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By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Chicago is known as the Second City—home to deep-dish pizza, electric blues, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright—but the metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan is first in the hearts of the Illinois-based Lincoln Trio: violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, cellist David Cunliffe, and pianist Marta Aznavoorian. “We feel so lucky to live in Chicago!” says Ruhstrat, coordinator of the strings chamber music program at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. “We have a world-class symphony orchestra and opera company, plus many smaller chamber orchestras, vibrant new-music and chamber music scenes, and wonderful dance companies and theaters. We have two world-class summer music festivals: Ravinia and Grant Park. We have WFMT, an amazing classical music radio station, and Cedille Records, which documents much of the musical excellence that goes on in Chicago. And then there are the art museums, architecture, and Lake Michigan. 

Trios from Contemporary Chicago
Lincoln Trio (Cedille)

“The list is endless.”

You can add to that list the latest CD from this twice-Grammy-nominated ensemble.Trios from Contemporary Chicago (Cedille) is a stimulating collection of works that celebrates the city’s bustling culture. The album features new music by Shawn E. Okpebholo (city beautiful, a salute to Chicago’s acclaimed architecture); Mischa Zupko (Fanfare 80, celebrating a revered local music school), and Stacy Garrop (Sanctuary, a deeply felt homage to her late father); as well as established works by Chicago natives Augusta Read Thomas (…a circle around the sun…, a 2000 commission for the Amelia Piano Trio by the Children’s Memorial Foundation of Children’s Hospital in Chicago, in honor of philanthropist George D. Kennedy); and Pulitzer-winning Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran (1997’s Soliloquy).

Strings asked Ruhstrat about the latest recording project.

Lincoln Trio’s recording of Shawn E. Okpebholo’s “City Beautiful: III. Burnham”

What was the impetus for this album, specifically its focus on Chicago?

We originally wanted to make an album that celebrated Chicago composers, both past and present. Chicago has such a rich arts and music scene, and we have made it our home for the last 25 years. So, it was important to make an album that highlighted Chicago. It was first conceived as a double-album project, but then turned into two separate albums. We began a search for composers from the 19th and 20th centuries who had written piano trios and had also made Chicago their home for all or some of their careers.

Fortunately, for 2021’s Trios from the City of Big Shoulders, we were able to find the two wonderful composers Leo Sowerby and Ernst Bacon. We had the great honor of receiving the music from Ernst’s widow, Ellen Bacon, and she brought many wonderful stories and compositions. This second album features some of Chicago’s greatest living composers, many of whom we have had strong working relationships with over the years. And most importantly, we are the Lincoln Trio, from the Land of Lincoln.


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Why was it important to feature the works of living composers?

Chicago, specifically, has a wealth of composers who are producing diverse and thought-provoking material. All the composers are well established, though some have been around longer than others. There are also some wonderful student-teacher relationships here. Stacy Garrop studied with Shulamit Ran, for example. Shawn Okpebholo was a wonderful new discovery for us. Mischa Zupko and I have known each other for years, and we actually share the same birthday. Mischa and Marta studied piano together with Emilio del Rosario. Augusta Read Thomas wrote the first official commission for the Lincoln Trio. But we probably have the closest relationship with Stacy—we have recorded and performed numerous pieces of hers. We played for her wedding and received a wonderful composition, Silver Dagger, as a thank you.

You featured works that focus on the individual and the personal (Sanctuary, Soliloquy) as well as community and society (…a circle around the sun…). Can you discuss the juxtaposition of those pieces and what story they tell about Chicago?

Every piece on this album has a different reason for being written. Shawn Okpebholo’s trio, city beautiful, for example, was a straightforward commission for the Lincoln Trio based on the amazing architecture of Chicago, and made possible by the generosity of [Chicago philanthropist] Alexandra Nichols. Shulamit Ran’s trio, Soliloquy, is a re-imagining of themes from an opera she had written earlier in her career. 

Augusta Read Thomas has said of …a circle around the sun… that, “All art that I cherish has an element of love and recklessness and desperation. I like music that is alive and jumps off the page and out of the instrument as if something big is at stake.” Do you relate to that? 

Absolutely! In the case of her piece, we had an inkling of what it might be like as we had recorded her sister trio, Moon Jig, which she wrote for the Lincoln Trio in 2005, on an earlier album. Her music definitely jumps off the page!

What was the challenge of translating the bigness of that music in the studio? 


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We are fortunate to have Cedille Records to look after some of these issues. We want to give a big shout-out to James Ginsburg, Cedille’s founder, president, and producer, who lets us come up with these ideas, and Bill Maylone, Cedille’s recording engineer.

Shawn E. Okpebholo’s commissioned work is inspired by a trio of famous architects and was the first work the Lincoln Trio performed after the Covid-19 lockdown. How have you connected with this work and what does it say about Chicago? 

This piece has perhaps the most obvious connection to the city of Chicago, with its rich architectural heritage. He really brings these architects and, in the case of the first movement, a building itself [Aqua Tower] to life musically. It’s also the building featured on the front of the CD jacket.

You and David are not only music partners, but also husband and wife. How does that relationship impact your professional lives? 

I think in some ways it has many advantages. We are on the same schedule, and that really helps logistically with rehearsing, concerts, and everything that goes along with that. We also coach a lot of chamber music together, and we have a lot of common interests outside of music. Not that it is always easy.

In the trio, we attempt to have a professional working environment, but occasionally our relationship seeps into the rehearsal. We also tend to rehearse at our home. I think our highly entertaining and music-loving dog Dexter often acts as a comedic intermediary. And after nearly 19 years, Marta is highly tolerant.