The MCR Interview:

Interview with Matthew Phelps of the Elliston Trio

This Wednesday February 1st, the Elliston Trio is performing a set of piano trio’s by Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. This is a free concert that is open to the public. Please visit the website here to reserve your seats. Ahead of this event Music City Review’s Daniel Krenz sat down with pianist Matthew Phelps to talk about the program.

Daniel Krenz: Good afternoon Matthew, it’s great to speak with you today.

Matthew Phelps: My pleasure!

DK: I suspect most of the people that are going to come to this concert are probably just familiar with the symphony as the huge, full symphony, so this chamber concert might be new for a lot of people. What is the rehearsal process like for putting together this chamber concert?

MP: Erin Hall, Keith Nicholas, and I have played together —we were just thinking about that this week actually— for eight years. We honestly can’t believe we’ve been playing together that long. So that definitely affects the rehearsal process. It’s very different now for us than it was even three or four years ago. Because when you first start playing together a lot of the rehearsal process was really getting to know each other and getting to know how to follow each other and how to communicate with each other while playing together. Now that that’s a lot more second-nature, the rehearsal process for us is a lot more —especially in the Ravel— about trying to find the right sound. Because the Ravel uses a lot of effects and uses a lot of ambient sound, more than you would think from a chamber music piece. A lot of the rehearsal process has been trying to find the right sound for things like pizzicato and harmonics. And to get it to work at the tempo that Ravel asks for, [chuckles] which is not friendly. It’s a pretty quick tempo. I will say, and maybe more specifically to your question, like when you’re dealing with a big orchestra, the string players are going to be handed bowings and be expected to execute, whereas I’d say that those kind of decisions are much more organic in our rehearsal process. Erin and Keith are talking about bowings, talking about how did they want to play this. It’s that kind of stuff. It’s a lot of communicating and trying to work that stuff out really well.

DK: I really like the pairing of the Haydn and the Ravel. How did the process of programming those pieces come about?

MP: I think Keith picked the Ravel and Erin picked the Haydn. We usually take turns picking pieces, it just kind of depends. We have generally chosen pretty heavy romantic trios. We have played Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Dvorak, and the Tchaikovsky trio, which is a massive piece.

We played the Joan Tower which was really a great experience. It just kind of depends. Usually we just make a suggestion and we go ok, yeah, sure, that one worked. The Ravel has been on the list for a while and we just shied away from it because it is really difficult. It’s musically difficult on top of being technically difficult. The Tchaikovsky is technically difficult but not musically difficult. The Ravel is musically and technically difficult. And it’s just a nice pairing to go with something that we could do comfortably. And we’re taking this program to North Carolina in a couple weeks to play at UNC Chapel Hill and I think we’re adding the Brahms C Minor Trio which we’ve played before.

DK: The Brahms will be a great addition!

MP: Yeah, it’s a great program. I mean the Brahms is heavy. The Ravel is heavy in its own way. It’s interesting. It’s a lot more esoteric than you would think. I think of La Valse and the G Major Piano Concerto and a lot of the solo piano works as being complex but lighter. The trio’s heavy. Really heavy. And even the Left Hand Piano Concerto, I don’t think of it as heavy and esoteric as this, even though I think there are a lot of similarities between that and this piece.

DK: Yeah, the left hand piano concerto is probably the closest example I can think of to something like this.

MP: I tried to learn the Left Hand Concerto but I just decided it was dumb. I have two hands, why can’t I use both hands? [both laugh]

DK: For the Haydn trio, I’m really interested in the piano in the instrumentation here. I think back to something like the Brandenburg Concertos where the harpsichord/piano is treated as a continuo instrument, but Haydn has really elevated it and taken it out of its continuo position. So how do you —especially with you being the only non-string member of the trio—feel that Haydn treats the piano within this context?

MP: Well I think with the Mozart trios it feels a little more like a concerto with string instruments. And the balance between the strings and piano in the Mozart is not so good. It’s very much a piano trio, and the strings just play along. Haydn, being much more of a string player, I think gives a lot more interest to the strings and I think it’s is much more unified ensemble than I think you find in Mozart. One of the things that I think is interesting about Haydn that you don’t find necessarily in Mozart is just how much the material meshes together. For example, in the Haydn trio the violin will play the melody but the piano will often play in the same rhythm, maybe a third lower. It’s still the same rhythmic and motivic gesture and everything. It’s a lot more organically unified. Whereas Mozart, you’re playing runs while the strings do a simple accompanying rhythm. I think Haydn treats the ensemble a lot more organically. So the piano part’s interesting, especially in the second movement. The second movement the piano is treated really melodically. But not so much in the first and third movements; I mean there are melodies but they’re with the strings. The strings are doing the same material. It’s a little different.

DK: Part of the reason I enjoyed the pairing of these two so much is because the piano trio to me, as just a genre, is very rooted in the Classical era. Ravel takes it and writes a piece where the first and last movement are sonata form, we’ve got a passacaglia, we’ve got a scherzo; it seems very rooted in that tradition, but it’s pretty characteristically Ravel. How do you see the differences between the way that Haydn treats the piano and the way Ravel treats the piano?

MP: I think there’s actually a similarity in that, we talked about it being kind of a unified ensemble in the Haydn, that is certainly really apparent to us in working on the Ravel that Ravel wanted each instrument to be treated independently and as substantially as the other ones. So of course the piano part’s huge because it’s Ravel and he was a pianist, but when you analyze the music and how it’s constructed, the violin part is as important as the piano part at any moment, as is the cello part. He really works very hard to make sure the texture is not overbearing, so you can hear everything. That’s the most important thing to understand in regards to all the instruments with the Ravel; he really writes it so that each instrument is discernible. Which is why composers find it so hard to write piano trios. Piano trios are significantly more difficult than other types of chamber music because of the balance problem. Ravel really works hard to solve that and I think that’s how you have to approach the piano part. I think in the last movement there are a couple spots where he’s not successful, frankly, in solving the balance problem. And that has certainly been part of the rehearsal process also.

DK: Do you have a personal favorite moment out of the program?

MP: My favorite moment in the program is that moment after which I’ve played the hardest part right. [laughter]

DK: I’m assuming that’s in the Ravel?

MP: The Ravel is difficult, yes, there are some amazing moments in the Ravel. I think the end of the Ravel is very exciting and it’s taken me a while to decide that. It’s difficult, it’s dense and some of the stretches are uncomfortable. We had to end rehearsal because my hands couldn’t take it. But with all that said, there are going to be a zillion spots in the Ravel where I could say “that’s cool.” I actually think my favorite part of the whole program is the middle movement of the Haydn. That’s really sublime. Haydn’s not always melodic; it’s melodic. It’s just really pretty.

DK: I’m really looking forward to it. Thank you for your time.

MP: No problem Daniel!

To get your free tickets to the performance please visit the Nashville Symphony’s website.

*This conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.

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