Seattle Chamber Music Festival Opens its 28th season Monday night

There was so much enthusiasm Monday night at the opening of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival’s new season, it would have been hard to detect even a hint of unhappiness or regret. The festival, which opened its doors 28 years ago with a modest two-week festival — grown to six weeks in two venues in the summer and a week in the winter at a third — is spending its last season at Lakeside School.

For nearly 30 years, the pastoral sweetness of the campus has left inedible memories of those who spent part of their summer there. While its beginnings were perhaps a little tentative — when aren’t they? — the festival has continued to grow and prosper artistically and economically. Its roots are planted deeply in Seattle. Part of the appeal of the summer festival is its location on the Lakeside campus in North Seattle and for the past few years, the rolling hills of the campus of Overlake School in Redmond. Now Lakeside wants to reclaim its campus in July for its own programs, and so this is the last summer the festival can use it. After a year of searching for a new concert hall, festival officials settled on Nordstrom Recital Hall, part of the Benaroya Hall complex. A virtue in the winter is a vice in the summer: namely, Nordstrom is downtown and all that entails, so no more picnics on the lawn, etc. etc  But it has far better acoustics than St. Nicholas Hall at Lakeside and is larger as well, which is good because that will give the festival a chance to appeal to an even larger number of people. And certainly some will be happy to have a more central location. As for creating a summer ambience, festival officials are earnestly working to find something fun and attractive.

The main concert, in St. Nicholas, was conservative in programming, dynamic in execution. While the Schumann and Brahms represented the 19th century in its full flowering, the Debussy Violin Sonata, from 1917,  served as bridge between the two centuries. Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin, and Andrew Armstrong, piano, were the two proponents in the Debussy. They captured its slippery, sliding substance, its evanescent moods. Moretti possesses an attractive tonal presence, which she put to good use in the work, and her nimble fingers allowed her to swim through the technical issues with considerable finesse. All of this she put into a coherent musical whole. Armstrong was a sympathetic partner, as he always is.

Schumann’s D Minor Piano Trio is arguably not his finest contribution to chamber music literature but it has much of his natural lyrical instincts and ability to carry melodic ideas forward. The spirit of the piece is rich and buoyant. Fortunately, the festival had at hand three excellent musicians: Augustin Hadelich, violin; Robert deMaine, cello, and Jeremy Denk, piano. This sort of the piece is their proverbial cup of tea. Hadelich has the ability to ride a tune to its full expression, while deMaine has a burnished tone designed for this kind of super-charged music. The piano part is long and difficult but Denk did not seem to mind, allowing the torrent of notes to flow fluently from the keyboard.

The music of Johannes Brahms will be performed eight times this summer, five of which — trios, quartets, quintets — will conclude the evening. Monday night was not an exception.

Playing the Piano Quartet in A were some of the festival’s most talented and experienced hands: James Ehnes, violin; Richard O’Neill, viola; Bion Tsang, cello; Adam Neiman, piano. The Brahms is familiar territory at the festival, having been performed regularly since 1984. There are infinite charms to the piece as well as its sublime slow movement. Everyone gets his turn in the sun except the violist, a shame because O’Neill is a superb musician, with a luxurious tone. The four did not stint at the expansive nature of Brahms’ writing, but they also did not throw all restraint to the wind. That meant the fast movements had a sense of real speed because organic growth was behind them. The Poco adagio was breathtaking in its grave beauty.


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