For the most part, neither man nor woman cannot live by music alone, and this is true even before the proposed budget cuts that threaten our nation. Both performers in the March 31 Washington Musica Viva (WMV) concert—pianist (and WMV cofounder) Carl Banner and cellist Bonnie Thron—have lived that fact—as has Dr. Bill Robinson, composer of one of the program’s three pieces.
Banner, a competition-winning piano student since early childhood, decided “to get a real job” circa 1970. He earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology at University of Maryland and a doctorate in cell biology at Harvard and held various jobs in the science world, including NIH grants administrator until his 2008 retirement. Music remained on the periphery; while in graduate school, he had a weekly brunch gig and through the years, formed and/or performed in talented amateur and professional groups and concert series. In 1998, he and his artist wife Marilyn founded WMV, which produces monthly chamber music programs.
After playing with the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble and Denver Symphony, Thron, a Juilliard-trained cellist (bachelor’s and master’s degrees), spent five years in residence at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute as a member of the Peabody Trio (which won the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1989). She left Peabody shortly after the award to train as a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital and work for Johns Hopkins Home Health, but also taught cello at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
About a decade later, Banner said, Thron was “coaxed back into music” and 17 years ago, she became principal cellist for the North Carolina Symphony. The WMV show’s timing worked well for Thron because the symphony, she said, “will be performing the previous two nights with the SHIFT festival at the Kennedy Center.”
Since early childhood, Robinson studied both piano and violin, adding composition when he attended Phillips Academy Andover. He earned a bachelor’s degree in composition from the University of North Texas, and bachelor’s and a doctorate in physics from North Carolina State University, where he joined the physics faculty. Still, as a composer, he has been prolific, producing orchestra, jazz, concert band and choral pieces–including sonatas, concertos and songs–for various combinations of instruments.
Banner and Thron met two years ago at a Labor Day chamber music party the Banners hosted in their Takoma Park studio. “We had an immediate rapport and he asked if my husband, (clarinetist) Fred Jacobowitz and I would play a concert with him in his series, which we did last April,” Thron said. “It was a terrific experience, and we subsequently planned this concert as well as another concert for the series coming up April 15.”
Thron connected with Robinson through Jacobowitz who met the composer at a concert. “My husband suggested he write a clarinet trio (clarinet, cello, piano) because there seem to be lots of cellists married to clarinetists,” Thron said. “Three weeks later, he handed over three movements and they were so stunning, we commissioned him to write a fourth to complete the set. Since then, we have performed most of his music and most recently, he wrote a cello concerto for me, which is beautiful.”
Robinson said he wrote Gayatri Sonata, his “only piece for cello and piano” in memory of his mother who played both cello and piano. Upon listening to a recording of it that Thron recommended, Banner said, “I loved this sonata for its lyricism and depth of feeling as well as its reference to Hindu spiritual practice.” Thron said the work “has Bill’s spirituality, his humor and his passion ranging from grief to joy, and I find this to be a very compelling piece that comes straight from his heart.”
Banner and Thron had no trouble agreeing on two additional components for their program. Banner had performed George Walker’s Sonata for cello and piano several times, and Thron “knew it to be a really great piece,” she said, noting that Walker, “currently in his mid-90s, is an African-American composer to be celebrated” and that the “piece has a lot of lyricism, a lot of rhythm and a very original voice.”
Banner said he has been “devoted” to Bohuslav Martinu’s music since WMV produced a Czech music series at the Czech Embassy (1999-2008, 2012); he had performed two of Martinu’s three cello sonatas. “It took me only about six months of hard work to master (the third one, Sonata #2), he noted. Coincidentally, Thron said that her father “actually gave me the music to this sonata as a present because he heard it in a concert and loved it. I am so happy to finally have a chance to play it!”
Banner is excited about this collaboration. “The cello is a supremely expressive instrument, especially in the hands of an artist like Bonnie,” he observed. “It has a tremendous range–from low bass notes to very high ones. The piano must step back just a little, to let the cello speak clearly, but it is well worth the consideration.”
And so, future WMV cello-piano programs for the duo are in the works, Banner said. “On our agenda are works by Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, more Martinu, Fauré and a French composer named Camille Chevillard, the son of the instrument maker who made Bonnie’s cello in 1827.”
Washington Musica Viva will present a concert by cellist Bonnie Thron and pianist Carl Banner at 7:30 p.m. March 31 at Church of the Ascension, 633 Sligo Ave., Silver Spring. Composer Dr. Bill Robinson will be at the performance. Admission is $20 (cash or check only), $15 in advance, free for children. Call 301-891-6844 or visit www.dcmusicaviva.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.