Emma Hays Johnson, the cellist of the Maryland-based Milo Trio, says she and her two collaborators, violinist Celaya Kirchner and pianist Carl Banner, are equals. They are lucky, she said, because creative ensembles like theirs often have personal and artistic differences.
“Musicians in chamber groups aren’t always friends, so I’m very appreciative to have such great musical partners who are also very dear friends,” Johnson said. “The fact that we can share meals together and have rehearsal breaks for ‘tea-time’ to chat about life and our dreams is truly unique.”
Such closeness with her bandmates allows for the trio to create beautiful music together. And that is what they plan to do on the evening of Saturday, May 25 at the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring. Their program will feature the Mendelssohn Trio #1 in D-minor, Opus 49 and Brahms Trio #1 in B, Opus 8.
“These are two of the most beloved works in the trio literature, and are…the bedrock of a piano trio’s standard repertoire, much of which we hope to master,” said Banner, the group’s pianist. “Full participation by the players — and, by extension, the audience — can be, and is intended to be, a profoundly moving experience.”
Banner said he will introduce each piece, telling audiences “what to listen for” and also the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to the two masterworks, each of which is about 30 minutes long. In addition, Silver Spring poet Anne Dyckers will read some of her work in between the two pieces.
The Milo Trio is a recent addition to the Montgomery County soundscape, having only formed last fall under the umbrella of Washington Musica Viva (WMV), a nonprofit with a mission to introduce monthly chamber concerts to the capital region. Banner co-founded WMV in 1988 and continues to serve as its executive director.
In July 2018, Bonnie Thron introduced Banner to her fellow cellist, Johnson. Even at that initial meeting, Banner knew that he wanted to collaborate with Johnson in a new small ensemble. But a piece was missing.
“Emma suggested that we bring in Celaya Kirchner, her closest friend, to form a trio. They were school roommates, as well as in a string quartet together,” Banner said, adding that a friendship that can withstand both such scenarios is rare. “Celaya is as wonderful a musician as Emma, and rehearsal is especially smooth since they have a long history of playing together, and can practically read each other’s minds.”
The threesome, now based in Takoma Park, tried out some works together and found that the magic was indeed present. Their first concert was Jan. 27 at the home of WMV board member Richard White, who lives on Milo Drive in Bethesda. Hence, the Milo Trio was born.
Kirchner, the group’s violinist, said that making music in a chamber setting versus with a larger ensemble allows for a greater sense of intimacy both between the instrumentalists and in their connection to the audience.
“In an orchestra, the individual musicians contribute to a larger section to create a uniform sound and, ultimately, to create music that is the vision of the conductor. You can find moments to put forth your own opinion, but very few,” she said. “In a chamber music performance, the audience is able to sense the communication between the musicians during the performance, seeing the faces they make to each other, hearing how intricately their parts interact.
“Chamber music is about individual voices coming together to create one piece of art, where each voice is heard equally. You can’t get that kind of equality in an orchestra.”
“Before and after our chamber music concerts, audience members get to interact with the musicians and ask questions,” added Johnson, the cellist. “This builds a connection that is very important for both parties. The performers have to allow themselves to be vulnerable in order to communicate through the music, [and] the audience has to give their mind permission to escape from their daily concerns and let the music take them on a creative journey.
“I believe the more interaction that you have with the individual audience members, the more trust you build.”
Banner says that it’s especially important for modern audiences to unplug for an hour or two, get away from social media and the news, and simply enjoy being present in the beauty of the music.
“At last month’s concert, an audience member asked me, ‘When you play music like that, does time stop, or does it just slow down?’ I wasn’t sure, but I said, ‘When I feel that the music is as good as it gets, time stops,’” Banner recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, so it’s like sex, right?’”
“I aim to perform in a way that the audience can vividly hear my thoughts and stories, which might provoke their own,” said Johnson, adding that even attending other musicians’ concerts allows her to clear her own head. “It’s similar to when you read a book and your mind can escape to another world. This allows me to put things back into perspective.”
Because the Milo Trio is a relatively recent venture, Banner believes the group is still finding their stride and has years ahead to continue on their mission to play chamber music for Montgomery County audiences. And because the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring is close to where the musicians all reside, it will be even more special.
“From my own experience and what I have seen of other groups, it is a real challenge to keep a trio together,” he said, noting that the three genuinely enjoy working together and refrain from internal criticism.
The trio will perform once again at Richard White’s home in Bethesda — on Milo Road — on June 22, and they have a road performance in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, June 15. (Banner said he typically travels with a copy of Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” for some light reading.)
“We’ll see what other performance opportunities may materialize. I think we would welcome a local ‘mini-tour,’ Banner said.
Meanwhile, he hopes the May 25 Silver Spring audience will be able to share in the joy he, Johnson and Kirchner aim to transmit from their collective instrumentation.
“I would hope that one would think afterwards, ‘Goodness gracious, I just spent an hour and a half without once thinking about the president!’” he said. “That’s what we often hear from our audiences anyway.”
Washington Musica Viva presents the Milo Trio at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 25 at Church of the Ascension, 633 Sligo Ave., Silver Spring. For tickets — $15 in advance, $20 at the door — visit www.dcmusicaviva.org/events or call 301-891-6844.