The lawn was packed Friday night at Lakeside School, as people took advantage of yet another hot summer night to listen for free under the stars to the sixth Summer Festival concert of Seattle Chamber Music Society. There have been years when more nights were cool and wet than dry and warm, but not this year.
Inside St. Nicholas Hall, it was as packed, but thankfully cooler as the performance got under way with Haydn’s Trio in E Flat major from 1785 with violinist Augustin Hadelich, celllist Edward Arron and pianist Craig Sheppard. The first two are new to the festival this year, Hadelich, 26, being one of this year’s winners of an Avery Fisher award, one of the most prestigious prizes for young musicians (many of those winners play in the SCMS festival, which has one of the most dazzling line ups of young musicians in the country).
Haydn wrote this trio when the piano was in its infancy, just emerging as an instrument with hammers instead of pluckers on the strings, and with the ability to change dynamics, but it was still very harpsichord-like in its clarity and quick action, eons away from a modern concert grand. The care given by Sheppard to achieve that light, articulated sound was immediately apparent in this performance, balanced by the equally light clear playing of the two string players (whose instruments and bows have also been beefed up in the past 125 years). Nevertheless, this was not intended as a period type performance but one which used a range of their instruments’ capabilities including vibrato and legato where appropriate. The result was colorful and appealing, though Sheppard seemed tense at first.
Later in the program, the same three played the Haydn’s polar opposite; Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, a takeoff of three musicians playing a club or restaurant and keeping the patrons happy. It’s witty, uproarious fun, needing split second timing from the performers and an innate feel for blues, jazz and swing as well as classical playing. I wondered if Hadelich, from Germany, would be able to catch this, but he has made good use of his four years in this country and though his tone sometimes seemed too sweet for the music, his timing was just right. Arron entered fully into the spirit and Sheppard, having spent the Haydn trying to make his instrument sound 18th century, here did his best to recreate a honky tonk piano. All it needed was a few twangy strings and poor tuning,. but he did fine without.
For me, the gold standard for Café Music is the performance some 15 years ago by Seattle’s Bridge Ensemble, where one could almost see the drink sitting on the piano and the cigarette hanging off the lip of the violinist. Friday’s performance was good, but not quite to that memorable standard.
In between came the highlight of the evening, Schubert’s beautiful Sonata for viola and piano, the “Arpeggione,” written for that bygone hybrid instrument but perfect for viola, especially as played by Richard O’Neill. Playing almost entirely with his eyes shut, O’Neill gave an exquisite performance, in which his viola sang with richness and depth, lovingly tracing all the nuances of Schubert’s melodies. Pianist Anna Polonsky, whose playing seems to gain in maturity and expression every year, was an equally sensitive partner.
Poor Anton Arensky! His Trio in F Minor for violin, cello and piano completed the program. But coming after Haydn, Schubert and Schoenfield, his music seemed uninspired in contrast, too bland despite an excellent performance by violinist James Ehnes, cellist Robert deMaine and pianist Adam Neiman. The three play together as though they have done so for years, the ensemble is so tight. The sound drawn by Ehnes on his lower strings was so remarkable warm, not to say gorgeous, that it reminded the listener that Ehnes plays the “Marsick” Stradivarius, a wonderful instrument in hands like his.