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Trios and Teamwork

April 8, 2024

 By Nicky Swett

I spoke with composer David Serkin Ludwig about trio writing and compositional practice ahead of premiere performances of his Piano Trio No. 4, “Hashkiveinu.”

Nicky Swett: I know you’ve written a few piano trios over the last years. What are some pieces in the repertoire that you look to when you’re writing for violin, cello, and piano?

David Serkin Ludwig: I’m drawn to all the great piano trios from the past, probably starting with Beethoven and Schubert. Then in the 20th century, there are some extraordinary piano trios, not just for violin, cello, and piano, but pieces like Contrasts [Béla Bartók’s 1938 Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano]. Often, the keyboard is like a mini orchestra, with soloists, and sometimes all three players are like soloists. I’m very compelled by the form of the piano trio: it has so many possibilities and can take so many different shapes. And this is my fourth! So that’s proof of what I’m talking about.

NS: What keeps you coming back to these three instruments? Are there challenges or things that you feel you still want to pursue with those sounds and their possible interactions?

DSL: I’m always interested in telling stories and sharing messages and ideas. Ultimately, the medium changes but my messages and what I’m sharing remain the same because it all comes from me, regardless of whether it’s in a string quartet or an oratorio.

On the other hand, there are some unique opportunities you have in writing for a piano trio. All music ultimately is an intersection of the horizontal, or melodic, and vertical, or harmonic. The piano trio gives us the opportunity to hear both of those in a special way. The piano can give real vertical fullness and resonance in its harmonies, and there is such melodic potential in string instruments. Then it gets very interesting to shift back and forth and give harmonies to the strings and melodies to the piano. There’s an incredible chance for all kinds of musical devices.

NS: Do you have the sounds of the performers who you know will play a work in your ears when thinking about what to write, or is that something that comes in later in the process?

DSL: I absolutely have the sound of performers, even the specific performers, in my ears as I’m writing. That’s kind of the trick, I’ve always felt, in composing: you want to write something that fits the performers you’re writing for like a glove. But that glove can then fit other people too, so that they can make the piece their own. It’s a balance between addressing what you hear in the playing of the person you’re writing for, and allowing a flexibility in the interpretation that means that someone else could pick up the piece and do something different and just as creative and musical.

NS: You’re married to the violinist Bella Hristova, who is playing in the premiere performances of this new trio. Do the two of you workshop things together during the compositional process?

DSL: I have to say, I have the incredible privilege to live with someone who’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve known or will know. For me as a composer, having someone that I can play a little bit of music to and get an immediate reaction, just off the cuff, is incredibly valuable. Sometimes I call Bella my editor-in-chief.

NS: What does that editing process look like when you do it? Do you play something at the piano and talk about it?

DSL: I’ll sit and play something and sing something else and stomp my feet. All the sounds are happening in my head. And yet somehow she’s able to give me very good feedback. She’ll say, “that could repeat one more time,” or “please don’t repeat that one more time.” The short of it is, I think we’re a good team.

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.