The KLR Trio and Danielpour's "Child Reliquary"

American composer Richard Danielpour’s exceptionally beautiful “Child’s Reliquary,” which will be performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in Carmel at Sunset Center on Saturday, February 16, owes its existence to a merging of elements that have been at the heart of so much enduring art: grief and love, tragedy and healing, sorrow and acceptance.  A musical exploration of the death by drowning of the 18-month-old son of conductor Carl St. Clair, a friend of Danielpour’s, “A Child’s Reliquary” fearlessly embraces and transforms into art the unspeakable sadness evoked by the death of a child.

During a recent phone interview with Joseph Kalichstein from his home in New Jersey, the pianist, who is also a revered professor at the Juilliard School in New York, tells me that the KLR (piano, violin and cello) has performed “A Child’s Reliquary” many times since its 1999 premiere, without any lessening of the work’s profound impact.

“The audience response is amazing,” he says.  “People try to hold back their tears.  It’s a cathartic piece.”

The first movement opens with an immediate emotional quality, both sweet and haunted.  Kalichstein describes this opening as “liturgical”; from the work’s first notes we are in the presence of spirit.

“The second movement is the live child,” Kalichstein says.  “Playful and mischievous, through many variants of mood.”  This movement is a scherzo, and Danielpour (photo above) uses the traditional structure of a scherzo to explore varying aspects of childhood.  The middle section, a gentle waltz, reminds me of a mobile hanging above a crib, its shapes slowly drifting above the infant’s watchful eyes.

Kalichstein calls the third movement “the emotional kernel of the piece.”  It is here where the music confronts the actual drowning.  “It is unbelievably beautiful,” he says, “haunting in the best sense.”  Listen for the fragment of Brahms’ beloved lullaby, heard as if from the bottom of a pool.

For this concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the trio chose to open the evening with a work by Mozart, one of his “optimistic sunshine pieces,” Kalichstein says, to provide contrast.

Contrast is also provided in the monumental, soulful piano trio by Peter Tchaikovsky, to be heard after the intermission.  Kalichstein says that this piece, too, was inspired by grief, as it was written in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein (no relation to Arthur), a close friend and colleague of Tchaikovsky.

I ask Kalichstein if he senses that audiences are still resistant to new, unfamiliar music, or if that is changing.

“It is changing,” he says.  “Though some times people won’t buy a ticket if there’s an unknown composer’s name on the program.  But the problem also exists on the other side.  There are some contemporary music aficionados who believe that if the music is not complex, it must not be very good.  This is why Dvorak is consistently underrated.  ‘Simple,’ in fact, is a great and difficult thing to achieve.  Mozart and Schubert knew how to achieve it.”

I suggest that the simplicity in which “A Child’s Reliquary” opens is why it is so powerfully moving.  Kalichstein agrees.

“Some people are afraid to let themselves be moved by music,” he says. “They only want to be ‘challenged.’  But art is not an acrostic puzzle.  We should always look to be moved.”

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, Saturday, February 16, at 8:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel.  For tickets and information, call (831) 625-2212 or visit chambermusicmontereybay.org.

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