Last concert of the Summer Festival

Extraordinary weather and extraordinary playing marked this year’s Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, first at Lakeside School (for the last time) and for the past ten days at The Overlake School in Redmond.

The programming was a little uneven, though no one can have too much Brahms (who was by some standards over represented). A few too many works of lesser quality got included. They may have brought some variety, but not of the best kind, and it always seems hard on the musicians who work so intensely when they are here, for them to have to take the time and energy to learn and perform something eminently forgettable. They do it with grace and good humor and it’s clear that the festival is almost like a much-loved summer camp to them.

Much of that ambience as well as the programming is due to Toby Saks, the Society’s founder and artistic director, who with her husband opens her home and her heart to the musicians for six long weeks, and the musicians’ host families to whom they often return year after year until it becomes like visiting favorite relatives.

It seems each year that the performing standards could not become any higher, but each year, it seems they are even better. This is international-level chamber music performance in venues where the listener is close to the performers, a rare and exciting occasion, and the performers themselves come out to hear each other play and mingle with the audience in intermission to see friends.

The final season concert, Friday night at Overlake, was a microcosm of the entire festival, even to the forgettable work: Reynaldo Hahn’s Quintet in F-Sharp minor for piano and strings from 1921. This has to be the last gasp of late romanticism, composed in France at a time when the adventurous musical ideas of Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg have already found audiences, if often bewildered ones. Hahn’s quintet movements are too long for their material and become tedious for lack of interest. The shorter last movement is more fun to listen to, a musical trifle with a pretty theme. The whole was of course, played exceedingly well by violinists Scott Yoo and Joseph Lin, violist Che-Yen Chen, cellist Ronald Thomas and pianist Anton Nel.

Nel also gave the pre-concert recital with Beethoven’s Seven Bagatelles, short works which the composer gathered together almost at random for publication. These are sunny pieces of different characteristics, lively or jaunty, peaceful or quirky, riotous or temperamental including one which Nel describes as a having a musical tantrum. It’s worth noting that a really fine performance of a really fine work can grab you with the first measure, and this did. The phrasing left one sighing with satisfaction, it felt so right, and Nel brought to each bagatelle a light yet full, singing tone quality which suited it perfectly.

Ernst von Dohnanyi isn’t usually included in the pantheon of first rank composers, but much of his music is worth a hearing, including his Serenade in C major, for violin, viola and cello, from 1902. It’s unmistakably Slavic and melodic in the same genre as Dvorak, but more adventurous harmonically. Dohnanyi uses the three instruments with imagination and each of the five movements is the product of an original mind, with plucked strings or runing commentaries accompanying prominent lines by one or another instrument. Only the fourth slow movement with variations steers perilously close to schmaltz, but all in all this work has to have been as rewarding for the musicians–violinist Erin Keefe, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Ronald Thomas–to play as it was for the audience to hear.

Lastly came a breathtaking performance of Brahms’ Quartet in F Minor for piano and strings. We don’t usually think of Brahms as one of the teen prodigies, but he wrote this, his Opus 25, at aged 21, and it’s a forward-looking work of astonishing maturity and huge talent which owes none of its originality to his mentors. The superb performance abounded with musical felicities, such as the tight togetherness between violinist James Ehnes and violist Richard O’Neill, when they were playing the same rhythms or even in octaves. They seemed to breathe as one. Or the warmth of Robert deMaine’s cello, or the rolling sonorities of Brahms’ beloved piano part as performed by Orion Weiss. It was a performance to feed the soul and the audience brought the performers back four times to accept applause and roars of approval. A fitting end to the festival.

Next year will be different; not different at Overlake, where the green ambience continues, but in Seattle, where the Festival moves to an urban setting at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Yes, there will be picnics in the Memorial Garden but with traffic roaring by. We’ll see how it works.

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