Chamber performers become local heroes - Eamonn Kelly, 'The Australian', November 2015

Exploring America’s revolutionary 20th-century sonic landscapes, Firebird’s Benjamin Martin (piano) and Josephine Vains (cello) were joined by Paul Dean (clarinet) and American violinist Curt Thompson. Both effortlessly fused into the ensemble’s fabric.

Leonard Bernstein’s Piano Trio is a youthful curio from the composer’s minimal chamber output, bridging Old and New Worlds. Rooted in the severe aesthetics of post-tonal Europe and not yet Bernstein of the musicals, it nevertheless presages his groove and lyricism and reflects rising jazz, folk and vaudeville influences within American art music.

Leaning into soulful dissonances, Firebird offered an ardent account of the restless, impressionistic first movement, before easing into the second’s jaunty humour, with playful pizzicato and bluesy accents. The final movement’s agitated build was skilfully shaped, Martin providing blistering articulation and Thompson and Vains finding excellent balance between angular attack and tonal intensity.

The next two works skilfully deconstructed familiar musical idioms. Martin’s Ragtime dissects the world of Joplin and successors, reassembling the toe-tapping components — such as swinging syncopation and chord hopping — into dissonant, jagged, and ambivalent forms. The first movement draws a subtle thread of melancholy through jolliness, while the second creates complex rhythmic interactions and stirs the genre into unsettling fury.

Taking inspiration from Schumann’s Kinderszenen piece, Almost too serious, Sebastian Currier’s Verge for clarinet, violin and piano explores musical boundaries between efficacy and excess in nine miniatures. Sampling key compositional characteristics of modernism — from angst-ridden string grinding to pointillist scatters, disparate minimalist entries to extreme, chromatically meandering freneticism — the work is at once serious technical masterclass and sustained musical gag. The intentionally overdone elements were more than a little Hoffnung-esque.

Paul Schoenfield’s jazz and honky-tonk splashed Café Music delivers a dizzying dose of 1920s and 1930s swing in its outer movements and the gentle amble of folk and spiritual traditions in its lyrical middle. The chomping finale saw Firebird crank up another notch, sweeping and sparkling through this unabashedly optimistic work with the sort of abandon only a supremely disciplined ensemble can get away with.

 

Firebird Trio  bring Takemitsu and Rachmaninoff alive to explore Orientalism in classical music - Joel Carnegie, 'The Age', March 2013

Local heroes the Firebird Trio  presented some dynamic chamber works in a recital examining the influence of Orientalism in music, with works by Toru Takemitsu, Rachmaninoff, Martin, Liszt, and Beethoven. Pianist Benjamin Martin and cellist Josephine Vains were joined in this concert by special guest violinist, William Hennessy, who added flair and poise.

In the first half, the trio performed Takemitsu's Between Tides, blending water imagery amid a distinctly Eastern aesthetic and reflective pace. Working to articulate the splashes of colour among the tides of otherwise melodic fragments, the trio worked hard to make a mostly unremarkable work memorable.An earnest rendition of Rachmaninoff's Trio Elegiaque No.1 in G minor followed. Often erroneously described as Rachmaninoff's musical elegy to Tchaikovsky – the trio worked effectively to create a portrait of a frosty Russian landscape, with cello lines by Vains particularly absorbing.

The final two works, Liszt's Orpheus Symphonic Poem No. 4 and Beethoven's 10 Variations on Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu, brought the trio to life in a display of togetherness, charisma and playfulness.


 

Firebird Trio spreads its wings with variations on a Faustian theme - Eamonn Kelly 'The Australian', July 2013

Having presented a series themed arund the novels of Aldous Huxley last year, the Firebird Trio once again embrace a literary theme in its 2013 season. This time it's Goethe's Faust, a work that has resonated with generations of artists. Firebird's season draws three key themes from Goethe's play - temptation, love and damnation - to form a musical triptych inspired by turning points in Faust's journey to enlightenment.

Threaded through the series is Sunny Clapp's Girl of My Dreams, a sentimental dance-band waltz created in the dizzy 1920s that survived the austerity of the Depression years to become a standard for post-war crooners and jazz musicians. Here, Clapp's tune has been used as catalyst for three new works, commissioned by Firebird from seasoned Australian composers Tony Gould, Andrian Pertout and Paul Grabowsky, and presented at each concert alongside Clapp's original (arranged by Firebird's pianist Benjamin Martin) at each concert.

The second concert, Gretchen, honoured the object of Faust's tragic affection. Martin's sinewy, bittersweet arrangement of Girl of My Dreams immediately set the scene, blending exultation, restlessness and melancholy in equal measure. Pertout's contribution proved similarly polar, an austere array of scattered, icy entries making way for grinding intensity. Gretchen, the second movement of Liszt's A Faust Symphony, provided an obvious addition, the composer's piano transcription providing a green flag for Martin's piano trio arrangement. Indeed, the work's inner dialogues and subtle shades make it well suited for chamber ensemble and Martin cleverly draws these voices out as willowy, translucent elements.

Bringing the program to a gratifying conclusion was an enveloping account of Beethoven's Ghost trio. From the opening cascade, the Allegro unfolded as a breathless sweep, oscillating smoothly between sweet elation and unbridled passion. The Largo was suitably restrained and introspective, but the real triumph was a dazzling final movement where interpretative maturity was paired with superb ensemble and a grand splash of verve.

The devil in the detail - Martin Duffy 'The Age', March 2013

Care for a dance with the Devil? The legend of Faust has been an inspiration across various art forms and provides the overarching theme of the Firebird Trio's 2013 season. The blues favourite Girl of My Dreams was used as a leitmotif in Alan Parker's black thriller Angel Heart, featuring Robert De Niro as a malevolent modern-day Mephistopheles. The trio has commissioned four new treatments of this tune by local composers that are programmed throughout their three-concert season. Pianist Benjamin Martin's arrangement of Sunny Clapp's tune stays true to its blues roots, evoking the languid heat of the Deep South.

Tony Gould's terrific new composition Dreams of My Girl is more like a Fantasie on its harmonic possibilities with its sentiments wandering freely through wistful introspection to unbridled lust. Martin's intense arrangement of two key scenes from Busoni's unfinished opera Doktor Faust deftly evoked its Gothic drama with Martin conquering a devilishly difficult piano part worthy of Busoni himself.

Alongside violinist Roger Jonsson, cellist Josephine Vains was an expressive soloist and fabulous internal communicator in a vibrant and muscular performance of Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat. Attention to the devil in the detail - including dynamics, articulations and attack - saved the repeated iterations of thematic material in its outer movements from delivering any disappointing sense of deja vu.

Cosmopolitan program reveals trio of immense energy and focus - Eamonn Kelly 'The Australian', April 2012

Aiming to better support the plethora of small chamber ensembles subsisting on modest finances, the Melbourne Recital Centre has inaugurated a Local Heroes showcase series. Making extensive use of the venue's secondary auditorium, the Salon, the annual series features 21 local ensembles, including the Firebird Trio, rising from the ashes of the Freshwater Trio in 2010 and with a recent change of violinist, Firebird Trio now comprises Roger Jonsson (violin), Benjamin Martin (piano) and cellist Josephine Vains. Firebird's 2012 series features three programs, each taking title and inspiration from a literary work by Aldous Huxley, commencing with the author's celebrated vision of a future dystopia, Brave New World. Accordingly, this cosmopolitan program features works rooted in the past yet boldly striding towards an uncertain future.

...Equally boisterous was a vibrant account of Charles Ives's Piano Trio, a work awash with quotations from late 19th century American musical traditions, particularly folk songs and college tunes. Even in the most cacophonic moments of the middle Scherzo, careful part matching and excellent sound quality in the string parts clearly brought forth the humour in Ives's wacky juxtapositions.

Celebrating the ensemble's own name and genesis, the final item was Martin's arrangement of four movements from Stravinsky's Firebird suite. Effectively evoking the original's diverse orchestral colours and primal energies, the arrangement begins and ends at the piano: from menacingly primordeal rumblings to the dramatic final sweeps of the Infernal Dance. A fine platform for demonstrating the ensemble's cohesion and dexterity, this rousing finale revealed a piano trio of immense energy and focus, a Phoenix ready to burst forth from this diminutive space on to the Recital Centre's main stage.

With Huxley beyond the doors of perception - Clive O'Connell 'The Age', April 2012

A different American perspective emerged in the Ives Piano Trio, a score of lavish ideas and sources but given sterling coherence in this reading, where the juxtaposition of full-blown lyricism and pernickety dissonance brought the composer's imaginative world into blazing light, the pitfalls of the middle Scherzo negotiated without blinking, and the rolling Rock of Ages final pages as moving as the composer's violin sonatas and his benevolent Third Symphony.

Martin, presumably inspired by the ensemble's name arranged parts of Stravinsky's first successful ballet suite. The Infernal Dance and Firebird's Variation excercised Martin's dexterity, but the most successful transfer came in the placid Khorovod, Vains and Jonsson revelling in the uncomplicated lyricism.

Third element slots in beautifully - Clive O'Connell Reviewer, April 2011

Regrouping after the departure of their pianist, the Freshwater Trio's violinist Zoe Black and cellist Josephine Vains were fortunate in acquiring the talents of established local musician Benjamin Martin for their ensemble. Having demonstrated his abilities in a variety of situations - solo work, concertos, accompaniments, orchestral obbligato - Martin fits into the renamed group's performance practice with no apparent effort, bringing to bear his own understated fluency to give a new character to the string players' output. Not that this was immediately apparent during Wednesday's recital, the Firebird Trio's first in their Recital Centre series for the year. Alongside his keyboard work, Martin also composes and his freshly minted Fanfares made a favourable impact for the cleanly allocated labour of its construction and an individual vocabulary that fuses the plain and complex in its three just-terse-enough sections. As well, for a pianist, Martin is charitable to his colleagues, allocating energy and focus with an even hand.

The program's main element, Beethoven's Archduke, served as an exemplary calling card for the reconstituted trio. Although a keyboard solo opens the work, Martin gave place to the violin/cello combination with self-effacement and insight: for once, we could hear both cello and violin lines operating in congenial conditions, not having to move into strident mode for audibility. In fact, Black's vehemenceand Vains's eloquent tenor reaches gained markedly from Martin's careful dynamic husbandry right through a jaunty scherzo, a well-spun Andante cantabile, and as rational a reading of the sparkling finale as you could want.


Scherzo 'Pantoum' from Ravel's Piano Trio - Melba Hall, December 2010

Toru Takemitsu's 'Between Tides' for piano trio (excerpt) - Melba Hall, December 2010