‘For the Record’ with Mary Jo Capps

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Mary Jo Capps, CEO, Musica Viva

21 August 2014


The challenge of selecting just one particular piece for this article prompted me to reflect on my favourite style of music – chamber music. That’s hardly surprising, considering my day job.


Beyond the beauty of its construction and what that elicits from the performers, for me the true magic arises when it is performed in front of a totally engaged audience.  That led me to finally select one piece for this article, in one particular performance, which epitomises for me that sweet spot when the overlapping worlds of composer, performer and audience collide in a unique and utterly unforgettable burst of energy.


The work is Shostakovich’s second Piano Trio Op 67 in E minor.  It was written in 1944 and, despite having no words or images, it conveys the horrors of WWII with unparalleled power.  Its eerie opening of impossibly high harmonics on the cello brings to mind the words of T S Eliot from Four Quartets, also written during the same period, when he asks: “where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing?”.


The Scherzo that follows is superficially jolly, but the joke has long since gone, making the next movement, Largo, even more shattering.  It is the simplest of constructions: eight weighty piano chords hovering between B flat minor and B minor, which seem to drag everything down with them.  Shostakovich noted that “Jews express despair in dance music” and in the finale, the composer captures it all, bringing all elements of the piece together in the final bars: perfection on paper, to the ear and to the soul.


The performance that emblazoned the work on my memory was by the Eggner Trio in Sydney on tour for Musica Viva in 2008.  The group was very young, relatively unknown, comprising three Austrian brothers.  That night they proved that not only were they here to make a mark in musical history, but they gave one of the best performances I have ever experienced, leaving the audience literally on the edge of their seats.


The first movement of the Shostakovich started well, but it was when the Eggners hit the second movement that I suddenly realised something very special was unfolding before us.  They let go in a way that clearly terrified them a little too, and it felt on the exhilarating edge of either being fantastic or totally falling apart.  Each phrase just got stronger and everyone in the audience leaned in closer to the stage.  The players didn’t relent for the rest of the piece and at the end the audience sat in stunned silence for what felt like minutes before daring to break the spell their performance had woven with thunderous applause.


We rushed back to congratulate the Eggner Trio after the performance, only to find the brothers equally stunned.  They spoke of how they only knew once they were well into the first movement that tonight was that unique moment of magic to which all performers aspire.  They credited the energy of the audience with willing them into taking greater risks than ever before.  Their own deep rapport picked it up, unspoken, and the results were breath-taking. 


Like the first time one falls in love, there is nothing quite to match moments like that and no explanation can fully account for what occurred.  My love of the Shostakovich Trio No 2 and this performance is not completely rational – but then, the best things in life rarely are.


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJRF0JED640]

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