Arcos Trio

Big Sky: Chamber Music of American Women Composers

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This beautifully recorded and played recording was not made by Deutsche Grammophon in London or in Sony Classics' New York facility, though if one were blindfolded and asked to make a wild guess as to the label, one might think so. It was recorded at Staples Family Recital Hall at Central Michigan University for the tiny White Pine label, operated by the Center for Creative Media out of the same institution, located in Mt. Pleasant, MI. It features the Arcos Trio, featuring expert players and professors from American universities; violinist Seunghee Lee hails from CMU, but her colleagues -- cellist Carl Donakowski and pianist Anthony Padilla -- are resident at James Madison University and Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, WI, respectively. Donakowski and Lee have played together since 1994, whereas Padilla joined later, making the group a trio. They are devoted to performing American, Latin American, and women composers, and their White Pine disc, Big Sky: Chamber Music of Women Composers, rather obviously comes from the third spoke in that wheel of interests. Folks who still think women are somehow incapable of writing first-tier classical music ought to hear these pieces; the Piano Trio of Ellen Taafe Zwilich brims with energy and enthusiasm, Joan Tower's Big Sky -- the title work -- is majestic and potent with drama, whereas her And… They're Off! takes the listener off on a fanciful, moto perpetuo adventure including a number of momentary, anamorphic side trips along the way. The disc is capped off by a superb rendering by Lee and Padilla of Amy Beach's Sonata in A minor, Op. 34, a work composed just prior to Beach's Gaelic Symphony and expressed in her best romantic idiom; Lee is light and flexible in the piece right where it needs to be so, as in the delightful Scherzo and in its finger-breaking Allegro con fuoco conclusion. However, Lee does not neglect the warmth and authority it also needs, and she is able to switch gears between both modes of expression on a dime.

One could listen to White Pine's Big Sky: Chamber Music of Women Composers again and again in search of anything wrong with it, only to come up empty. It is a key exhibit in the emerging reality whereby small, collegiate classical labels -- which used to be viewed as the chaff of classical music marketplace, sought out only for the benefit of rare repertoire -- are increasingly capable of functioning at the level of the big boys. In this case, White Pine has secured the talents of an ensemble that is as good as the best professional trio out there, and one should not pass this up solely based on its modest origins and packaging.

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