Black Cedar Trio

By Roger Emanuels

THE COMBINATION of flute, guitar and cello can provide a satisfying array of timbres, utilizing plucked and bowed strings and wind. The challenge, though, is to balance the inherent differences of volume. The flute is a relatively loud instrument, while the guitar is quite soft, with the cello somewhere in between. It is easy for a cello to dominate the guitar, and the flute can drown out both cello and guitar. The Black Cedar Trio easily prevailed in this challenge in their concert presented by the Santa Cruz Chamber Players on November 23 at Christ Lutheran Church in Aptos. Titled “Virtuosity Defined: Musical Creativity and Artistic Expression Beyond the Flying Fingers,” they offered music both old and new.

The catchy name of the ensemble might refer to the black, wooden instrument played by flutist Kris Palmer. She was joined by Steve Lin, guitar, and Isaac Pastor-Chermak, cello. The Black Cedar Trio “creates, discovers, and re-imagines works for this unique combination,” according to their mission statement. Many works have been composed for them since their founding in 2013. Two were featured on this concert.

Many think of Niccolò Paganini only as the great violin virtuoso that he was. But he also composed several chamber and solo works, many of which include guitar. (Indeed, he was also a highly competent guitarist.) His 1833 Terzetto was written for violin (easily replaced here by flute), guitar and cello. The work exudes charm and grace of the emerging era of romantic musical expression. Black Cedar played the four movements with abandon, a happy way to launch a concert. The slow Andante movement was especially gorgeous, a showcase for the beauty of these three instruments in ensemble. Delivered with polish and skill, the acoustical balance was remarkably in control. Perhaps having spent some time in recording studios has conditioned them to making effective adjustments in live performance.

It is not common knowledge that a flutist must have many instruments. Among these is the principal one, of course. But most players also have a piccolo. And some have the larger cousins, the alto and bass flutes. Black Cedar’s Kris Palmer needed all four for her participation in In Transit by Ursula Kwong-Brown. A commission of Black Cedar, the 2017 work was inspired by the sounds of BART, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit. Odd as that may seem, In Transit joins a genre of traveling music, represented by John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Villa Lobos’ Little Train of Caipira, sharing a common thread of rhythmic drive and the sensation of movement. The instruments were treated conventionally with a minimum of special techniques; only flutter tongue in the flute and a percussive use of the cello bow. It’s an attractive and engaging work.

JS Bach’s Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering is a natural for this trio, composed in 1747 for the flute-playing King Frederic the Great. The guitar, in place of a harpsichord, gives the performance a more intimate environment. The ears of this listener are grateful for the skillful adjustments in balance among the three.

Javier Contreras’ Tres Colores draws attention to the three instruments as acoustic colors. The extended one-movement piece tells a story in sound, engaging with a variety of rhythmic and lyrical moments. It is a 2018 Black Cedar commission, by a composer from the far south of Chile. The large work explores many possibilities of the three instruments, including a substantial solo cadenza for each. It is indeed a colorful piece of music.

The tuneful Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla was the encore, a sweet treat to close the concert.