occupying a spot too far behind the violin and piano to be heard. As if Beethoven’s cello part wasn’t tricky enough.

Yamamoto’s violin had no such trouble, holding one high note so emphatically it recalled, if just for a fraction of a second, the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Surprisingly, it was the Tchaikovsky “Symphony No. 6” which impressed.

If the Beethoven underwhelmed, the Tchaikovsky could hardly have been more urgent.

This symphony explores, but never bogs down. One moment it’s a lonesome woodwind singalong, the next, Bay leans in with a devastating blast of timpani.

In its almost painful B minor, Tchaikovsky pleads, resigns himself, softens, then braces for impact.

Bay’s ensemble navigated these micro moods with precision, from dancing string parts that play out a kind of musical pointilism, then after building to a triumphant faux-finale, leads back down to the sad death march, until the house lights dramatically faded out.

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