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Wednesday, February 13,2013

Biggest in their medium

After four decades, the Verdehr Trio 'tapering off' with concert series

by Lawrence Cosentino
After 40 years of music making, hundreds of world premieres, 20 CDs and seven spins around the globe, Sunday will be among the last chances for local audiences to soak in the bracing sonic vinaigrette of Walter Verdehr’s violin, Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr’s clarinet and Silvia Roederer’s piano.

Circumspect as ever, violinist Walter Verdehr declined to call the Lansing-based Verdehr Trio’s 2012-13 concert series a retirement or farewell tour, but it probably is one. 

Travel is becoming more of a hassle, the Verdehrs’ cool modernist digs in northern Michigan are looking more inviting than ever and the capstone is settling on the trio’s self-built castle of new music.

“We’re certainly tapering off,” Verdehr allowed. “We’ll be playing until the end of summer and doing some playing after that, but more ad hoc.”

“Tapering Off Tour” doesn’t have much of a ring, so that title is out. Besides, an appeal to sentiment would distract from the trio’s legacy: over 200 original pieces of music, in a striking variety of styles, commissioned from an A-list of the world’s great composers. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music, the Verdehrs share the “V” section with Verdi and Vivaldi as inventors of a new medium.

Verdehr was wise in 1972 to let string quartets saw away at the same old timbre and cast his lot with his wife’s incisive, probing clarinet sound. Since then, the trio’s pungent aural blend — no two instruments are from the same family — has inspired composers to write some of their freshest music, without recourse to formula chamber-music gestures or orchestral padding.

“There’s something really exciting about digging into a new piece, finding out what it’s made of, and trying to communicate it,” Verdehr said. “We’d like to make people believe in them, just like a piece by Bach or Brahms.”

When Verdehr opens a thick envelope quilted with international postage, he never knows what he’s in for. The spiky triangle of clarinet, violin and piano seems to provoke vitality, brevity and even humor in a stuffy lot that’s often short on all three.

In “Michigan Trio,” by French composer Philippe Manoury — one of the works on Sunday’s slate — the clarinetist is told to turn around and blow into the open piano lid, using the piano strings as a resonator. American composer Sebastian Currier added unusual instructions to “Verge,” a multi-part piece that’s also on Sunday’s program: “almost too fast,” “almost too mechanical,” “almost too little” and “almost too much.” Verdehr smiled at the conceit but took it seriously, as a challenge to make music that never quite gets where it’s going. (“Verge” inspired Washington Post critic Anne Midgette, in a laudatory review of the Verdehrs’ Feb. 4 concert in D.C., to call the trio’s current tour “almost a retirement.”)

Verdehr is a virtuoso on violin, but he really coaxes all this new music into being with his other instrument, a 1767 Stradivarius telephone (not really) with which he badgers busy composers until they give in. For 13 years, Verdehr chased the Moby Dick of European composers, German modernist Wolfgang Rihm, until Rihm finally came through in 2005 with a surprisingly serene work that echoes Bach and Brahms.

“He finally felt guilty,” Verdehr shrugged. “I try to put a guilt trip on people because I have no other way to get it done.”

One of Verdehr’s latest coups is a tuneful, lyrical trio from last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in music, Kevin Puts, born in Alma, Mich. The Puts trio is also on Sunday’s slate.

While working with Puts, Verdehr got a subtle hint of changing times. On the Verdehrs’ office wall is an impressive, floor-to-ceiling array of framed photos, signed and dedicated to the trio by dozens of composers, from Ned Rorem to Gunther Schuller to Giancarlo Menotti to Peter Schickele — but, alas, no Puts. 

“All his photos are online,” Verdehr sighed.

Since last summer, they have played in China, Peru, New York, Washington and Oklahoma, but they’re ready to slow down. Traveling isn’t as fun as it was in the early 1970s, when you could show up at the airport five minutes before a flight.

But the trio will leave behind a well-stocked larder for a medium that barely existed in 1972, with only two works (one by Bartok) and a handful of transcriptions.

Now Verdehr is pleased to see other ensembles, including Lincoln Center’s chamber group, take up the tricolor. Last month, at Western Michigan University, a French ensemble, the Zodiac Trio, performed a piece by Ned Rorem that was commissioned by the Verdehrs 20 years ago. Works by Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame), Joan Tower, Libby Larsen and many other composers commissioned by the Verdehrs have cropped up on programs around the country. 

The Verdehr Trio has been around so long they’ve commissioned pieces from a father and son: Indiana composer Don Freund wrote “Trio Music” in 1979, one of the first pieces commissioned by the Verdehrs. Freund’s son, Stefan Freund, a founding member of the avant-garde ensemble Alarm Will Sound, wrote “Trio Dances” for the trio last year.

Through it all, the Verdehrs stayed interesting, and interested, because they kept their ears open. While other academics hammered each other for being too conservative or too avant-garde, Verdehr calmly tended a wildly eclectic garden of music, from folksy Americana to harsh Germanic ear spikes. Pointless aesthetic battles aren’t his style. Do peonies have to fight tulips? A century ago, he pointed out, Brahms devotees were calling Wagner the Antichrist — and vice versa.

“They had no use for each other, and they were really nasty about it,” Verdehr said. “Who cares about that now?"

Verdehr Trio
40th Anniversary Concert
3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17
Cook Recital Hall MSU
$8-10
Under 18 and students Free
music.msu.edu

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