Trio Amistad – A One and Only, Truly Original?

New ZealandNew Zealand Fossa, Piazzolla, Sergio Assad, Bach, Debussy, Falla: Trio Amistad (Jane Curry, guitar; Rebecca Steel, flute; Simon Brew, saxophone), The Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 15.5.2015. [Pse]

Fossa – Trio No. 1 in A
Piazzolla – Histoire du Tango, for saxophone and guitar
Sergio Assad – Winter Impressions, for trio
Bach arr. Eric Dussault – Trio Sonata VI, BWV 530
Debussy arr. Timothy Kain – Petite Suite
Manuel de Falla arr. Owen Moriarty – Danse Espagnole from La Vida Breve


I can remember a time when, with a few exceptions, wacky combinations of instruments were confined to ensembles cobbled together purely for comic effect at such as Hoffnung concerts. These days, it seems, anything goes. Like daisies on a well-fed lawn, they are popping up all over the place. As often as not, they result from pure coincidence; simply because a bunch of musical friends, who happen to play diverse instruments, want to make music together. Trio Amistad, opening Whangarei Music Society’s 2015 season, is of this ilk. It attracts the epithet “wacky” largely on account of the saxophone which – although over the years has become increasingly “acceptable” as a soloist – remains, rather like the cor anglais, reputedly somewhat unruly in ensemble.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between a “wacky” combination and an “apparently wacky” one, and to which category any given ensemble belongs is not necessarily obvious until you hear it in action. So, suffering an unaccustomed excess of good sense, I resolved to keep an open mind. I’m glad I did, because Trio Amistad’s unusual and possibly unique constitution – Rebecca Steel’s flute, Simon Brew’s saxophone and Jane Curry’s guitar – proved to be both intelligently conceived and beguilingly colourful.

Simon revealed the saxophone as an instrument not only articulate but also exceedingly well-mannered and adaptable, in the ensemble well able to stand for such as clarinet or even cello, occasionally passing muster as a French horn, and blending – yes, blending! – beautifully with the agile, luminous flute.

However, I had also harboured some misgivings about the guitar, sitting between the penetrating flute and the (shall I say?) sonorous saxophone: was it really up to what was essentially a piano’s job? Happily, my qualms were quickly quelled. Whether acting as an accompanist or continuo, or participating on equal terms, its pin-sharp attack perfectly complemented the two woodwinds whilst – significantly – its enormous palette of timbres gave it expressive qualities that pianists can possess only in their dreams.

However, these words are at best a poor reflection of the actual experience. It was only to be expected that all six works in the wide-ranging programme were to some extent arrangements. Perhaps less expectedly, in every one of these six pieces, an “innocent ear” would have been hard-pressed to notice this.

We were eased into this extraordinary medium by a sprightly performance of Fossa’s finely-crafted Trio No. 1, written for violin, cello and guitar. Although Fossa’s lifetime spanned the Early Romantic, judging by this piece his idiom – a few tangy harmonic hiccoughs apart – seemed firmly based in the Late Classical. Such was the heightened, but not exaggerated textural contrast wrought by the flute and saxophone, I’m sure that I wasn’t the only listener coming out the other end almost believing these were the “right” instruments!

Next up were two movements, Café 1930 and Bordello 1900, from Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango of 1986. Although it was written for flute and guitar, instrumental substitutions are quite common. In deciding to rest the flute in favour of the saxophone, Trio Amistad’s was a jolly good idea – the saxophone’s penchant for soulful “moaning” and trademark “sleaziness” fitted the music like a glove.

Sergio Assad’s Winter Impressions surfaced just ten years later. As implied, it does indeed have a certain impressionistic feel, although the impressions conveyed to my mind generally didn’t correspond with the movement titles. The Frozen Garden, for instance, seemed more on the lines of “hyperactive”! Not that that bothered me in the least; the music itself was fascinating, coloured by several beautifully-realised, intriguing effects, such as beating the guitar strings behind the bridge. Again, the Amistad’s performance was so convincing that I had trouble imagining it being done with the original viola rather than saxophone.

Many have tried in various and occasionally outrageous ways, whether by arrangement or “re-imagining” (whatever that might mean!) to make J.S. Bach’s music “their own”. In every instance, J.S. Bach has somehow reached out from beyond the grave to make them “his own”.  Thus Eric Dussault’s arrangement of the Trio Sonata VI, BWV 530 remains indisputably “Bach”. The sting in the tail is that this, being a very respectful arrangement, sounds as though Bach himself had conceived it expressly for Trio Amistad. In spite of a second movement that was perhaps a tad romanticised, this was an edifyingly idiomatic performance, in which the wind players, with a little help from the arranger’s art, rose magnificently to the daunting challenge of Bach’s endlessly searching polyphonic lines.

Mesmerising as the Bach was, for me this recital’s highlight was Timothy Kain’s arrangement of Debussy’s enchanting Petite Suite (originally scored for piano duet). Quite remarkably Trio Amistad, brimming with whimsy and bursting with verve, tinglingly alive to every nuance (and Debussy was never short of those, was he?), imbued the music with colour even more variegated than that of Caplet’s symphonic orchestration. It was in the Menuet that the ear-tickling blend of flute and saxophone attained its sweetest, whilst the middle of the finale found the latter caressing and crooning like no piano can.

To end with, Trio Amistad romped their way through a “party piece” that everyone knows (even if they don’t know its name). Falla’s smouldering, eruptive Danse Espagnole from La Vida Breve was given a smouldering, eruptive performance by this truly original trio – yet another top-quality act from the apparently inexhaustible Chamber Music New Zealand stables.

Paul Serotsky

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