The world of classical music is slowly getting back on its feet in post-pandemic Orange County. Thursday evening none other than soprano Renée Fleming gave a recital at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (with a few COVID protocols in place). Sunday afternoon, the gloves came off, the protocols were rescinded and a new chamber ensemble made its debut in the same venue. 

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The group is a piano trio called Trio Barclay and it is the hall’s first and only resident ensemble. It is headed by Pacific Symphony concertmaster Dennis Kim, who is joined by cellist Jonah Kim (no relation) and pianist Sean Kennard, all veterans of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia who have performed together previously in various configurations. The idea of this resident ensemble has been in the works for some time, said the Barclay’s president Jerry Mandel before the concert, and now seemed a good time to launch it.

A sizable audience turned out to hear it, some (voluntarily) wearing masks, many not, with social distancing seeming not to matter to most. I didn’t see anyone unhappy with the arrangement. 

Trio Barclay appears to have sprung to life fully formed. Sunday’s concert revealed a group whose members already interact with precision and ease, who feint and dodge as if of one mind. Tuning and balances were superb. Phrasing was expressive but never forced.

Nor did the trio shy away from a challenge with its first program, which consisted of Shostakovich’s epic E-minor Trio (No. 2), Dvorák’s verdant “Dumky” Trio and the world premiere of two movements of a piece being written for the ensemble by American composer Sheridan Seyfried

In fact, according to both Kim and Mandel, new music will be a consistent focus of Trio Barclay. Being that Orange County is already copiously served in the chamber music sphere, the Barclay trio’s commitment to new repertoire is a welcome bit of news. Of course it depends on what kind it wants and what it comes up with.

Meanwhile, the Shostakovich, a wild ride fiercely abutting gloom and comedy, elegy and shtick, learned counterpoint and simple folk tunes, emerged vividly in a confident and virtuosic reading. Kennard, who performed with the Steinway lid fully opened, never overwhelmed his companions. The two Kims teamed like old friends, Jonah with a wide expressive vibrato and jabbing inflections, Dennis with his easy portamento, authoritative phrasing and rich-toned Stradivarius.

The performance of the “Dumky” perhaps revealed a little of the newness of the group with several minor blips in timing, but overall the players gloried in it, feeling the ache and joy of the melodies and the fun of the lively rhythms. 

Seyfried, also a Curtis alum, offered two movements, marked Slow and Fast, from what he promises will be a four-movement work. They were inspired, respectively, by an unusual chord sequence in the rock song “Hey Now!” by Oasis and a phrase from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 34. Not that you’d know it when you heard them, since Seyfried thoroughly transforms his root material. His style is conservative and Romantic; it wants to make friends with the musicians as well as the audience. These two pieces sounded like newly discovered music by Rachmaninoff and Brahms, say, well-crafted, enjoyable and certainly harmless, if that’s what you’re aiming for.

In spoken remarks, Dennis Kim had assured the audience that it would like the Seyfried. Later, in talking about the trio’s plans to perform new works he doubled down: “We promise we won’t play weird music.”

Aw, too bad.

For now, though, we have a fine new group in our presence.

After the Dvorák, the trio offered two encores, old hymns arranged in jazz style by Seyfried. The second one, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was a real snazzy charmer. 

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

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