Darkness and Light
trio shows classical music’s contemporary colors
In a university setting where classical tradition is firmly cemented into the curriculum, three music professors are helping contemporary art music gain more exposure. As the Chiaroscuro Trio, UW-Eau Claire faculty members (and spouses) Elizabeth and Aurélien Pétillot have joined forces with pianist Yuko Kato to produce New People: Contemporary American Works for Voice, Viola, & Piano, an album that explores the contrasting moods of pieces by five different living composers.
As a chamber ensemble, the combination of voice, viola, and piano is relatively rare; in the established classical repertoire, only two pieces – both by Johannes Brahms – are typically played. The contemporary music scene is a bit different, and through connections to and commissions from living composers, the Chiaroscuro Trio was able to pool together a collection of works that embrace both classical traditions and contemporary elements such as jazz and funk. “We decided to go with works that we thought were relevant to now. We thought the poetry was very accessible yet quirky and fun,” says Aurélien Pétillot, who plays viola in the trio. “The composers all have different styles and different styles for us to play in. Sometimes, Elizabeth has to sing really intimately like a lullaby, or really jazzy. There’s one song where she sounds like a broken computer, so for us to showcase those different styles is really fun.”
“We have this palate of colors and tools and music that we can bring people into, beyond the stereotypes they may have about classical music.” – Violist Aurélien Pétillot on the storytelling in the Chiaroscuro Trio’s music
The five pieces on the album explore themes that range from humorous to erotic to fantastical; multiple facets of emotion are addressed within the title piece alone, which serves as a dense yet perfect example of the Chiaroscuro Trio’s ulterior motive. In art, the term “chiaroscuro” refers to the interaction between light and dark, and the trio embodies this not only in their choice of thematic material but also in their contrast of instrumentation. While the viola and piano are very intimate and romantic throughout the many movements of New People, they also masquerade as light-hearted and playful on the album-closer, “Jabberwocky.”
As much as the Chiaroscuro Trio is all about championing new music, the three members are also extremely passionate about breaking down barriers in the classical world to show their students and audience members the wide variety of styles that are available. “We spend a lot of time teaching students about what has been established with classical music, but I think, particularly for vocalists in the climate we live in now, it’s important to get a sense of all of the things that are out there and are accessible,” says Elzabeth Pétillot. “I think it’s important for them to see their professor doing something totally outside the box, because then they go, ‘Wow, I can do that too. They made a CD and produced it, and it’s out there.’ Educationally, that just shows the gamut of what can be done. In the classical world, people are crossing over and doing more and more projects like this.”
Aurélien Pétillot sees a direct connection to his audiences through the storytelling present in the songs the trio performs. “Honestly, it’s a bit like what Bon Iver does. He (Justin Vernon) has great poetry, great lyrics, and he writes very soulful songs that are all very contrasted, very different,” he says. “For us, it’s the same thing; we have this palate of colors and tools and music that we can bring people into, beyond the stereotypes they may have about classical music.” The combination of poetry and music is especially effective in engaging younger audiences, easily tuning them into an unfamiliar world.
The Chiaroscuro Trio is the only professional ensemble of this particular instrumentation currently in existence, a distinction that continuously sparks curiosity and isn’t taken for granted. “I think we’ve been really happy to find that there is this really wide variety of contemporary pieces for us, and we really want to showcase that on the CD,” says Kato, a professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “People don’t really know what to expect when we say we’re a trio of this instrumentation because it’s so rare, so this is our chance to show part of what the possibilities are.” Their potential certainly isn’t limited.
For more information on the Chiaroscuro Trio, visit them online at www.chiaroscurotrio.com. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of New People, the CD is currently available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., as well as through the trio’s website and iTunes. It can also be streamed via Spotify. Although the time and location have yet to be determined, the Chiaroscuro Trio will be performing in Eau Claire on March 29, 2014. Stay tuned to their website for more information.