The Verdehr Trio has been commissioning new music since 1976; it’s up to about 200 pieces by now. Since 1998, it’s been playing it twice a year at the Phillips Collection. This season, it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary. And on Sunday, the trio gave its last Phillips concert.
Most classical trios involve strings, some involve a piano, but not many incorporate a clarinet. If the Verdehr has commissioned work, it’s been in part to build up the repertoire for an unusual grouping of instruments. Adding a clarinet to the violin and piano sets up an intriguing range of timbres, and in the relative intimacy of the Phillips’s music room the warm, sinuous, and sometimes hoarse richness of Else Ludewig-Verdehr’s clarinet contrasted intriguingly with the thinner slightly acidulous violin tone of her husband, Walter, while Silvia Roederer, who replaced Gary Kirkpatrick as the group’s pianist in 1997, offered capable support in the background.
Sunday’s concert offered a cross-section of shorter works and excerpts that was at once a stylistic mélange and an effective character portrait. The works ranged from unabashedly tonal and beautiful (“Three Nocturnes” from the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts) to a more cerebral representative of the European avant-garde (the first movement of Philippe Manoury’s “Michigan Trio”). You could debate the implications of “cerebral” — Manoury’s piece was perhaps more expressively volatile, in its chirpy, leaping, fragmented way, than Peter Sculthorpe’s evocation of the Australian outback in long, measured swatches of musical thought in “From Nourlangie.”
But the overall picture that emerged was of a group whose tastes run to the more melodic and tonal (example: Alan Hovhaness’s “Lake Samish”). In general, the program was heavy on the folk influences (in Bright Sheng’s “Tibetan Dance,” one of several pieces co-commissioned by the Phillips during the trio’s residency) and dance rhythms (a wacky mazurka from Ned Rorem’s “End of Summer”), sometimes both in the same work, like the gypsy-style Adagio from Alexander Arutiunian’s “Suite,” which closed the program. The music may have been contemporary, but very little of it was the kind of new music that some audiences find scary. One exception was Jere Hutcheson’s “In a Dream” from “Nocturnes of the Inferno,” the first piece the trio ever commissioned, which was both deliberately avant-garde and deliberately evocative of a Halloween-like atmosphere.
Verdehr noted, apologetically, the most glaring omission on the program: there were no women composers. “We have binders full of women,” Ludewig-Verdehr added dryly, in one of several witty asides that offered a textbook example of how musicians can talk to the audience without being stiff, pedantic, or anything other than themselves. Another of these asides concerned the distant music that played in the background throughout the concert’s first half: it sounded as if someone in the hall had left a radio on in his bag, and made a truly avant-garde backdrop.
The program opened with three movements from Sebastian Currier’s “Verge,” each of them taking the music to the brink of a concept, exploring it by not quite defining it: “Almost too fast” careening but still barely controlled, “Almost too mechanical” defying the robotic march of notes with little character-full fillips of sound. It was a nice epigraph for a concert that might have been titled “Almost a retirement.” The trio will continue to record in its long-term CD cycle, “The Making of a Medium” (20 discs and counting), but according to Verdehr, this may be its last performing season. Over 40 years, in an increasingly cacophonic and diverse musical universe, this group has carved out a small but distinctive niche and left it furnished and ready to hand over to posterity: a satisfying achievement that well deserved Sunday’s warm applause.