Upton Trio Tells American Story Through Music

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The State, Columbia, South Carolina

Sunday, December 13, 2009

“Life & Style” page E3

title:  “Upton Trio tells American story – through music

by Otis R. Taylor Jr.

otaylor@the state.com

History poses a lot of questions.  What is justice?  What is peace?  What is hope?

How do we understand the history of the world, of life?  The history of ourselves?

You might not find the way to answers in text.  But music can provide a path toward enlightenment.

The Upton Trio’s new CD, “these are different times,” is a sprawling and enthralling work of imagination.  And it’s steeped in history, what we’re made of.

The trio – composer and violinist Mary Lee Taylor Kinosian, cellist Dusan Vukajlovic and pianist Billy Shepherd – began as part of a Kershaw County outreach program to illustrate lessons through music.

The 10-song disc, which was recorded at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County, is presented in three distinct parts.

The first is “The American Story,” which is separated into five stories that represent periods of, well, American history.  It is graphic and compelling.

  • “Genesis” wrestles with this country’s creation.

  • “Cry in the Wilderness” confronts the harsh realities of settling a country, one that was built with enslaved labor.  This is articulated with a sorrowful swoon by cello and violin as the piano marches wearily, but with strength.  The music ventures into tension-filled long notes and hurried cadences.

  • “Muddy Waters Reel,” a jig-like sonnet, captures the steamboat gambling spirit on the Mississippi River, the country’s first great highway.

  • “Consequences” is an ode to the Civil War.  The composition, at times jazzy and slow, suggests a dance – or the challenge of words before an argument breaks out.  If there isn’t a solution, who knows what will happen next?  In this piece, impending conflict is rendered beautiful as the strokes of Kinosian and Vukajlovic cascade into Shepherd’s firm piano base, which could symbolize the land being fought over.

“Nothing is going away unless we do something about it,” Kinosian said.  “Brother was fighting against brother.”

*  Synthesis” is representative of our times, turbulent and uncertain.  The tone is brooding, but the pace is set at a jaunt, not unlike Internet communication.  The word – good or bad or dangerous – spreads fast these days.

“Synthesis” could also be suggesting there is hope.  And if not hope, could the music be a celebration of what we have?  If nothing else, we’re alive.

The second part of “these are different times” is “Evocation:  In Memoriam (9/11/2001),” a 14-minute memorial to the terrorist tragedy that shook the world.  The song is presented from an insider’s view, as if the composer were watching the destruction from a director’s chair with cameras on the hopeless, the rescuers, the family members worried about their loved ones.

Here the trio imposes their strength:  providing captivating images and storytelling through notes.

The third part of the CD is “The Four Elements” with four movements – “River Rhythms” “Currents of Air,” “Mother Earth” and “Fire Dance” – that dig a little deeper in explaining what’s all around us.

The trio began as a teaching mechanism for students, but adults can learn as well.

“I always wanted to play music that is accessible and for everyone,” said Kinosian, who is also the concertmaster for the South Carolina Philharmonic.  “Yes, it starts with the kids, but aren’t we all kids?”

The music is vibrant and challenging.  The texture of the group is apparent.  Kinosian’s deft and tireless playing – always an emotional fulcrum – is matched by Vukajlovic’s winsome readings and interpretations.  Shepherd’s lyricism is never too loud or verbose, but his melodies speak with resounding authority.

“I have so much freedom because the cats that I play with are so good,” Kinosian said.”

But she doesn’t venture too far into the wilderness.  She doesn’t want the history lesson to get lost in translation.

“The point of music is to communicate, not to create a lack of communication.”

Lack of communication:  That’s how a lot of history’s problems have begun.

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Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.