Rain can’t repel music lovers

It’s the last Overlake School week of this year’s Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival and for the first time in this sunny as well as stellar six weeks of music, it rained. Lightly to be sure, but it didn’t keep away concertgoers who packed the hall to hear yet another superbly-presented evening of musicmaking.

Returning pianist Orion Weiss gave the recital, with Mendelssohn’s first book of “Lieder ohne Worte” (“Songs without Words”), followed by the Scherzo from his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” transcribed by Rachmaninoff.

Weiss was a fine performer when he first came to the festival five years ago. He has continued to develop his musical instincts, and the composer comes to the fore through his formidable technique. Weiss’s touch was often gentle, and he portrayed many different temperaments from musing to urgent to exuberant in the Lieder, as well as quicksilver (perfect for fairies) in the Scherzo. In fast, loud passages instead of banging the sound out, he seemed to bounce it out, so light was his touch, the resulting passages being clean, clear and lively.

At the end, with a smile that ran into his ears, he announced a surprise extra in honor of his engagement a month ago to another SCMS festival pianist, Anna Polonsky: Liszt’s transcription of the Wedding March from “Dream.” Apparently Weiss only began to work on this ten days ago, but the performance was polished, sensitive and brimming with joy.

He brought the same sensitivity to the opening concert work, Beethoven’s Sonata for violin and piano in E-Flat Major, Op. 12, played with James Ehnes. Beethoven wrote this for gifted amateurs, but amateurs then must have had amazing techniques. The first movement particularly has fast, rippling and very light runs requiring plenty of control to make them even, something with which Ehnes and Weiss had no problem. Ehnes is a consummate musician. There was never a scratch or a modern sensibility in this performance of the 1798 work, but a sweetness to the tone which stayed through all the expressive variety Beethoven wrote into the music.

Two big works completed the program, Dvorak’s Sextet in A Major for strings, and Shostakovich’s Quintet in G Minor for Piano and Strings.

As has been notable in this festival, the ensemble work in each was impeccable. Often when musicians come together for a short, intensive rehearsal period, no matter how good the players the end result doesn’t have the smooth unanimity of thought and execution as it does, for instance, with a quartet which has played together for years. The festival musicians, who often play together here but not necessarily elsewhere, seem to be able to reach that togetherness very quickly, and it shows in these performances with exact timing and interpretation over and over again. So it was in both these big works, very different from each other. Played by violinists Stefan Jackiw and Joseph Lin, violists Richard O’Neill and Cynthia Phelps, and cellists Ronald Thomas and Toby Saks, Dvorak’s hallmark string of melodies and dance rhythms were a pleasure to hear.

The Shostakovich is also upbeat, and for once with this composer, doesn’t seem to have a different underlying message. It’s sunny and frequently spare in its instrumentation. For instance in the second movement fugue, the music begins very quietly with muted first violin (Erin Keefe) alone for an extended passage, with the other instruments joining in very gradually and equally softly, while in the fourth of the five movements, the music is often a memorable duet. Only the third, a scherzo, heralds Shostakovich in his later years. The five musicians, Keefe, violinist Scott Yoo, violist Che-Yen Chen, cellist Robert deMaine and pianist Anton Nel, played this forceful movement with fierce energy and disciplined frenzy, full of sound and fury and pounding beats. Their complete change to unhurried, plucked strings and limpid piano in the sedate fourth and the apparent noodling by the piano in the cheerful fifth absorbed the ear and gave this rarely played work compelling interest.


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