Mixon Masters Series: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio—
an interview with pianist Joseph Kalichstein
by Daniel Hathaway
Many a fledgling chamber ensemble has launched its career with a house concert, but few have done that at so prestigious an address as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Zipcode 20500. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, who did make their debut at the White House, will open this season's Mixon Masters Series at the Cleveland Institute of Music on Tuesday, October 17 at 8 pm with Beethoven's Trio in G, op. 1, no. 2, André Previn's Trio No. 2 (commissioned by the group), and Brahms's Trio in B, op. 8.
Pianist Joseph Kalichstein was born in Israel and came to the US in 1962 to study at Juilliard. He rose to prominence after winning the Young Concert Artists Auditions and making his debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in a televised performance of Beethoven's fourth concerto. After winning the Levintritt Prize in 1969, he made his Cleveland debut with George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra in that same work. This season, he celebrates the 35th anniversary of the founding of the KLR Trio. We reached Joseph Kalichstein at his home in New Jersey to ask about the Mixon Hall concert and how he first got together with violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson.
Daniel Hathaway: Is it true that Jimmy Carter was the matchmaker who formally brought the KLR Trio together?
Joseph Kalichstein: Yes, absolutely. One of his better accomplishments, I think.
DH: And no hostages were involved!
JK: Well, the three of us were hostages, but we were also the kidnappers, so it was OK.
DH: How did that come about?
JK: It happened because Robert Shaw, as you know, was George Szell's assistant in Cleveland for years. He knew Jaime very well because he had appeared there many times. And Robert Shaw, being conductor of the Atlantic Symphony, was very close to the Carters. I think it was Mrs. Carter who especially loved classical music but Jimmy Carter did too, and they wanted throughout that inauguration week to have classical music wherever there would have been a band. He asked Robert Shaw to come up with some names. Somehow, Shaw found out that Jaime had just formed a trio. That was in the summer of '76 and we're talking now about January of '77, so it was very fresh, we hadn't even had one concert yet. So he called up Jaime. I know he invited the Juilliard Quartet, I don't know who else. So there we were in the East Room at a reception for the Pentagon brass, of all things, with my very pregnant wife turning pages, and it was fantastic. First of all it was great to play there, it was great to have the first chance to play together at the White House — I mean we played, but not in public — and also there's a wonderful piano in the East Room, believe it or not. A beautiful, beautiful piano, both to look at and to play. So all in all it was fun, and I must say that both of the Carters kept coming to us every once in a while to tell us we are inspiring them to stay upright — it's not easy to stand up and shake thousands of hands. That's one of the many reasons I'm not running for office! (Laughter).
DH: We you officially a trio from that point on?
JK: It was official immediately, but we just took it easy and we were very lucky. It just came to us. It coincided with a great wave of interest in chamber music which started already in the late '60s and it was wonderful to ride that wave. There were always chamber music aficionados but that was almost exclusively for string quartets. And then there was just an explosion of interest, which of course to somebody who knows the literature, its self-evident — the literature is so incredible.
DH: How did the three of you meet in the first place?
JK: Jamie and Sharon met in Marlboro. They got married the same year we started the trio. Big things that year! There was I believe in '75 a concert that Isaac Stern and Sasha Schneider organized and there was a Dvorak piano quintet on the program that he had asked me to play. Jaime played viola, I think, in that combination. We enjoyed it a lot, we also met socially, and a year later, the spring of '76, Jaime had scheduled an all-Dvorak evening with the piano quartet and piano quintet on his series in New York. Rudolf Firkusny was going to be the pianist — he was someone Clevelanders know because George Szell liked him a lot. Anyway, a great man and a great pianist, except his management screwed up and he was double-booked — he was scheduled to be in Europe that week. Jaime found out five days before the concert. Panic set in, but then he remembered that we played the quintet, so he called me up and asked if I could play both pieces. I being young and foolish said, certainly, without ever having played the quartet. That was wonderful to learn it in three days! It's one of the great pieces in the literature, and I'm eternally grateful for being forced to learn it. Sharon was in that group and we got to spend a very intense few days. We all enjoyed it tremendously and that summer, they came to me and asked if instead of just every once in a while playing something and letting it go, wishing you had time to really work it out and discuss and try to iron out details, whether I would consider doing it on a more permanent basis. And then we just sort of started rehearsing. And, bang, that call came from Shaw. So we were in business. It probably would have happened anyway, but that was a great way to ignite the engine.
DH: And in the meantime the group has contributed mightily to the piano trio repertory, haven't you?
JK: We didn't mean to, but with the exception of one, we have really fallen in love with every commission we have had and played them again and again. It didn't just happen once, and quite a few of these pieces — Ellen Zwilich's trio and Joan Tower's trio, and Kirschner's second trio that he wrote for us — have become, as you say, part of the literature. You see younger trios playing them and this is really incredibly satisfying.
DH: I won't ask about the one you didn't like, but let's talk about the André Previn piece you'll be playing in Cleveland. I assume that was a commission.
JK: Yes, it is and it's wonderful. I mean it's too early to see how it will become part of the literature because it was just premiered last May. I've known André all my professional life — mainly as a conductor, but from recordings I knew him as a pianist. A spectacular pianist. I still think his recording with Bernstein of the Shostakovich piano concerto is the best there is. He is a great jazz pianist too, and a wonderful composer. We were tickled that he agreed to write us a trio. He wrote his first trio for himself, and I believe he played it with Lynn Harrell and André's ex-wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter. But that was a few years before. He wrote the second one for us and if one knows him, it has all his elements. He's very witty, very quick, very mischievous, and because of his movie and Broadway past, he writes beautiful melodies. It sounds like him. It's a lighthearted trio but very, very beautiful.
DH: That should be a wonderful foil to the Beethoven and the Brahms.
JK: Yes. The last movement of the Beethoven — speaking about witty — is one of his wittiest pieces, and it's amazing to me how relatively few musicians know that piece. You would think that every trio of Beethoven is played to death, but not that one. And in typical early Beethoven fashion, the slow movement is unbelievably profound. It's such a change from everything that's written before in the piano trio literature. He just takes it to a whole new level. Busoni wrote a very beautiful essay about Beethoven. He extols of course the late Beethoven, but mostly the early. He says that people don't really appreciate it and he was right. The slow movements of the opus 1 piano sonatas and the opus 2 trios are really something.
DH: And as a pianist you have quite a lot to do in the Beethoven.
JK: Yah, well like everything Beethoven wrote! Especially the first movement. I think that Beethoven is trying to outdo Hummel in writing running things. The piano is very busy. Up and down the keyboard! You have to remember this is a 25-year old virtuoso who comes to Vienna and he wants to show off. And did he ever!
DH: Then you're ending with Brahms's opus 8.
JK: Yah. As he said jokingly, it's like opus 108. That's another fascinating story because he was 21 when he wrote the original piece, which for him was very, very early. He was not one of those Mendelssohns who started writing at age 12. It's one of the very few early pieces that he did not destroy. He was frighteningly self-critical, and he destroyed a lot, including the original version of the piano quintet, which was a cello quintet. But this he didn't destroy, so we have the original. Nobody plays it because it's not as good. And what's amazing is his ability, thirty-five years later, to come to a piece of his that he obviously liked and cut drastically to improve it.
Everybody who writes music knows how painful it is to cut down, and he ruthlessly took to the scissors. But his ability to be objective, and excise the things that were redundant or not quite as inspirational as the things next to them is staggering. I know that Kurtag, the great Hungarian composer, uses that piece in his compositional class just to show what editing can be. He's right to do that, because of the courage it took and the self-knowledge and the honesty to know what's not quite up to par. So it's long enough, but it's shorter than the first version. He also replaced the middle part of the slow movement — the newer part is one of the greatest cello solos ever — and in the last movement, he also replaced the second theme. But all in all, he realized that less is more. He cut some things that one sees in hindsight were redundant. And on top of everything else, you listen to it and I challenge anyone to tell me what was original and what was later. It's just so seamless.
And the last bit about the piece, which is fascinating: he gave the first performance of the revised version in Budapest when he was in his 60s. In the first version he was a young man, he had never played it publicly, and when Schumann was trying to promote him, he took him to meet Liszt in Weimar. There's no record of what Liszt thought of this young man, but what we do know is that Brahms played the trio for him, or showed him the trio, because one of Liszt's students at the time — and students used to live with their master at the time, it was like a constant master class — was an American pianist, William Mason, who liked the trio so much that he took it home to New York and a year later gave the world premiere of the work — in New York City. The cellist was somebody named Bergmann, and the violinist was Theodore Thomas who started the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It's an amazing little story. New York getting the world premiere of an early Brahms trio.
DH: Have you had the opportunity to see Mixon Hall?
JK: No. I'm looking forward. I hear it's spectacular.
DH: Speaking of George Szell as you did a bit earlier, what do you remember about your debut with The Cleveland Orchestra?
JK: Two things: first, how privileged I felt to be in the middle of that — it's like landing in a chocolate factory. The sound of that orchestra! I did Beethoven 4 and I still have it in my ear. And of course privileged to play with him and his having liked me enough to invite me. He was already sick, I think — it was his last year or year and a half — but I did not know that so I was scared to death! (Laughter) But he was very nice to me. At one point he was demonstrating something to me in the slow movement and he did it gently. You know the stories where he would just sort of push you off the stool: now try that. But he was very gentle. He took me to New York too, because that year he was also music director of the New York Philharmonic. And then, sadly, he died. But I was very lucky to have had that year.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 9, 2012
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