Something about Ludwig van Beethoven’s string trios grabs you by the collar, compelling you to lean in to the composer’s typically arresting power and passion.
Beethoven, while in his late 20s, moved on to string quartets after writing a handful of trios for single violin, cello and viola. He abandoned the form for good, yet there is something special about that small part of his legacy: a mesmerizing tension and stark beauty in the sound of three instruments bouncing off one another.
“You see a whole different side of Beethoven’s thought process when you have three voices like that,” says cellist Jennifer Culp.
“Suddenly the intensity of his ideas leap out at you. You don’t have that extra voice, as in a string quartet, to fill out the harmony. It’s a leaner texture. It’s all right there, right in front of you. In that way, it’s also more exciting, because there’s no place for the musicians to hide.”
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Culp certainly won’t be hiding when she joins violinist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and violist Alan Iglitzin for the Olympic Music Festival’s weekend program, “Beethoven: The Glorious String Trios” (Aug 16-17). The chamber group will perform Beethoven’s String Trios in G major, E-flat major and C minor.
“These string trios are hardly ever played,” Culp says. “The way Beethoven writes, you’ll hear an idea unfold throughout the entire piece. He’ll take an idea and keep expanding on it. He might double-time it, adagio to allegro. You can follow what he’s doing easily because there are only the three voices. It’s intimate, a profound and personal experience.”
Culp is no stranger to the festival, set on tranquil farmland on the Olympic Peninsula. Created by Iglitzin in 1984 in part as a summer home for the Philadelphia String Quartet (Iglitzin was a founding member), the festival was an annual stop for Culp beginning in 1986.
“The first time I came as a guest, I was in my 20s,” she says. “I was playing in a piano trio at the time. The next year I joined the Philadelphia String Quartet and was here every year until 1997. In 1998, I joined the Kronos Quartet and was with them for seven years. I didn’t have summers free anymore. I took a 13-year hiatus from the festival, then two summers ago I came back and was hooked again.”
Culp, who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory, says her time playing new music with Kronos taught her to “look at earlier music in a different way. When you play a Mozart quartet, you want to approach it as if this is the first time the piece has ever been played, and the composer is sitting right over there.
“My experience with Kronos was something I needed, to shake things up.
“Every day when I showed up for rehearsals, I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a way of being completely open and experimental about the way one approaches music.”
A Bay Area native, Culp began playing piano at age 3 and cello at 8. She had the full support of a very musical family.
“Everybody brought their instruments to meals,” she says. “Every week, I’d get together with my mom and my aunt and we’d read piano trios. I was young and learning a lot.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org