REVIEW: The Uncompromising Musicianship of the Zodiac Trio

Last Wednesday, October 17th I found myself in a small, intimate hall of the PianoForte Foundation on South Michigan Avenue.   Tightly packed, the audience of approximately 50 people seemed enthused as they await the evening performance.  The classical contemporary ensemble comprising of violin, clarinet and piano – the Zodiac Trio – is passing through Chicago, having just performed at the esteemed Chicago Chamber Music Society yesterday.  Truth be told, this concert is somewhat of an unusual fare for me, yet I allow myself to catch the contagious buzz of anticipation, as I scan the program.  An eclectic mix of contemporary works, 20th century pieces and tango transcriptions, most of which are new to me.  One thing is certain –the offering is intriguing.  The full program includes two tangos by Astor Piazzolla (arranged by the trio’s pianist and seemingly resident arranger Riko Higuma), a trio by French composer Ida Gotkovsky, Igor Stravinsky’s staple work “A Soldier’s Tale” (arranged by the composer for this instrumentation into a Suite) and finally a “sequel” to the Stravinsky’s work – “Devil’s Final Challenge” by American composer Andrew List (present for the evening).

As the Zodiac Trio, comprised of clarinetist Kliment Krylovskiy, violinist Vanessa Mollard and afore-mentioned pianist Riko Higuma, took the stage, the trio’s clarinetist Kliment made the opening remarks, describing the program, and talking briefly about the unusual ensemble and their even more unusual story.  Full of charm and wit, Kliment Krylovskiy joked about the trio’s start in New York and their subsequent, bohemian – esque move to Paris where the ensemble lived in the same apartment, practicing daily and drinking wine for inspiration. 

Once the lights were dimmed and the first notes spilled into the hall, the trio’s validity on the international chamber music stage was evident and in full display. This is a group that is evidently dedicated themselves fully to the homogeneous, uncompromising sound of their ensemble. A unique voice, yet with shades of individuality, supported by a flawless virtuosity.  Indeed, an ensemble deserving attention and even reverence.

The night opened with the two works by Astor Piazzolla. I have always deeply enjoyed the Argentian master’s tangos, as I am sure many do. Full of longing, nostalgia, passion, Piazzolla’s contribution to Western music is great, as he took the tango from the seedy bars of Buenos Aires, and brought it to the ears of the classical music listener without compromising its soul or spirit. On the contrary, I always felt he enhanced it by using orchestral instruments (the oboe solo in “Oblivion” still haunts me every time I think of it!). And the Zodiac Trio’s arrangements did not disappoint.  Vanessa’s violin seemed to creep into every crevasse of my soul, as she caressed the opening melody of “Milonga del Angel” before passing it to Kliment, who in turn continued the unrelenting current of the melody, adding to it the voice-like shades of the clarinet sound.  Riko’s part served as the cradle for the moving melody lines, carefully supporting the solo parts, until the melody passed into her hands.  Both an passionate soloist and a self-less collaborator, her playing tied the trio together in a harmonious, beautiful way.  The second tango “Muerte del Angel” showcased polished, effortless virtuosity with gripped the audience and held their attention until the the final chord allowed us all to collectively exhale.

The second work was dark trio by Ida Gotkovsky (who is still living)  – a former professor at the prestigious Conservatoire National Superior de Musique de Paris. A long work, spanning nearly twenty minutes, it is unapologetic in its scope.  Mostly staying in the same minor key, it continuously bounces between hauntingly beautiful melodies that showcase the unique timbres of the solo instruments, to virtuosic passages that require precise ensemble playing (something the trio provided in excess!). Once again, the collective musicality of the Zodiac Trio was on full display.  Playing as one, their melodic ideas were convincing, clear and intriguing.  An impressive cadenza for the clarinet showcased Kliment’s complete command of the instrument, as well as his unique musical voice.  In all, the towering work did not disappoint. At times almost overwhelming, it was an experience, to say the least.

Gotkovsky was followed by Stravinsky’s masterful “A Soldier’s Tale.”  Written shortly after World War I, this Faustian tale tells the story of a young soldier Joseph, who trades his violin for his soul by making a deal with the Devil.  The Suite was arranged by the composer as a gift for an excellent amateur clarinetist Werner Rheinhart, who  was a financier and supported Stravinsky’s works.  Needless to say, the arrangement is excellent, utilizing all three instruments fully, and showcasing their individual voices in a masterful way. The Zodiac Trio were in the element.  Surely, a piece they have performed very often (having recorded it in 2012), every note, every accent was thought through, their technical prowess was gain front row and center.  Kliment’s rapid staccato, Vanessa virtuosic take on Tango-Waltz-Rag and Riko’s stirring passages in the Danse of the Devil all made this a thrilling experience.

The final piece for the night was the unveiling of a new work written for the Zodiac Trio by their long-time collaborator Andrew List (professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston).  The witty piece serves as a modern-day sequel to the Stravinsky work.  We find the Devil retired, and living in Queens, NY, an old man, meandering through the boroughs on NY, playing pranks and tricks on people.  He stumbles upon a chance to enter an international music competition, and picks up his violin once again, seduced by the chance to find international fame.  He cheats his way through the tournament using magic, and is faced with his final opponent in the last round – a Klezmer clarinetist from Brooklyn, and is finally defeated, storming (literally!) off stage.  It’s a fun work that utilizes Kliment’s Klezmer abilities to its fullest, and tests the technical limits of the ensemble in a dizzying finale that ends with Vanessa dramatically storming off the stage as the Devil, leaving Riko and Kliment on stage finishing the work in victory.  Mr. List’s unique style of writing, and his brilliant understanding of this instrumentation is evident.  A light-hearted fare that is fun and entertaining, performed with a aplomb and humor by an ensemble that seems to truly enjoy every second of making music together!

Audrey Horowitz