Toby Saks, artistic director of Seattle Chamber Music Society has a permanent programming puzzle.
Every year, she has 20 concerts of chamber music to arrange: 12 at Lakeside School and five at Overlake School for the Summer Festival, plus three for the Winter Interlude at Benaroya in January. That’s about 60 chamber music works which include strings: trios, quartets, quintets and sextets, some duets and even the occasional octet. (This doesn’t include the 20 recital programs of solos or duets.)
Take a reasonable six-year cycle and that’s 360 different pieces of chamber music. How to find that many stellar works? How to bring variety in programs?
In the early 1990s, when I first came here, there were fewer concerts (12 only) and the choices were narrower as the then audience would not accept any adventurous programs. Saks was stuck with the great masters only.
Today, she can program far afield, even commissioning new work, but altogether it is still a tall order to find enough really fine works to fill the lineup.
So Saks adds better works by lesser composers or the lesser works of good composers, and we have a program such as that Wednesday night at Overlake, when we have superb performances of one or two works which don’t quite measure up to the highest quality, but receive extraordinary performances from Saks’ incredible roster of musicians, who all come from the top drawer of chamber musicians today.
Such was the recital work, Aaron Copland’s Sonata for violin and piano. Violinist Stefan Jackiw produced a thin line like runny honey which suited the piece well, and he and pianist Anton Nel gave an appealing rendering of this slight work. Copland’s typical spare harmonies and intervals were present, and the carefree last movement, executed on both instruments like grasshoppers on a prairie, had his rhythmic hallmarks also.
The other lesser work was Frank Bridge’s Quintet for piano and strings in D minor. Played by violinists Jackiw and James Ehnes, violist Che-Yen Chen, cellist Ronald Thomas and pianist Orion Weiss, it’s a well-designed and structured work, but forgettable. It’s not a work with spark and there’s a kind of lumpish feel to it, taking a lot of lifting to get it off the ground. I didn’t think it ever made it, except for an arresting allegro in the middle movement, but was worth hearing for the quality of the musicians, each of whom is a joy to hear and who played together as one.
The two great works made up for these.
Mozart’s Sonata for violin and piano, with Joseph Lin and Nel, is one of those which negates any sense that the soul must hang out for a work to be full of meaning. It’s loaded with it, but is quiet and elegant. Nel and Lin’s styles matched exactly, their articulation clean and light, tone sweet, even floating in the slow middle movement. It sounds odd to describe a movement as happy, but that’s how the last one seemed to me, just very happy. Judging by their grins after, the players thought so too.
Brahms’ Quintet in F major for strings completed the evening. One of his two viola quintets, it has a different quality of balance owing to the enhanced middle voices, and he gives prominence to the the first viola with some gorgeous solo passages, here played by Cynthia Phelps. Compared with the Bridge just before, the Brahms caught the ear immediately and never let go. It’s full of imagination and melody. The first movement indicates “brio” and brio it got. Cellist Robert deMaine, who has been here the full six weeks and has played, so far, in 14 different works, (each one rehearsed with a different group of players), slightly overdid his solo at the opening of the second movement, but it was a brief abberation in what has been a remarkable series of performances by him.
The whole was a rich delight to the ear, the performance impeccable as has become usual here, with the remaining players being violinist Scott Yoo and Erin Keefe, and violist Richard O’Neill.
One concert remains. If the highest level of chamber music performance thrills you, don’t miss it on Friday.