"Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio. If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.
Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.
Agócs explained from the stage that Queen of Hearts revolves around a chaconne, which she described as “repeating patterns of notes, something musicians have been doing for centuries.” The chaconne in 5/4 is an attempt at “transcending the anxiety that keeps us up nights.” I marvelled at Agócs’ simple courage in singing her theme a cappella to demonstrate it for the audience, her rough voice no impediment to the simple clarity of the melody she brought forth.
The music covered a lot of territory, toggling back and forth between the chaconne and the song. Agócs blends the history of piano trio writing, from Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Shostakovich, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Robert Paterson (whose music Claremont recently recorded), with her own distinctive voice. Neo-baroque simplicity and spaced-out piano flourishes stretched a canvas for variations on Agócs’ long-breathed melody, with occasional tonal slippage into mediant-related key areas and flirtations with Milhaudy bitonality. Tinkling Auerbachish chromaticism in the piano supported grand Romantic string gestures, lush melodies breaking apart into anxious glissandi, harmonies built from stacks of thirds never quite adding up to an octave, all struggling toward a final, crashing, resounding tonic major triad, held almost too long before closing with a joyful tag."
- OREGON ARTSWATCH (Matthew Neil Andrews), 14 August 2017
"Agócs’s “Queen of Hearts” beguilingly wove a chaconne (that constantly changed) against a melodic line. The rhapsodic and very emotional one-movement work was played with intensity by the Claremont Trio (violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam). The piece offered a lot of dynamic contrast and ended on high notes triumphantly."
- AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE (James Bash), October 2017
"The Boston premiere of Queen of Hearts closed the first half.....Commissioned for Claremont and premiered by them in Oregon earlier this year, the work is an extended chaconne, variations on a ground bass, but mashed up with other formal structures, like rondo and verse-and-chorus. There are really two themes, one a bass line as one would expect, the other a more lyrical passage, and they and their variations alternate while gradually fleshing themselves out with melodic elaboration and occasionally “out of focus” harmonization, rising to a complex climax (Ives does something similar in his Violin Sonata No. 3). ......draws one in and gratifies with its clear communication. One nice touch, among many others, is that unlike most of the major variation sets one hears, the big lyrical passage does not come at around the three-quarters mark (think of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Sicilienne in Brahms’s Haydn variations, or the big inverted tune in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), but right at the end, where it serves as a secondary catharsis to the big climax that preceded it (which had its own brief moment of relaxation). The Claremonts matched the intensity and lyricism in the score; plainly, they are making this music their own..."
- BOSTON MUSICAL INTELLIGENCER, 6 November 2017 (Vance R. Koven)