By Shea Conner | St. Joe Live |
Saint Joseph Symphony music director Rico McNeela has been sitting on some of this music for years, even decades, without performing it in public. Now, however, he feels he has found the perfect team to play it. McNeela (on violin) will join the Saint Joseph Symphony’s principal cellist Sascha Groschang and pianist Ellen Sommer-Bottorff (a graduate and former faculty member of Missouri Western State University who is now a staff member at the University of Kansas School of Music) to perform three highly acclaimed piano trios at the symphony’s second chamber concert of the season.
“They’re both really wonderful,” McNeela says. “ … Ellen’s an incredible sight-reader, so she can pick this up very quickly. I think that she works well with Sascha because she’s well-versed in so many different styles.”

The concert will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 13 at Ashland United Methodist Church.

McNeela says that even when the cold winter weather is a little more frightful than usual, the symphony’s January chamber concerts have been well-attended in years past. For the most part, local arts organizations take a breather in the first couple of weeks after the busy holiday season, but the symphony has found that these are really the weeks when fine arts and music lovers want to get out.
“They want to get out of the house and do something, and I think this concert will be worth their time,” McNeela says. “I’m very excited about the program we’ve put together.” This concert will present three masterworks for piano trio. The threesome will kick off the event with Joseph Haydn’s C Major trio, which often is thought of as one of the brightest and most cheerful of all classical chamber works.
The C Major was one of three trios that the legendary Austrian composer dedicated to Therese Jansen Bartolozzi, an eminent pianist whose career flourished in London near the end of the 18th century. In his lifetime, Haydn wrote a remarkable 45 piano trios, far more than any other notable composer. This 1797 piece was one of the last piano trios he penned before his death in 1809.
McNeela says this Haydn trio is brilliant because of his inventive writing for the piano as well as the musical balance between the piano, violin and cello. “I’ve got to say, I have favorites among the 45. Two years ago, we played the Hungarian Trio, and that’s probably the most famous. But I think this is a better piece because the parts are more equal and the composition is at a slightly higher level,” McNeela says. “This is really a sunny, bright, optimistic piece.”

The Haydn C Major offers a stark contrast to Ernest Chausson’s G Minor piano trio, the second trio on the program. This piece is widely considered a dark and brooding late Romantic work, known for its range of expression.
With its thick textures, dark harmonic progressions and abrupt dynamic changes, the first movement of Chausson’s trio reveals César Franck’s influence on the French Romantic composer. He often wrote cyclic pieces, in which themes of the first movement (in this case, carried by the violin against an unruly piano) reappear in the finale. After a jaunty second movement and a light third movement, he returns to the sorrowful style of the opening section and the textures build around the gloomy piano tones. “There is a lot of melancholy written into it, but it’s not all gloom and thunderstorms,” McNeela says. “There are great moments of elation. I’d say it’s a bi-polar piece in its extravagance of emotion in both directions.”

The program will end with Felix Mendelssohn’s D Minor piano trio, which McNeela calls “a real barn burner of a piece.” Many composers and scholars consider Mendelssohn’s first piano trio to be the German Romantic composer’s greatest work. The D Minor trio begins with a grand but aching melody, initiated by the cello, and is then carried forward by a broad melody that’s both sadly gentle and thunderously dramatic. It’s the piano parts, however, that make this expressive piece so wonderful, McNeela says. “It is spectacular,” McNeela says. “There are more notes in this piano part than any trio you could find.”
General admission tickets for the chamber concert are $23 for adults or $10 for students and children. They may be purchased on the Saint Joseph Symphony website at Tickets also may be purchased in advance at the Symphony office at 120 S. Eighth St., or by phone at 233-7701. They also will be sold at the church on the day of the concert beginning at 1 p.m.

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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