Artist Interview: Clive Greensmith of the Montrose Trio

By Patrick Burke on November 30, 2015
Montrose Trio

Patrick Burke: First of all - welcome back! For many of our audience members, the last time they heard you was in 2013 with the Tokyo Quartet. The Montrose Trio formed shortly after, in 2014. Could you tell us how the Trio was founded, and how did this particular performance with Kazuhide Isomura come together?

Clive Greensmith: Firstly, thanks for the warm welcome and it's great to back performing for PCMS and our many long standing friends and colleagues in Philadelphia. The Montrose Trio evolved out of a collaboration between the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. The quartet had performed regularly with Jackie (Jon) over the course of some twenty five years, with many performances in the final three seasons of our life together as an ensemble. Martin and I had been discussing the idea of forming a piano trio and the concept of a new ensemble formed out of the Tokyo Quartet became increasingly enticing. In our final four months together as a quartet, we played several concerts with Jackie and it became crystal clear that he was our man. One night, backstage in a rather cramped dressing room on tour in Canada, Martin and I suggested the idea of forming a piano trio. Jackie accepted and things moved along very quickly. Soon, thanks to the enthusiastic support of our manager Pat Winter and Steve Wogaman, President of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, The Montrose Trio was born.

It was Miles Cohen, Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society who suggested the idea of the Montrose Trio in performance with Kazuhide Isomura. My colleagues and I were delighted to accept such a kind invitation and this will be a joyous reunion between players who have shared countless hours together on stage.

PB: There are some inherent differences between a piano trio and a string quartet. As you start to perform more and more of the repertoire, could you discuss the musical challenges and differences between the two ensembles? How is it playing with a piano, and how does the group communication change when you add a harmonic instrument into the ensemble?

CG: An immediate challenge we face is building a new repertoire together. Though Martin and I collaborated regularly in piano trio repertoire over the years, we now have a real touring season as a group which requires at least four programs worth of assorted works. However, we have one great advantage that stems from our shared history in the Tokyo Quartet. Martin and I have been performing together regularly over the past 12 years. We now know each other so well that we barely have to look at one another when we are on stage together.

A major difference between these different mediums is of balance and articulation. In the piano trio I often find myself allied with the left hand of the piano and this combined sonority requires that I modulate my vibrato to create a unified bass with Jackie. I remember at Marlboro, Andras Schiff telling me that he found the string/piano blend to be like oil and water - two textures that refuse to amalgamate. I often think about this when we play the early classical trios of Haydn and Beethoven, and likewise with Mendelssohn and Brahms. Another challenge is simply of balance between the strings and
piano. The cello can easily suffer alongside the violin and a full concert grand piano and I find myself having to think more often about projection of sound and firmness of articulation. One element of
performance that is actually easier in a piano trio is intonation. Fine intonation is a daily struggle for any dedicated string quartet.

PB: Besides the Trio, your post-Tokyo life has also been filled by teaching at the Colburn School. Could you tell us about that position, and what do you hope your students gain from your mentorship?

CG: Martin and I are most fortunate to be co-directing the chamber music program at the Colburn School in addition to working with our own separate studios. I relish the responsibility of nurturing young players and find teaching to be a fascinating challenge. The best way to learn anything is by 'doing' and I feel I was able to grow into my role as the cellist of the Tokyo Quartet thanks to many hours of rehearsals, numerous concerts and recordings. I am happy to share freely all that I have learned, from simple practical tips to the deepest and most perplexing musical challenges they might face when
tackling any work, large or small from the chamber music repertory. I also feel that I can help them navigate their way through the early stages of starting off as a new group, building a repertoire and
finding the most efficient way to rehearse.

PB: Your program for this tour includes the premiere of James Lee’s Piano Trio No. 2. Could you tell us about the work, and what the process of rehearsing and presenting new music is like?

CG: New music is always exciting. Taking on a work that has no established performance practice and being able to work with a living composer is a great luxury. One has to put a great deal of effort in to ensure that the piece has the nest possible chance of becoming an established piece in the repertoire. There's a feeling of freedom and spontaneity that is hard to beat.

PB: Our audience is always interested in the instruments that our artists play on, and we know that the Tokyo played on the famed “Paganini Quartet” set of Stradivarius instruments. Are you still playing on
this instrument? If not, could you tell us about your cello, its history and tendencies and how did you choose that specific instrument?

CG: The Paganini cello went back to the Nippon Foundation in July 2013 and I have been using my 1933 Simone Sacconi cello ever since. I chose this instrument because I loved the clarity and elegance of the
Stradivarius B model and my Sacconi is very much a product of the Cremonese School of instrument making. The only major difference is the price tag - I didn't have to rob a bank to acquire it!

Clive Greensmith performs as part of the Montrose Trio on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at the Perelman Theater. For tickets and information visit the concert page.