Not even a malfunctioning hearing aid can throw off Beethoven’s “Ghost”

At the beginning of each Seattle Chamber Music Concert a disembodied voice instructs audience members to not record or photograph the performance and asks people to turn down their hearing aids. For a variety of reasons it’s a request I find humorous. On the one hand I remember bearing witness to plenty of embarrassing episodes where grandparents cranked up the sensitivity of their hearing aid to hear something on the television only to have the hearing aid’s high-pitched buzz agitate every dog in the neighborhood. What harm could a hearing aid do? Is it really necessary to ask people to turn down their hearing aid?  Turns out, it is.

Wednesday’s Seattle Chamber Music Society concert was marked by steady playing from the musicians, average repertory, and a hearing aid run amok during Beethoven’s Ghost Trio.

Three weeks into the festival, flashes of brilliance might to be coming a little less frequently than they did at the start of the series. The middle stretch lacks the excitement of the first night, the first week even, and the urgency of the final concerts. There is still plenty of music coming to prove this statement wrong. This week’s Ligeti recital by Jeremy Denk and Shostakovich Piano Trio Nr.2 the same night might very well prove me wrong. Insightful, unpredictable performances to some degree, have given way to settled interpretations.

This was most definitely the case during Richard Strauss’s Quartet for Piano and Strings. Most listeners know Strauss through his orchestral tone poems. While the piano quartet is atypical Strauss it is not atypical music. Cut from late romantic cloth, the piece is lush, filled with attractive melodies, and is appropriately brooding for a work of this period. William Wolfram’s piano playing was unyielding and perfect for the piece’s romantic idiom. Earlier in the night, he showed the recital audience his felicitous side as Robert deMaine’s accompanist for Poulenc’s Cello Sonata.

The string playing in Strauss’s quartet was uncommonly variable for most of the piece. While Nurit Bar-Josef and Richard O’Neill easily found their footing and consequently their voice in the piece, Ronald Thomas’s presence was only felt in the energetic final movement. Thomas was seemingly lost in the shuffled during the first three movements. I was disappointed by this because Thomas is usually a very reliable lower voice when playing in a chamber ensemble.

Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio filled out the middle of the concert. Ironically, Beethoven composed the piece during a period of personal crisis over the reality of his deafness and during last night’s performance a hearing aid used to stave off deafness malfunctioned. The feed back pierced the final movement and was heard by everyone in the hall – including the musicians. The disturbance lasted a few minutes; long enough to distract and long enough for me to wonder if Beethoven had really composed an avant garde piece for piano trio and hearing aid.

In all seriousness, it is during moments like this when the focus and mettle of musicians is tested. Craig Sheppard, Erin Keefe, and Robert deMaine have what it takes to play brilliantly through any distraction and play beautifully and this exactly what they did when a hearing aid tried to join in on the fun.

Sheppard’s touch seemed a little heavy to me during the first movement, and I wondered if he would overwhelm Keefe and deMaine in the creeping opacity of the second movement. He didn’t. All three instruments were well matched in the second movement; together they produced one of the most memorable movements of the night.  DeMaine is a talented cellist — there is no doubt about that.  On Monday, Lakeside audiences got hear deMaine at his most suave in the Beethoven trio and earlier, at his most nimble in Poulenc’s Cello Sonata.

Beethoven’s dreamy piano trio and Strauss’s Schumann and Brahms knock-off was preceded by Mozart’s charming Divertimento for Two Clarinets and Bassoon Nr. 2. Sean Osborn and Frank Kowalsky on clarinet and Seth Krimsky on bassoon danced through five movements of fine light-hearted music.

None of the pieces chosen for Monday’s concert is of the knock your socks off variety. Beethoven’s trio is the piece that comes closest to wowing me. Even among Beethoven’s corpus of chamber music there are better pieces; the late string quartets are a good place to start. I suppose it is unavoidable that over the course of a long summer festival some concerts will be flush with wow moments and others won’t. Hearing Osborn, Kowalsky, and Krimsky play the Divertimento, I do wish more attention was paid to chamber music for unconventional arrangements and instruments.

Maybe even more pieces written for hearing aid?

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