Crowds Arrive for Summer Chamber Music Festival

Laura Kaminsky

We are now midway through the second week of Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, and word is percolating as concertgoers are realizing it’s here and the concerts fall happily into the “not to be missed” category. (For tickets: call 206-283-8808 or purchase online. For information: email

Monday was pretty well sold out, and tonight’s (Wednesday’s) concert includes two great Schubert works, the Wanderer Fantasy in the opening recital, played by Jeewon Park, and the Death and the Maiden string quartet with some of the festival’s most thoughtful musicians, Augustin Hadelich and Nurit Bar-Josef, violins; violist Cynthia Phelps; and cellist Bion Tsang. There’s also Martinu and Kodaly as great contrast. Good programming!

Friday’s major interest is the premiere of Laura Kaminsky’s Horizon Line for oboe, bassoon and piano, composed on commission by the Society’s commissioning club and dedicated to retiring artistic director Toby Saks. Paintings with the same theme by Rebecca Allan, Kaminsky’s partner, will be on display and there is a concurrent exhibition of Allan’s work also titled Horizon Lines at Seattle Art Museum Gallery.

Kaminsky, who many will remember from her faculty years at Cornish College of the Arts between 1999 and 2004, will introduce her work with illustrations in the recital (with oboist Ben Hausmann, bassoonist Seth Krimsky, and pianist Craig Sheppard) and it will be performed in its entirety during the concert, along with works by Boccherini and Brahms.

This and the next three concerts include wind instruments, so if these are your bag, come now.

Concert days have traditionally been Monday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout the four weeks, but next week scheduling problems have meant rearrangement to Sunday, July 17th, then a gap until Friday the 22nd, and Saturday the 23rd. Sunday’s highlights include recital and concert works by Charles Ives, plus Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, a D’Indy quartet, and oh joy! Brahms’ Trio in A Minor for clarinet, cello and piano, with clarinetist Sean Osborn, cellist Godfried Hoogeveen (principal cellist of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra), and pianist Jeremy Denk.

Orion Weiss (Photo: Henry Fair)

Musicians come and go during the festival, most here for a week or so, and Monday’s concert saw the last appearances this year of pianists Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss (though Weiss will return for one concert at the festival’s eastside continuation in August). They’ve worked hard this past ten days, with Weiss playing in seven and Polonsky in six works, three of them in two-piano or four-hand pieces. Since they married shortly before last year’s festival, the two are doing more work together.

Monday’s recital heard Polonsky in four of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.

They were widely varied, from the first Melody which left the listener thinking hearts, flowers and moonlight, Butterfly with frilly, flighty ripples and darts, a Waltz with surely some influence from Chopin, and To Spring, which burst with a sense of fresh life and greenery. Hard to say how these can exactly be reproduced in music, but Polonsky’s sensitive playing brought all these thoughts to the fore.

Weiss joined her for Schumann’s Bilder aus osten, Six Impromptus for Piano four hands, another delight to hear.

Not all of the concert works were as successful, but performances grew in stature as the performance went on. In Mozart’s Trio in G Major with Polonsky, violinist Stefan Jackiw and cellist Tsang, there never seemed to be the requisite chemistry between the three. The piano has the lion’s share here and Polonsky gave her part lightness and grace, but Jackiw had an unattractive surface shine to his playing which precluded depth and nuance, except when playing very softly where his musicianship came to the fore and the music seemed deeply felt. Tsang had less to do but is always a player worth hearing.

In the expressive performance of Schubert’s Trio in B-Flat major, however, with violinist Hadelich, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Hoogeveen, there was all the difference in the world. From the first measures there was a sense that the players were on the same page.

The most satisfying moments of the concert came with the last two works, the Quartet for Strings by Debussy, his only one, and the Piano Quartet, Op. 13, by Richard Strauss, composed at age 20.

For Debussy, Hadelich, O’Neill and Hoogeveen were joined by violinist Joseph Lin, as they explored this fascinating work, so ahead of its time in 1893. It’s full of dissonance, even muddy harmonies at times, and Debussy uses every technique at his disposal to achieve an astonishing array of instrumental colors and qualities, including an extraordinary second movement which has extended passages of plucked strings.  The four musicians gave it a superb, gripping performance.

Strauss’s effort from only a year later looks backward, due no doubt to the influence of his domineering and conservative musician father. It’s still a remarkable piece from one so young, well worked out, but we have yet to hear what became the hallmarks of his later work. The influence of Brahms and Schumann are behind Strauss’s thinking here. Violinist Bar-Josef, violist Phelps, cellist Edward Arron, and Weiss gave it a full, passionate performance which made the most of his ideas.