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Wednesday, June 9,2010

License to thrill

Globe-hopping Verdehr Trio fills domestic assignment

by Lawrence Cosentino

Sometimes you have to wonder if urbane Michigan State University violin Professor Walter Verdehr isn’t moonlighting as a secret agent.


Sure, he flashes a high-powered, abovethe-law ID to get top composers like Wolfgang Rihm, David Diamond, Gunther Schuller and Michael Daugherty to write new music for his evergreen Verdehr Trio. No Sparty button could cut that kind of mustard.


The trio, filled out by clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr and pianist Silvia Roederer, will unleash new stuff, along with classics from Rachmaninov and Dvorak, at its annual summer debriefing concert at the Wharton Center June 16.


And then there’s all that exotic travel. The trio has already been everywhere from Sydney to Rio to Calcutta, but the Verdehrs broke new ground in December 2009 by teaching and performing at the Hanoi Music Academy in Vietnam.


Walter Verdehr was bowled over by the size and activity of Vietnam’s northern metropolis. “There are three orchestras,” he said. “The academy has over 1,000 students and nine violin professors.”


They visited the lake where John McCain was captured, and saw the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison.


As part of the Asia trip, Verdehr went to Singapore to judge a violin competition — or so his passport stated. “They furnish you with such good ones,” as Martin Landau said in “North by Northwest.”


It seems to be Verdehr’s fate to play world trouble spots, either before or after the trouble happens. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Verdehrs played concerts in the Swat Valley where Osama bin Laden is now believed to be hiding.


Domestic assignments are no less strategic. The past year has seen two New York visits, including the Bargemusic festival, and several gigs in the nation’s capital.


One of the most well-received new works of the year, Pamela Madsen’s “Sea Change,” is on the docket for next week’s concert. “It’s beautiful,” Verdehr said. “It has spoken poetry in it and it sounds like sea waves.” The Verdehrs premiered it in Washington and Houston last year.


Another crowd-pleasing commission is New York composer Gerald Cohen’s “Variously Blue,” in which a George Gershwin-inspired melody goes through a series of idiosyncratic variations. The Verdehrs premiered the work at Bargemusic last summer.


The adventurous trio will also romp through a new work by the foremost Venezuelan composer, Paul Desenne, based on street music of Caracas.


Even the classic stuff on next week’s slate has a new slant. James Niblock, the former Music Department (now College of Music) chairman who hired Walter and Elsa Verdehr (along with piano legend Ralph Votapek), transcribed a violin piece by Dvorak for the trio.


At 93, it seems that Niblock is just hitting his stride. He’s composed two double concertos for Walter and Elsa, with another on the way, and he’ll conduct an opera at the Blue Lake Music Festival this summer.


As always, more new music is in the Verdehr pipeline. Earlier this year, the trio premiered “Mandala,” a colorful work by Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre, in Washington, D.C., and Verdehr plans to unleash it in East Lansing soon. One of the trio’s most long-awaited commissions, from Ann Arbor composer Michael Daugherty, is due in August. Verdehr asked Daugherty for the music 10 years ago.


Verdehr’s voice barely modulates when he mentions the decade-long wait. Patience has helped him build the violin-clarinet-piano repertoire from nothing to over 300 commissioned works. “The prominent composers are often overheated with work,” he said. “You have to give them space.”


It seems Verdehr is more of a George Smiley than a James Bond. He only throws his weight around if he has to.


Verdehr Trio


7:30 Wednesday, June 16


Wharton Center,


Cobb Great Hall


$8-$10; students free


(517) 353-5340 or (517) 432-2000 Ave.


www.whartoncenter.com

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