Berkeley Symphony - a premiere and a birthday party 
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  “Fresh Voices” from Goat Hall 
  French horn makes a splash at Music@Menlo 
Black Cedar Trio at Berkeley Arts Festival


Bridging worlds…

The line between classical and folk idioms is sometimes hard to define.

At their Saturday April 11th concert, hosted by the Berkeley Arts Festival, the Black Cedar Trio blurred those lines with a tapestry of colors and unusual timbres. The five works on their program were by classically trained composers, but each was built around the scales or rhythms of older folk idioms. And despite – or because of – a populist center, the five pieces were markedly distinctive, spanning from sensuous to pensive, and from the bright colors of joy to the incomprehensible darkness of a culture being destroyed.

That syntax was ideally suited to this trio of wooden flute, guitar and cello, from three top musicians who came together in a search for a sound that was balanced, expressive and provocative.

Artistic Director and flutist Kris Palmer performs much of their repertoire with a flute of African blackwood rather than the traditional silver, and her co-founder Steve Lin adds the agility and tonal warmth of a cedar guitar, rather than the more common and brighter spruce. They began as a duo and that’s how they became “Black Cedar,” but now they are handsomely complemented by Nancy Kim’s sonorous cello. 

The concert began with Debussyana, written in homage to Debussy in 1983 by Bavarian composer Klaus Hinrich Stahmer. “The way I like to conceptualize this piece is that it starts in France and ends in Spain,” remarked Lin. In the narrow confines of the University Ave storefront, Kim’s cello added huge reverberation, even in its busy seesaw of sixteenths, later joined by Palmer for a prickly chemistry.

Then the cello turned to tremolo and Palmer added breathy intervals, slowing into low and liquid notes for what was recognizably Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” Their sensuality gave way to a rhythmic vitality that flavored the French colors with Spanish spice.

This was followed by the premiere of Garrett Shatzer’s Of Emblems for Flute, Cello and Guitar, a commission made possible by a grant from the SF Friends of Chamber Music. Lim introduced paced guitar notes like rounded nuggets of gold, evoking an Italian countryside with themes that were lyrical and enticing. Kim bowed a siren’s song with long sure strokes and Palmer added explosive runs, bright and breathy on top and voluptuous on the bottom.

There was a sharp poignancy to the themes, something Nina Rota could have written in his score for The Godfather movies.


... and bridging hearts.

And after sensuous and nostalgic came Chinary Ung’s search to understand and forgive the massacre of his friends and family in Cambodia. Written in 1997, Luminous Spirals was an evolution of themes that kept circling back, a mating of contemporary with ancient. Palmer bent notes like a shakuhachi player, phrases echoed by cello, while Lin plucked his guitar like a koto. The powerful and contradictory impulses of the opening eventually subsided into a pained acceptance.

In Tan Mi-Zi’s Flute and Drum at Twilight (1980), Palmer built smooth, intimate phrases out of a vocabulary of busy bottom runs, warbles and octave leaps.

And then they romped their way through Nathan Kolosko’s Hungarian Trio, a four-movement piece that successfully infused classical structures into the folk and vice versa. Kolosko, also a guitarist, wrote the Prelude for deeply felt guitar notes, slow and mesmerizing. But in the Round Dance were foot stomps and hip sways, driving cello beats and slapped guitar, all giving form to gypsy scales and ancient themes. And then they shifted from sanguine to languid in the gorgeous third movement, before doubling back into their rhythmic groove for the Spinning Dance.

It was splashy and soapy, with bits and pieces that sounded like balalaika or Argentine tango… or Dvorak!

This unusual trio regularly appears pro bono for programs for the disabled, but can also be heard at a Cupertino house concert on April 26, and at the SF Center for New Music on May 21. More information from their website at


—Adam Broner

Black Cedar Trio


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