Musicians hoping to create an all-Beethoven concert series are drawn to his 32 piano sonatas and his 16 string quartets. The Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio has taken the unusual path of planning a series of concerts devoted to the composer’s works for piano, violin, and cello. Depending on how you count them, Beethoven wrote between 7 and 12 pieces with this instrumentation. Members of the ensemble are pianist Yael Weiss, violinist Mark Kaplan, and cellist Clancy Newman.
The W-K-N ensemble has selected nine Beethoven compositions for a set of three concerts during their 2011-’12 and 2012-’13 seasons. Opening the Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts on Tuesday, June 21, in Richardson Auditorium, the trio gives the Princeton audience a preview of the series by playing its second program, which focuses on Beethoven’s middle period.
The four-concert summer chamber music concerts, now in its 43rd season, concludes on Tuesday, July 26. Performers in addition to W-K-N include two string quartets and a flute-viola-harp trio. Free tickets are available to the general public beginning at 6:30 p.m. the night of the concert.
“It’s very uncommon to play all the piano trios as a cycle,” says violinist Mark Kaplan in a telephone interview from his home in New York City. Pianist Yael Weiss, his wife, is on another extension. They embellish each other’s paragraphs. There is very little interruption. Weiss says: “The last time I heard this cycle was in the early 1970s.”
Kaplan says: “We’re doing the Op. 70 Trios and the ‘Kakadu’ Variations in Princeton.”
Weiss adds: “The enormous introduction to the ‘Kakadu’ Variations was written at the same time as Op. 70. The piece was composed over a 20-year span, starting in 1803. Most of the variations are 20 years older than the introduction.”
Kaplan continues: “The early portions are very Mozartean. They sound operatic. Beethoven studied with Haydn, but his first wish was to study with Mozart. He was drawn to Mozart operas.”
Weiss is an advocate for Op. 70 No. 2. “It’s very personal and very difficult,” she says. “It doesn’t have a title, unlike Op. 70 No. 1, ‘The Ghost,’ or the ‘Kakadu’ Variations. It’s in E-flat major, a key that has no connotation. There are a lot of pieces in this key. There’s nothing on the surface to draw attention to Op. 70 No. 2, but it’s one of the greatest pieces of chamber music and doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
“I’ve had some experience with cycles,” Weiss continues. “When I studied with Leon Fleischer at the Peabody Institute, he had 12 of his students play the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. We started at 10 in the morning and finished after midnight. There was no break except for a few 10-minute intervals, mostly to re-tune the piano. I did the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata.”
“Hearing a cycle is an amazing experience for an audience,” Kaplan says. “You get immersed in how the composer uses a particular instrumentation over a period of time.”
The Weiss-Kaplan-Newman trio was formed as the Sequenza Trio in 2001. Weiss and Kaplan were original members of the ensemble. Newman, who joined in 2007, is the third cellist to be part of the group. Kaplan doesn’t remember exactly how he and Weiss met Newman. “It’s a small world,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody else. We played with a few people. With Clancy the chemistry was right.”
When Newman joined the group changed its name. Kaplan explains, “All three of us are soloists. We all play a lot on our own. We wanted to identify ourselves by our individual names. It’s important in terms of our careers. People who know us individually can tell that we are part of the trio.”
Weiss says, “You might like one name now, and a different name later. Another advantage is that we don’t have to trademark the name Weiss-Kaplan-Newman.”
That pianist Weiss and violinist Kaplan are husband and wife does not mean that the ensemble is organized on a piano and violin versus cello basis. “It’s not violin and piano against cello,” Kaplan says. “Whenever a couple plays in a chamber ensemble, they have to behave as if they are not a couple, or the group can’t work. The way in which the group aligns itself in rehearsal is strings versus piano. We’re all very individual.”
Commenting about the division of tasks in the ensemble, Weiss says, “No tasks are set down, but there’s definitely a pattern. Mark rents the car.”
“Yael is very good at designing programs,” Kaplan says.
“I come up with possibilities and send them to Mark and Clancy,” Weiss says.
“There is some discussion about programming, then we decide,” Kaplan says. “We all share in logistical decisions.” Logistics are relatively easy since the three ensemble members live in New York City’s far northern Inwood section, where the streets are numbered above 200.
With a smile in her voice, Weiss answers the question of tasks. “We each study our own part,” she says. “Sometimes, when we look for musical solutions, the best procedure is just to play together, and avoid analyzing or speaking too much. We try something several times. Usually, it’s very straightforward. We look for the composer’s wishes.”
Kaplan adds, “Working like that gives us the power to improvise in performance. While we’re on stage, someone starts something, and the others go along.”
“We listen carefully,” Weiss says. “Performance happens at the moment. It’s unpredictable. We’re used to making quick decisions that depend on attentive listening.”
The W-K-N ensemble operates seamlessly in performance. Invited to talk about their arguments, they dredge up nothing of much musical importance. “It’s not an argument,” Kaplan says, “but there’s always a question of where to eat. Clancy could survive on pizza and hamburgers. We’re vegetarians, and I avoid cheese.”
Weiss adds, “We spend as much time discussing where to eat as we spend discussing the opening tempo. Sometimes when we’re driving, we stop twice for food.”
“Another argument,” she goes on, “is temperature. I’m from Israel. Mark grew up in Syracuse; Clancy grew up in Albany. I always think it’s too cold.”
Cellist Newman is the only composer in the ensemble, “except for cadenzas,” says Kaplan. Newman’s composition for the W-K-N Trio, tentatively called “Juxt Opposition” premiered in the fall of 2010. “By next year it will be slightly different,” Weiss says. “I worked with Clancy on the piano part. He’s redoing some things to make it more pianistic and to find a better relationship to the strings.”
“Another difference,” Kaplan says, “is that Clancy doesn’t listen to recordings. I was trained to listen to lots of recordings and pay attention to various approaches to music.”
Strangely, Newman joins Weiss and Kaplan in performing on recordings. Awaiting release is a Bridge-label pairing of Bedrich Smetana’s sole Piano Trio and Johannes Brahms’ Trio No. 1 in B minor. Both pianist and violinist are enthusiastic about the history behind the two high-romantic compositions. Weiss says, “The reason for coupling these two pieces is because they were written at almost the same time. Brahms revised the trio late in his life. The Henle edition includes both versions. They’re completely different pieces.”
Kaplan volunteers, “It’s one of the only examples of a great composer rewriting his work.”
To which Weiss adds, “The early version is rudimentary. It doesn’t have the quality of the revised version.”
Kaplan says: “The final version is beloved. If only the early version existed, it would not be played much.”
Weiss, 38, grew up in a little town on the Mediterranean, south of Tel Aviv. “Nobody understood what I did when I was practicing piano,” she says. She came to the United States at 17 to work with Leon Fleischer at the Peabody Institute. “I went back to Israel for my army service after my sophomore year at Peabody. It was quite a shock.” Her mother teaches piano. An uncle in the United States is a violinist and conductor.
Kaplan, 57, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in Syracuse. When he was 10, he started going to New York City for lessons with Juilliard’s Dorothy DeLay. His mother taught piano and founded a music school in Syracuse. His father is an amateur violinist. One uncle teaches violin at New York’s Manhattan School. Another uncle is an oboist and concert manager.
Weiss and Kaplan married in 2002 and have a three-year old son. Since 2005 they have been faculty members at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
A special interest of Weiss’s at the moment is online teaching. She presently gives private lessons using Skype. “Setting up online coaching is just like setting up any appointment,” she says. “I have a reservation form for Skype lessons on my website.” She is working out the details of giving Skype group lessons.
In addition, Weiss is developing Onlineschoolofmusic.com, a downloadable series of free podcasts combining instruction and anecdotes. Each 15 to 30-minute podcast will cover what she calls “a variety of things important for performers of any age — memorization, performance anxiety, how to practice. I’m hoping to invite Mark as a guest,” she says.
Kaplan’s special project just now is a book. “Once it’s finished, I might turn to podcasts,” he says. “I’m using as a jumping-off point a lecture that I give — ‘Ten Do’s and Ten Don’ts in Performing Solo Bach.’” I remember the challenges and confusion of my own beginnings with the pieces as student. They’re unlike anything else we play. But they’re not that hard once you learn to figure it out and trust the composer. If you feel it’s unbelievably difficult, you haven’t turned the right light on it. One ‘Do’ from the list is ‘Do not think only in terms of violin, think as a keyboardist. That puts the counterpoint and the bass line in your mind; they’re not that obvious on violin.’”
Newman, 34, grew up in Albany. His main non-performing interest is composing. His family is of Australian origin. His parents, both academics, are not musical. “They’re proud of him,” agree his musical partners, Weiss and Kaplan.
Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Piano Trio, Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Tuesday, June 21, 8 p.m. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. Those with disabilities may obtain tickets by phoning the box office or submitting an E-mail request to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 p.m. the Friday before the concert. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. 609-570-8404 or www.pusummerchamberconcerts.org.
Also, Dolce Suono Ensemble, Wednesday, July 6, 8 p.m.; Voxare String Quartet, Thursday, July 14, 8 p.m.; and Linden String Quartet, Tuesday, July 26, 8 p.m.