An evening with the Z.E.N. Trio

by Jennifer Bryce

What is the magic that binds a chamber music trio – that causes three individual musicians, on different instruments to play as one? Maybe the answer is love. Each member of this trio lives in a different country – so it is rare to have the opportunity to come together to rehearse. Violinist, Esther Yoo says, ‘Regardless of how little or how much time has elapsed in between our meetings, we are always able to pick up right where we left off. It is quite easy for us to talk for hours, so we have to keep track of time – especially in rehearsals!’ Even with time together being so precious, just like good friends, the trio makes time to go to movies or shopping together and, each being a solo artist, to attend each other’s performances. ‘Z.E.N.’ is an acronym formed with an initial from each trio member, and a philosophical statement about their performance style.

Above everything else, at the concert I attended last Saturday, I was blown away by the music-making of this trio – a combination of utterly brilliant technique (I’m not sure I have ever heard such clear, crisp, brilliant piano work, or such mellowness on the high register notes of the violin) and breathing and performing as one.

Pianist Zhang Zuo is known as Zee Zee. She started her piano studies in Germany at the age of five, then returned to her native China, completing her studies at the Shenzhen Arts School. She was then invited to the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School (New York). She continues to receive guidance from Alfred Brendel. She has made recordings with prestigious orchestras such as the Philharmonia.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan seems to have played with most of the major orchestras of the world. His list of recitals and orchestral performances is most impressive. He was mentored by the late Rostropovich. He has won many awards, including First Prize at the Aram Khachaturian competition. Narek was born in Armenia and in 2017 was awarded the title of ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’.

Violinist Esther Yoo’s interpretation is widely praised. She was born in the US, then was educated in Belgium and Germany – her heritage is Korean. She made her concerto debut at the age of eight.  Esther has performed concertos with celebrated conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy. She featured prominently on the soundtrack of the film On Chesil Beach.

Thus each member of Z.E.N. is a virtuoso soloist. I think it’s quite exceptional that as well as being brilliant solo performers they can meld together to create the sublime music we heard on Saturday night.

The first item was a trio by a composer new to me: Arno Babajanian (1921 – 1983). He is Armenian – hence the interest of Narek, the cellist. The piece seemed to me a mixture of some familiar Russian music – Rachmaninoff, for example, although some of the folk melodies captured in the music are, apparently of Armenian origin. I particularly enjoyed the lively third movement, reminiscent (to me) of Kossak dancing.

Matthew Laing

We then had a world première performance. Australian composer Matthew Laing (b 1988) had been commissioned by Musica Viva – Graham Lovelock and Steven Singer – to compose his piece Little Cataclysms. Matthew Laing (who was present at the concert) was able to explain: ‘Piano trios naturally lend themselves to large-scale works, so I wanted to try and recreate that, just in small timeframes’. He said that the music is about ‘intimate, personal disasters in miniature form – like a deep-seeded memory awoken, reimagined changed or unchanged, then gone, where the reimagining informs the memory in the silence that follows’.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Z.E.N.’s performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op 90, ‘Dumky’. I am familiar with the trio, but this performance brought out aspects that I hadn’t noticed before. So poignant, so majestic and at times, so lively. I wanted to go away with the themes singing in my brain and was momentarily dismayed when, after much applause, I could see that the trio planned to play an encore. I didn’t want to tarnish the beautiful memory of the Dumky. The encore was the well-known Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d never heard it played like this. Such rippling joy! It was a fitting end to this memorable evening.

Z.E.N. Trio with Matthew Laing