Seattle Chamber Music Society Bids Farewell to Founder Toby Saks

by on July 24, 2011

Toby Saks

On Friday July 29th, Toby Saks’ reign at Seattle Chamber Music Society comes to an end with a performance celebrating the organization’s 30th birthday and Saks’ 30-year tenure.

This summer’s festival does continue for another couple of weeks, at The Overlake School in Redmond, but the Overlake expansion is a relative newcomer, only seven years old, so the toasts to Saks will be this week.

The concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall will go on as usual though without the usual preceding recital, and it concludes with a special performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 with ten musicians, including some luminaries from festivals years past, among them violinist Paul Rosenthal, violist Marcus Thompson, and Jon Kimura Parker playing harpsichord. A few tickets remain if you want to go. A gala dinner in Saks’ honor follows at the Four Seasons.

Meanwhile before that, several highlights beckon at Monday’s and Wednesday’s recitals and concerts; Prokofiev and Shostakovich Monday, preceded by cellist Johannes Moser in the recital playing Bach and Lutoslawski.

Moser is a cellist it is hard to take your eyes off. Dramatic and passionate, the festival newcomer performs with his whole body with a vast range of musical subtleties at his command. You like it or hate it.

Pianist Parker and his wife violinist Aloysia Friedmann will be members of a quintet playing Schumann on Wednesday, their first appearances here this summer.

However, for those who can’t bear to see this summer’s festival ended and those optimists who plan on a picnic on the lawn and listening to the music that way, the five concerts (August 3-12) at Overlake have the same format and the same fine musicmaking, plus some of the festival’s familiar musicians who have only just arrived: pianists Anton Nel and Adam Neiman, violinists Scott Yoo and Ida Levin, cellists Amit Peled and Ronald Thomas. And, there’s no toll on 520 yet. Make the most of it while you can.

Every concert, someone turns to a neighbor and says: “It can’t get any better than this.” Both Friday and Saturday’s performances last week are examples of this. The laurels go to flutist Lorna McGhee, who stole the show in both concerts.

Friday, she and pianist Jeewon Park played Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on “Trockne Blume,” in a performance so closely interwoven together that every shaped note or phrase had just the same emotion, so musically beguiling that this listener sat entranced. McGhee performed Villa-Lobos’  The Jet Whistle here some years ago, and brought it back, this time with cellist Moser. A fun piece to hear, it requires spectacular technique from the flute and McGhee triumphed.

Saturday’s concert saw her in a Trio for flute, viola and harp by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, commissioned for the three players who premiered it in Canada earlier this year and again here: McGhee, violist David Harding and harpist Heidi Krutzen. This accessible work bows to the French idiom of a century ago to start with, and ends up with hints of wild central European dances, syncopated, jazzy, fast. Schafer makes good use of the three very different instrument timbres and the result is a work of charm and substance, a fine addition to the literature.

Mozart’s Quintet for two violins (Erin Keefe and James Ehnes), two violas (Harding and Richard O’Neill), and cello (Robert deMaine), in G Minor received to my mind one of the best performances of the festival so far. The musicians all eschewed the hacking which so many string players today seem to feel essential in any loud passages, no matter if the work was composed in a musically gentler time when stringed instruments had gut strings and loud still had to be elegant. Even playing 19th century music, the style today too often can be a double or triple fortissimo and heavy bowing instead of forte, which does not fit well for Brahms, Schumann, or Beethoven, while it may be just right for Bartok or Shostakovich.

Keefe as first violin set the tone and the performance had some wonderful soft moments which sang, while creating plenty of verve where it was needed. The lack of bombast made it memorable.

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