Lyon, Collins and Mizrahi give vibrant and relevant performance

Violinist Clara Lyon and cellist Hannah Collins performed together in Harper Hall on Thursday, Feb. 2. They were joined by Frank C. Shattuck Professor of Music Michael Mizrahi for two of the pieces in their program. 

They began with selections from “16 Hits or Misses,” a collection of short works for violin and cello composed by Mazz Swift. Before their performance, they explained that Swift had written the pieces as a way to process unjust killings of Black Americans and create a space to honor them. Lyon and Collins expressed their intention to use this music to explore imagination as “an essential creative tool for adults” to consider how things can change in the future. 

The first selection, titled “A Meditation on Predatory Affluence,” lasted less than a minute. It began with slow phrases in which one instrument played an ascending or descending interval while the other stayed on a single note, giving the effect of the lines moving together and apart. The cello introduced a chromatically descending motif, played lightly with an effect that made it sound like wind or a siren in the distance. The piece ended with a fuller texture in the cello, while the violin played a sighing or wailing motif. 

The next selection was the third of the “16 Hits or Misses” and was untitled. In contrast to the serious atmosphere of the first selection, this piece seemed lighter and more hopeful. It began with a warm pizzicato section from both instruments. While the cello maintained a constant pattern through the rest of the piece, the violin began a confident bowed melody reminiscent of a simple folk tune, interspersed with some pizzicato. The violin then slid into the top of its range and played a wavering interval there, fading into nothing to end the piece. 

Next came a selection named after Aiyana Jones, a seven-year-old African American girl who, while she was asleep, was fatally shot by a police officer during a raid in 2010. It began with a harsh, syncopated cello line, creating a sense of unease, followed by slapping the instrument, presumably meant to evoke the shooting. While the violin then introduced an impassioned melody, the cello cultivated a sense of drudgery, as though continuing only through struggle. The cello and violin exchanged these motifs with each other before concluding the piece. 

The final selection was titled “…for the continuing struggle through which we will inevitably rescue and reconstruct our history and humanity according to our own needs.” This is the final phrase of some versions of the Kwanzaa liberation statement, “Tamshi la tambiko,” which is recited in memory of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. The piece began with a bold and energized violin announcement. As the cello entered, assertively and more slowly, the violin also slowed, creating a more sweeping sound and unifying with the cello before they trailed off, leaving a sense of openness rather than finality. 

Clara Lyon, violin, Hannah Collins, cello, and Professor Michael Mizrahi perform “Piano Trio” by Reena Esmail, a living composer. Photo by Kai Frueh.

Mizrahi then joined Lyon and Collins for a piano trio by Reena Esmail. The first movement of the trio was titled “Ephemeral” and began with a watery, reverberating motif in the piano that became a call-and-response with the strings. The strings became more insistent, leading into a section without piano that was almost pastoral. As the strings continued their duet, the piano entered with a fluttery motif, before proceeding to another call-and-response section with a sense of dignified majesty to it. The movement ended with the cello playing a single bowed note while the piano and violin played the same alternating interval, recalling the reverberating quality at the beginning of the movement. 

The second movement, “Breathing,” began with the cello playing a relaxed pattern while the violin played a wavering motif that was echoed in the piano. The lengths and shapes of the phrases mimicked inhaling and exhaling. The violin continued its wavering, trill-like motifs through much of the piece, including in a section where all three instruments played the motif, before transitioning into a more settled melodic section, followed by an intense, passionate and somewhat dissonant section. Again, the ending of this movement resembled its beginning character. 

The third movement, “Capricious,” began with a repetitive interlocking rhythm between the violin and cello that gave the piece a mechanistic feel. The piano part matched this atmosphere as it entered, but added a slightly more dancelike quality as it continued. The piece changed character to a flowing piano part with singing strings, and then again into a more audacious section with glissandos up and down the piano, before finishing as it had started. 

The final movement, aptly titled “Powerful, broad, intense,” started with dissonant string parts over constant pulsing piano chords. The piano transitioned into more whimsical patterns; then the strings started a wavering motif similar to that in the second movement, while the piano began a gentle flowing that set the scene for a more harmonious duet between the strings. Repetitive ascending chromatic lines in the strings led to a building volume of sound that then faded and reemerged. The final section of the piece was quiet and subdued. 

After an intermission, the trio returned for Franz Schubert’s Notturno in E-Flat Major, for which Mizrahi invited us to imagine ourselves lying on a blanket under the stars in summertime. The piece began with ethereal, harp-like rolled chords in the piano, and the strings entered in contented harmony. The piano took over the melody as the strings played pizzicato, and the piano and strings continued to interchange parts until the piano began to play octaves, with the strings following suit, signaling the transition to a more stately and grandiose section.  

In the more tender section that followed, the piano and strings continued to exchange the melody, echoing each other. Having introduced this variety of relaxed, stately, tender and intense characters, this piece continued to alternate between them, before finishing on a more embellished version of its beginning, with trills in the piano. 

The final piece of the program was Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, which began with an allegro movement in which a swaying violin line was joined by the cello, and the two instruments then diverged into casual, intersecting lines with meandering directions. After an argumentative section between the two instruments, featuring a rumbly cello and harsh violin pizzicato, they ended in sparkling harmony. 

The second movement began with vibrant pizzicato, then alternated between a coursing bowed sound and a focused pizzicato. After a call-and-response section, the instruments came together in disagreement, their bows screeching slightly and adding to the tension. The violin began a nasal-sounding taunting motif against a busy, brash cello part before they both ended abruptly. 

The cello began the third movement with a slow legato melody, and the violin joined in seamlessly and in harmony. The piece was pensive for most of its duration, with a sense of lazy, peaceful enjoyment, though there was a middle section in which repetitive, dissonant intervals accompanied this peaceful melody, making it sound more foreboding. By the end of the movement, the instruments had resumed a feeling of companionship. 

The final movement began with an energized fanfare motif in the cello that was taken up by the violin as the cello moved to a pizzicato accompaniment. This movement had a sense of humor, as it transitioned between a series of different characters; at times it was bouncy or graceful or pompous or march-like. Partway through, the cello introduced a folk tune on which each instrument took its turns before the piece ended with strong, crashing dissonance. 

Over the course of their program, Lyon, Collins and Mizrahi offered an engaging variety of pieces from the 19th century through the 21st, giving new color and life to the more familiar music and displaying versatility through their interpretations of more recent compositions. Their performance showcased a wide range of their instruments’ possible characters and timbres, with never a dull moment.