New Chamber Series: recital focuses on Seattle Symphony musicians

Composer Paul Hindemith

The Seattle Symphony’s New Chamber Series was created with one goal in mind: spotlight the talents and interests of musicians in the orchestra. Large, enthusiastic audiences turned out for a trombone recital, a performance by the Serious Quartet, and a varied recital this past Sunday featuring string players Elisa Barston (violin), Mara Gearman (viola), and Joseph Kaufman (bass). Ben Hausmann, the Seattle Symphony’s principal oboe accompanied Barston and Gearman on piano. This recital was the first time I can recall Hausmann playing piano in public. Jerrod Wendland accompanied Kaufman at the piano.

If the goal of the chamber series is to spotlight musicians, it did that. As the principal second violin, Barston doesn’t get the same opportunities as the concertmaster to show the measure of her talents. Situated at the back of the orchestra, the double bass probably isn’t most people’s favorite string instrument. Only a few composers have seized on the instrument’s grumbling low-range and even then, bassists don’t have many opportunities to play what has been written. The viola has fared somewhat better than the bass, both in chamber and concerto repertoire. Then there is Ben Hausmann. Oboist, composer, and apparently pianist. I never knew Hausmann was the principal keyboardist of the Hilton Head Symphony. Sunday’s recital brought these instruments out into the open and exposed the talents of the musicians involved.

Among the various pieces on the program, Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Double Bass and Piano was one of the most interesting on the program. Hindemith was a prolific composer who unfortunately is underperformed. Accordingly, Hindemith wrote as many sonatas for as many different instruments as he possibly could. In this sonata, Hindemith keeps the piano part on the high end, and the bass mostly in the middle and upper end of the instrument’s range. This keeps the instruments from stepping on each other’s toes. Kaufman and Wendland understood their roles perfectly. Wendland’s piano accompaniment was reserved in relation to the bass. This allowed Kaufman’s performance to have a clarity that is often lacking with most double bass performances.

Elisa Barston and Ben Hausmann got the recital started with Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in B-flat major K. 454. There were balance issues at first, made worse by Nordstrom Recital Hall’s sharp acoustics. By the second movement, the dynamics were in accord. This is good, because the success of the piece depends on brash playing from both pianist and violinist with neither one subverting the other. Mozart’s sonata alternates material between the piano and violin without the traditional deference to the piano. Hausmann and Barston are strong-willed musicians with the talent to effectively weave each instrument’s part together. This is exactly what they did.

At the end of the first half, Hausmann alone gave an unabashed and insistent performance of Frederic Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor. Hausmann’s forcefulness didn’t give Chopin’s melodies their due, but it did accentuate the piece’s ever changing moods and colors.

Mara Gearman and Hausmann closed the recital with Brahms’s Sonata in F minor for Viola and Piano. Brahms’s two sonatas for the viola are among the very best in the viola repertoire. The viola is an instrument appropriate for Brahms’s somber introspection. The four movements of the first sonata are symphonic in scope. Gearman was at her best in the second movement — using the viola’s entire palette of tone color — and unyielding in the final movement which suited the movement’s rondo structure.

The New Chamber Series is an ideal chance for musicians in the orchestra to explore new repertoire, showcase their instrument, individual talent, or in the case of Ben Hausmann, demonstrate other musical talent. The Seattle Symphony is blessed with musicians who play as well individually or in chamber arrangements as they do with their fellow members of the orchestra. So long as the musicians are interested in playing, the Seattle Symphony should see to it this series continues.

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