Interview: Anna Polonsky of the Schumann Trio

by Brian Howe on September 19, 2012

Schumann Trio (L-R: Michael Tree, Anna Polonsky, Anthony McGill)

In the Schumann Trio, three top chamber musicians from two different generations—violist Michael Tree, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Anna Polonsky—come together to explore and increase the underutilized repertoire for their combination of instruments. On September 22 at Reynolds Theater, they visit Duke Performances with guest violist Paul Neubauer substituting for Tree. In a recent phone call with Polonsky, the good-humored pianist spoke to us about the nuances of the clarinet-viola-piano repertoire.

The Thread: Can you give us a sketch of the background that led you to the Schumann Trio?

Anna Polonsky: That’s a tall order! [Laughs] I was born in Russia, but as a child, I moved to the States. My parents are both classical musicians, and it was sort of a predetermined path since I was probably zero years old. Anthony [McGill] and I went to high school together at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Later, Anthony and I were only a couple years apart at the Curtis Institute of Music and Michael [Tree] was our coach on many works. And all three of us did the Marlboro Music Festival in the summer, which is a chamber music retreat in Vermont.

What drew the you three together?

It starts with just similar musical values and style of playing. Anthony and I always admired Michael as our coach and as a musical idol as a member of the Guarneri Quartet. Anthony, of course, is a phenomenal clarinetist who’s one of the best in the world currently, and certainly the busiest! I believe the Schumann Trio was Michael’s baby in the sense that he was looking forward to continuing his busy performing career after the Guarneri retired, which had happened a year before we started playing. I think he wanted to branch out from the string quartet.

Can you describe the sensibility you had in common?

That probably had a lot to do with our schooling at the Marlboro Music Festival, which is a Mecca for chamber music that fosters a certain—something I can’t put my finger on, but you can sometimes tell a person who’s been to Marlboro by the way they play. The way it works is that great performers of an elder generation play chamber music with the rising generation in groups, as equals. They work on a piece for weeks and then there’s a performance. Both Anthony and I were involved in separate groups with Michael as what you would call our “senior musician” so we could benefit from his expertise in playing chamber music for so many decades. The Guarneri are a big presence at Marlboro.

The Schumann Trio is uncommonly diverse, not just in age, but also in race and gender. Does that affect its chamber music?

If anything, age is a factor when one member has so many more years playing the repertoire than the other two. We look up to Michael to hear the “old-school” playing that we young people didn’t really get to hear in real life. Of course, Michael is the most democratic chamber musician there is, and receptive to what we’re doing as much as we are to him. But not only are there differences in age, race, and gender, there is a difference in instrumentation. None of us plays an instrument in the same family as the others, so we each kind of man our own domain, and come together.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tree won’t be able to join you for the concert at Duke Performances due to cataract removal surgeries. Can you tell us about Paul Neubauer, the violist who will sit in for him?

Paul Neubauer

Paul is one of the foremost violists now and was a natural person to ask to substitute for Michael, in as much as that is possible. There’s nothing that Paul cannot play; he’s a consummate master and a big figure. I’m sure the audience will be blown away by his artistry. I first met him through the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a big chamber music establishment in New York. They run an apprentice program for young musicians that Anthony and I both participated in, and Paul was the adult member.

Why is the clarinet-viola-piano trio less common than the more familiar piano trio?

It’s an unusual combination of sounds, but for that reason, many great composers have been charmed by it and written great works for it—Schumann, Mozart, Bruch. The three instruments are so diverse and there is no secondary instrument. Every one of them has a distinct voice and none can get lost in the texture, and I think that’s probably something that challenged composers to write them.

With the viola and the clarinet having such a similar range, are there special challenges in getting your sound balance right?

There are probably more challenges for the viola and clarinet to balance each other than for the piano, because the two instruments have such different approaches to sound. Clarinet doesn’t usually use vibrato; a viola does for most of the notes. It’s a very interesting combination when they have to play lines together because they have to adjust their sounds to match each other, much more than they would with instruments from their own family, so to speak. From the standpoint of the pianist, the balancing issues are different, in that clarinet is a very well-projecting instrument, and the viola is sort of in the middle of the piano register. As a pianist, one has to be mindful that the viola is not always as piercing as a violin timbre.

Can you tell us about the pieces on your Duke Performances program?

Schumann Trio

The first trio is very typical Schumann, although it’s quite bleak. It’s something like his second or third piece from the end, with four movements of very distinct character, two slow and two fast. The slow ones are heartbreakingly gorgeous and suited immaculately to the instrumentation. We are paralleling that piece with Schumann’s Marchenbilder for viola and piano, giving Anthony a little break. By virtue of its instrumentation, it’s more of a showpiece for viola, and once again, I especially love the charming slow movements.

The big work is Brahms’ F minor sonata for clarinet and piano, one of the first grand uses and seminal works of these instruments, and a piece that manifests Brahms’ new love for the clarinet. It’s also a very late piece, so that’s kind of a cool parallel as well: composers at the sunset of their lives, if by no means their abilities. We are going to finish in the second half with a selection of—I don’t want to say light, but more easy-listening than anything else on the program—Bruch’s Romantic Pieces, which are very no-holds-barred, heart-on-sleeve, with all the instruments getting soaring lines.

You husband is Orion Weiss, who visits Duke Performances with the Talich Quartet this season. Are there certain advantages or challenges when two people with the unusual job of concert pianist make a life together?

The challenge is how to squeeze three grand pianos into a New York apartment—which we have found a solution for! And having us travel so much, we sometimes spend weeks if not months missing each other. The advantage is having as common a language as one could imagine between two people. We collaborate very frequently as a four-hand team. Orion is, as you will discover, a gifted musician, so I find it very lucky and pleasurable to coexist with him.

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