Sagittarius: THE ZODIAC TRIO


When someone says, “chamber music,” what instruments come to mind? Probably strings. Two violins, viola, cello.  Or, you may have imagined woodwinds, like flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon.  Well, the Zodiac Trio is none of those: they’re violin, clarinet, and piano!  They seem like they live under Sagittarius, free-spirited, bold, adventurous, innovative, inspiring. 

The first pieces of music for these three instruments as a trio did not begin to be composed until the 20th century, and there still are not many. For the Zodiac Trio then, they must in some pieces substitute the clarinet for a string instrument, or create new arrangements of pieces that had different original orchestrations in order to expand their repertoire.  They have done this beautifully and successfully, in a relatively short time shooting to star status on the international stage.  We were fortunate to have them on our own rural stage – and they were happy to be in Hawaii.  (The clarinetist though, in a bow tie and jacket, definitely needed to shed both and wear an aloha shirt next time!)

With the exception of a chamber piece by Mozart, who was one of the first composers for the clarinet, the pieces they chose were from 20th and 21st century composers from all over the world, who wrote in different styles. But there was a unifying thread to their choices. Beginning in the late 19th century, in the West there was a rise of nationalism.  While classical music had developed in the rarified air of royals and wealthy aristocrats, there was a new interest in the nation’s traditional music, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

Dmitri Shostakovich, composing under Stalin’s rule, turned to folk music not only because he wanted to, but because he had to: it was required that music monumentalize workers and peasants. The Trio substituted the clarinet for a viola in Shostakovich’s “Three Duets,” originally for two violas with piano accompaniment. The piece exhibits the sudden changes in tempo, the almost-schmaltzy lyrical passages, and the pounding rhythms that occur within the same short passage that is typical of Russian folk music. The final section was performed with the gaiety and excitement of a circus calliope. Paradoxically, these folk elements are packaged in old 19th century aristocratic dance forms – Prelude, Gavotte, Waltz – hardly folk dances and not of the Soviet era!  Shostakovich is famous for incorporating atonal passages, wandering off a fixed key.  Zodiac is correctly applauded for its ability to be as comfortable as the composer in holding the spaces within the paradoxes.

Argentinian Astor Piazzolla began his career as a performer on a popular instrument essential to tangos, the bandoneon, a type of concertina.  When he began to compose tangos, he invented the nuevo tango,much influenced by New York jazz.  The Zodiac Trio performed Milonga and Muerte del Angel, set in a dive bar, and there are plenty of dissonant passages to help you imagine the dark and desperate character and characters there. Zodiac’s talented pianist, Riko Higuma, arranged this piece for the Trio. While the piano stands in for the bandoneon, another keyboard instrument, it doesn’t quite do justice to the quintessential Argentinean sound a bandoneon would bring.

Riko Higuma

Hungarian Bela Bartok aimed not just to borrow or imitate Magyar (often called/mistaken for “Gypsy”) folk songs, but to imbue his music with that peasant sensibility. In the Trio’s performance of “Contrasts,” we hear how he deviated from the traditional tonal scales used by Western musicians for several centuries prior, and explored new modalities. Verbunkos, the first section, is a traditional Hungarian soldiers dance, and the pianist pounded her high heel and the underside of the piano to simulate the stomping of the soldiers’ feet. A leisurely section followed, and then an exhilarating high-speed chase that showcased each instrument, a show-stopping close to the concert.

Andrew List is a contemporary American composer who wrote the Klezmer Fantazye as a way of exploring his own Jewish roots. You can imagine the rabbis dancing like dervishes (to mix Jewish and Muslim references!) in this piece, but rather than repetitions of themes as often occur in Klezmer, there are jazzy riffs in abundance.  The Trio loves participating in developing and spreading interest in “new music,” characterized by experimentation in tonalities and fusing elements of classical, jazz, and folk into integrated works, and Klezmer Fantasy does just that.

 I know I’m leaving out Mozart, the anomaly in the program, but I can only imagine the fun (and talent) of the 17-year-olds who sight-read music like the Kegelstatt Trio at house parties, while playing “skittles!”


 All three musicians held up their leg of the musical tripod with brilliance and grace.  Riko Higuma does not engage in any theatrics at the piano, simply playing as if it is the easiest thing in the world. As the accompanist to the violin and clarinet in most pieces, she enhanced their display of virtuosity while modestly downplaying her own equally enormous talent.

Vanessa Mollard

Vanessa Mollard on the violin and viola is particularly good at interpreting modern pieces which stray off the tonal path.  I found her performance in the Bartok particularly astounding, where she seems to be engaging in myriad techniques at the same time, chords and pizzicato together at lightning speed….   she was like a whole string section in one.  My only wish was that she would smile more; the first half of the program was so lively and fun I wanted to feel that she was enjoying it as much as we were (there were moments when the audience laughed out loud in delight)!

Kliment Krylovsky

Kliment Krylovsky provided the informal touch as the announcer, but also in his clarinet playing style, which was more like a jazz musician, using his entire body to follow the lines of the music. Because clarinets, unlike most other instruments, do not use vibrato, to pull out all the nuances of emotion, they must use changes in dynamics (loud/soft) and in slight elongations of key notes in a phrase. Krylovsky’s playing had lightness and ease while at the same time producing deep sonority and fullness of tone, and the clarinet melded perfectly with the violin.

It is wonderful that Kahilu brings us the opportunity to see and hear such young, talented interpreters of what is new in the world of music who guided our way into what was, for many of us, uncharted territories.  We hope to see them again – in aloha attire!

Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high!  Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

For more info on the Zodiac Trio, please visit their offical website:

All photos by Steve Roby


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