By Brian Wise | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
The phenomenon of the supergroup—comprised of prominent artists and sometimes fueled by clashing egos—has surfaced in every major genre, from rock and opera to chamber music. It wasn’t on the agenda of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, and pianist Conrad Tao when they gathered at Tao’s Manhattan apartment in late 2015 to read through Mendelssohn’s D minor piano trio. But out of this meetup grew the Junction Trio, and the label of classical music supergroup began to stick.
“We were talking about how there aren’t as many piano trios as string quartets, and how there was a missing trio in our age bracket,” says Campbell, who was 26 at the time and who plays in the JACK Quartet. The piano trio is well established as a soloists’ format. “That repertoire was more suitable for three people who are coming from different places than, say, a supergroup string quartet.”
But Campbell stresses that the Junction Trio is not an ensemble that convenes for galas or one-off festival dates and then parts ways for a year, failing to build a core identity. He has encountered plenty of those trios on recordings.
“As amazing as those records are, I sometimes don’t feel like there’s a sense of unity where I want there to be unity,” he says. “Sometimes it’s OK to be loose and soloistic, but sometimes you can tell that maybe they hadn’t really talked about the details: ‘How are we vibrating here? What kind of tone are we going for?’ And so you hear three people.”
Apart from a small handful of string quartets, notably the Tetzlaff Quartet, classical supergroups tend to be piano trios. They are most enthralling—or maddening—when a certain freewheeling one-upmanship is on display. Yet some have been plagued by infighting or divergent solo careers. The so-called Million Dollar Trio of 1949–51 (Rubinstein, Piatigorsky, and Heifetz) disbanded due to clashing egos. The innovative 1970s quartet Tashi (Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry, and Richard Stoltzman) dissolved amid illness, marriages, and divorces (it reunited briefly in 2008). Other groups form with a handshake in a studio but fail to take off.
Cellist Steven Isserlis is one-third of a supergroup with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. He disavows the term, fearing the implication that a record label executive is pulling the levers. “It wasn’t in any way a supergroup,” he says of the trio’s origins, which grew out of decades-long mutual friendships.
“I think I’ve got enough of a musical ego, and I’m enough of a pain in the neck, that I would not do that,” he says with a chuckle. “If I was being made to play with somebody, I would say no. You often get that at chamber music festivals, where people throw famous names together onstage, and it can be ghastly. It can be hideous. Wild horses would not drag me to it.”
Isserlis, Bell, and Denk have together made an all-Brahms recording for Sony Classical, and in 2019 gave a ten-city U.S. tour. There are ongoing discussions about future tours. “We made a recording of the Mendelssohn Trio, but it hasn’t come out,” Isserlis says. “What’s happened to that? So, it’s definitely not a record-company creation. In between the three of us, there’s a lot of energy. There’s tension, but it’s creative tension.”
A record company was behind the A-list trio of violinist Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Executives at RCA Victor had envisioned a modern version of the triumvirate of violinist Jacques Thibaud, cellist Pablo Casals, and pianist Alfred Cortot. After several years of planning, the ensemble debuted with four concerts at Ravinia in 1949. Life magazine published an article dubbing it the Million Dollar Trio—possibly a nod to the members’ fees—and the name stuck. Piatigorsky moved to Los Angeles, joining his partners, and RCA recorded their versions of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Ravel trios.
The three artists famously clashed during those sessions. There were disagreements over whose instrument should be most prominent in the recording mix. “They wanted me to play like a mouse!” Piatigorsky complained, according toa 2010 biography of the cellist by Terry King. Heifetz heard things differently. “The balance is all wrong,” he said in one rehearsal. “I can hear the cello.” There were also squabbles over fees. Rubinstein demanded a raise from his agent, Sol Hurok, after hearing that Heifetz’s fee was double that of his own.
The infighting escalated to publicity materials. They argued over whether the trio should be called “Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky” or “Heifetz-Rubinstein-Piatigorsky” (the cellist didn’t have a chance). Since the genre was a piano trio, Rubinstein argued that the pianist should come first. He and Heifetz never played again together, though the trio’s recordings remain in the catalog.
Other supergroups have sought to avoid such troubles. The trio of pianist Eugene Istomin, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Leonard Rose jokingly proposed the name $683,926.50 Trio. Indeed, while Stern commanded the highest solo fees of the group, group payments were reportedly split evenly. Still, the musicians had their differences. “At the beginning, we envisaged the thing as an idealized fraternity,” Istomin told an interviewer. But Rose observed the delicate balance at play: “We are three major personalities, three egos, three prima donnas, yet we have to blend and give and come to a common understanding.”
The contentious issue of top billing has been circumvented in the modern era with names like the Beaux Arts Trio or the Eroica Trio. The Junction Trio’s name is a riff on the members initials—Jackiw, Campbell, and Tao—as well as “an expression of what the group ends up being,” says Tao.
Disagreements over balance can surface, however. “As a pianist playing chamber music, you get very used to being asked to play softer,” Tao says, “and without a doubt I resent that a little bit. When you talk about mixes of recordings, I definitely remember asking for more piano in mixes. But I’ve never experienced resistance from the other boys on that front. That is not my gripe with Jay or Stefan. That is my gripe with chamber music culture at large. That might be my ego rearing its head as well.”
Jackiw says that the piano-trio format, with its complementary timbres, can withstand a certain personality-driven approach. “Violin and cello can both fit into the piano sound but also stand out from it,” he says. “Issues of unity are not quite as precarious and finicky as in a string quartet.”
Marketing Piano Trios
Some concert programmers find that audiences expect more star power from piano trios than from string quartets. Kathy Schuman, the vice president and artistic director of the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, New York, says that this makes booking trios a challenge. “I’m always a little bit wary of piano trios,” she says. “Sometimes I think it’s a little unfair to some full-time piano trios—the ones that are really playing many concerts a year and that are perhaps overlooked in this repertoire. [But] audiences tend to go for ones made up of three soloists.” Last year, Caramoor presented the Junction Trio. “Even though the Junction Trio is not called the Jackiw-Campbell-Tao Trio, people do very much know who’s in it and that it’s three soloists,” she adds.
The Junction Trio performs together for at least a month every year, whereas some supergroups—including the trio of violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax—reunite on a more sporadic basis. “A lot of those starry piano trios work together for a few weeks a year, and it’s a very special thing,” Schuman says. “It’s just going to be different than a group like the Junction Trio.”
The 1980s were a particularly fruitful era for piano trios. A 1981 New York Times article highlighted five new recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, including one by the trio of Mikhail Pletnev, Elmar Oliveira, and Nathaniel Rosen, and another by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, and Lynn Harrell. The latter recording brought that ensemble the first of its two Grammy Awards.
Today the very notion of a chamber music supergroup may be lost on listeners who aren’t aficionados of the genre, yet starry gatherings still dot concert calendars. Next May, Isserlis is slated to take part in a Carnegie Hall concert honoring the centenary of Andrei Sakharov, performing a Shostakovich trio with violinist Maxim Vengerov and pianist Evgeny Kissin. (The program will also feature violinist Gidon Kremer, pianist Lera Auerbach, and the Emerson Quartet.)
Despite his concerns about ad hoc chamber music, Isserlis says he looks forward to reuniting with old colleagues. “If you meet somebody at a dinner party, you can start talking and you feel like you’ve known them all of your life,” he observes. “And I’ve played enough music with Evgeny and Maxim that I think it will work.”
Tao of the Junction Trio believes that the “one-night stand” model has a spontaneous appeal. “There’s something to be said for the sheer urgency of that kind of music making,” he says. But his regular trio takes priority. “You can build a deeper level of trust and knowledge of one another. You can take a lot more risks and you can surprise each other, and that is very special.”