For 31 years, Seattle has been blessed for a month every summer with some of the best chamber music performances in the country, and for a decade and more, a long weekend of more of the same in the winter. Founding artistic director and cellist Toby Saks of Seattle Chamber Music Society recently presided over a seamless turnover of leadership to violinist James Ehnes, a long-time player with both summer and winter festivals. This past weekend was the first with his stamp on it.
Four concerts were presented at Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. As has been the usual format, three have been a free recital followed by a paid-for performance, the two together being a generous serving of music. The fourth has usually been a special concert: This time it was Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong in a concert-long violin and piano recital.
Instead of three recitals, each featuring one musician, Ehnes chose to feature music, specifically the three string quartets of Brahms, played by the same four musicians. At the Friday and Sunday performances, with Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, Ehnes played first violin, Amy Schwartz Moretti, second violin; Richard O’Neill, viola; and Robert deMaine, cello.
The four have played at these festivals often, and have chosen to play together outside it in an informal alliance (something that must be hard to arrange: Moretti lives in Macon, Georgia; O’Neill divides his time between California and Korea; deMaine is based in Detroit; and Ehnes, a Canadian, leads a peripatetic existence around the world).
It showed in their excellent ensemble work and similarity of approach. In Friday’s concert, they also played together in Bartók’s Quartet No. 4, surprisingly its first appearance at any SCMS concert, giving a superb performance, highlighted by their sure feeling for the music and their ease in conveying that to the audience.
Ehnes particularly wanted to find music never played before at these festivals, and he found some for each concert. This was a rare delight. As well as the Bartók on Friday, the second Brahms quartet was new to the festival; plus two pieces for piano quartet by Richard Strauss, Arabische Tanz and Liebesliebchen; and a Meditation on an old Czech Chorale, St Wenceslas, by Suk, while the concert was anchored by Mahler’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Minor to start and ended with Beethoven’s Trio for violin, cello, and piano in E-Flat Major.
Ehnes’ group performed the Suk, a beautiful work close to an elegy in atmosphere. Mahler’s is an astonishingly mature work for a 15-year-old. While it owes a debt to Brahms, it’s by no means a slavishly derivative piece, but strong in its own right. This and the Strauss were played by Scott Yoo, violin; Roberto Diaz, viola; Bion Tsang, cello; and Andrew Armstrong, piano, with warmth and sensitivity.
Violinist Erin Keefe, cellist Edward Arron, and pianist William Wolfram undertook the Beethoven. Wolfram performed as close to the style of the time as would be possible on a modern piano. His articulation and light touch brought an airiness to the work which gave it a carefree appeal. Keefe matched him in style though Arron tended to be a bit over-emphatic.
Sunday’s concert was devoted to Dvořák, with two works not heard at the festivals before, Prokofiev’s Sonata for cello and piano in C Major, and Brahms’ Viola Quintet for Strings in G Minor as a grand finale. Prokofiev wrote the sonata for Rostropovich, who he admired very much, and Arron and Wolfram played it here. The gorgeous sonority of Arron’s tone sang particularly on the lower strings of the cello, where much of this sonata lies, and he and Wolfram brought out the work’s appeal and charm, its depth and richness.
Quintessentially Dvořák, the five little Bagatelles are light and pure delight. Written for a harmonium (Armstrong), two violins (Yoo and Ehnes) and a cello (Tsang), they are often played with a piano instead, but the festival was able to borrow a fine harmonium from Tacoma organist David Dahl. The piano is a percussion instrument; the harmonium is a small portable organ with air pumped by pedal through pipes, and it has several stops. It changes the atmosphere of the music completely.
Armstrong and Wolfram performed the other Dvořák work, Silent Woods (Klid) for piano four hands, often not 100-percent together, particularly in the slower stately section. This is something difficult to achieve at any time without the intuition which comes from years of playing together, but otherwise it came off well, as did the Brahms Quintet with Schwartz Moretti, Keefe, Diaz, O’Neill, and deMaine.
Virtually full and enthusiastic houses attended both well-designed programs, and the playing was as usual of the first rank throughout. This year’s summer festival will run from July 2 to 27, and next winter the festival, running from January 19 to 27, will be expanded from four concerts to six.
Two of the musicians have received prestigious appointments since their last appearances with the festival here: Keefe has been appointed concertmaster of the Minnesota Symphony, and Diaz is now president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music.