March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Verdehrs stay plugged into new classical music

Monday, June 6 — Classical musicians are usually sneaky about playing new music. They might slip a teaspoon of it into an evening of Mozart, like a nurse sprinkling iron on an anemic widow’s porridge.
Michigan State University’s Verdehr Trio (violinist Walter Verdehr, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr and pianist Silvia Roederer) doesn’t play for anemic widows. In its 39 years, the trio has commissioned more than 200 new works for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet and piano, in about as many musical styles and flavors.
The globe-trotting trio’s annual summer concert at MSU Wednesday, reflects the variety and freshness of the musical world they’ve brought into being.
This year, they’re not fooling around. One of the strongest scores ever written for the trio, American composer Joan Tower’s “Rainwaves,” is Wednesday’s closer.
“Joan Tower is a powerhouse, one of the most important living composers,” Verdehr said.
Tower wrote “Rainwaves” for the Verdehrs back in 1995, which almost makes it a chestnut, by their standards. But Verdehr felt it deserved another airing, even before the torrential spring of 2011 made the choice oddly apt.
“It’s very evocative,” Verdehr said. “It starts with raindrops and surges to great excitement, like a flood.”
The Verdehr Trio’s reputation, along with Walter Verdehr’s international network of musical cronies, has led to some interesting hookups. Wednesday’s concert features a trio by Wolfgang Wagner,  longtime ruler of the Bayreuth Festival.
The cultural attach at the Austrian Embassy in Washington put Verdehr in touch with Wagner, who wrote music in the modern-but-accessible zone Verdehr favors.
“It starts out mysteriously, like flickering lights on the moors,” Verdehr said. A brisk scherzo disperses the mist, followed by a haunting slow movement reminiscent of French master Olivier Messiaen.
A brand new trio by English composer Peter Dickinson, an old friend of Verdehr, may turn out to be the most American-sounding music of the night. In the 1970s, Dickinson started a center for American music at Keele University in England.
“He got to know Copland, Barber, Menotti, and that flaky composer,” Verdehr said. “The outrageous one ... John Cage.”
Dickinson wrote a trio for the Verdehrs decades ago, but Wednesday’s piece, “Celebration Trio,” is brand new, a fairy-tale mlange of of jazz, tribal dances and a sweet lullaby.
“Thorn and Flare,” by Evan Chambers of the University of Michigan, is inspired by Albanian folk music, with its florid, violently emotional gypsy flavor. Another trio plumbs the romantic, impressionistic world of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski.
The Verdehrs are so passionately devoted to new music that they sneak in the old stuff.
A suite of music from 18th-century French greats, Fracois Couperin and Rene Leclair, was adapted for the Verdehrs by Austrian composer Jean Jacques Werner of the Schola Cantorum in Paris.
“We always want to play some old music, and these are beautiful dances and airs, put together very well.”
As usual, the Verdehrs have a round of projects in the pipeline. A new DVD features two important French composers and showcases the trio’s avant-garde chops. Philippe Manoury, a student of avant-garde icon Pierre Boulez and specialist in electronic music, and Betsy Jolas, head of composition of the Paris Conservatory.
Verdehr taped on-camera conversations with both composers for the DVD. He found Jolas particularly fascinating.
“I interviewed her in her house,” Verdehr said. “Her father was a publisher, and she knew James Joyce when she was a girl.”
The trio is working on two new CDs of music by American composers, including 39-year-old Kevin Puts of Alma.
“He’s retrograde,” Verdehr said of Puts. “Very romantic, tonal, lush.”
Verdehr’s next project fuses two of his passions, art and music. This summer, the trio will premiere two works at the National Gallery in Washington, at a concert linked to art by Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keefe. New York composer David Weekler is composing a work based on Warhol’s portrait of Beethoven. Ann Arbor composer Michael Dougherty (of “Metropolis Symphony” fame) is writing music based on Georgia O’Keefe painting of a New York skyscrapers, “Silver Ladders to the Moon.”
Verdehr manages all the projects himself, between students and recitals. How many times a day does he put down his violin and pick up the phone?
“Well, we keep on doing things,” he said in typically silky understatement.

Verdehr Trio
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
(517) 353-5340 or (517) 432-2000