In 1998, juiced about my newfound ability to create large, satisfying forms, I wrote a piano trio in four movements.  The piece had, I think, three performances.  After the third, I had to admit I had overstepped – the piece had lots of great material, but it was too long to remain coherent.

When I was in Chicago last month, Marta Aznavoorian, pianist for the Lincoln Trio, asked me if I had any piano trios.  I ruefully described the piece from 98, explaining that I loved the material, but it went on longer than it should have.

She laughed and said, “Cut the slow movement,” explaining that that’s what pianists are always supposed to say.

I took the comment in the light-hearted spirit it was offered.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that cutting the slow movement would solve everything that was wrong in the piece.

When I got back home, I cut the slow movement, tweaked a few passages in other movements, and voilà, Dirges and Dances, a very nicely balanced piano trio, emerged.

One of the great benefits of having this sabbatical is my ability to take a second look at some of my older works, despite the fact that I am simultaneously writing three new orchestra pieces and a work for contemporary ensemble.

(Okay, maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but hey, I like giving my jaw the exercise.)

In any case, as anyone who has written a piano trio can tell you, it’s a problematic ensemble.  When all three instruments are playing, pretty much anything the violin does, outside of clichéd accompanimental patterns, becomes foreground.  How do you make sure the three instruments are equal participants?

In a way, it would be best to treat the piano trio the way it was originally intended: a piece for piano with violin and cello accompaniment.  Maybe I’ll take that up in my next sabbatical.

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