Chamber music concert continues Russian tradition in Seattle

I have been to three of the four concerts put on by the Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle. Each time, I have high hopes for the future of this local group. The last concert I attended, a Rachmaninov retrospective performed by musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, was poorly attended and I wondered if the foundation would survive in Seattle. This worry was dispelled by Friday night’s concert which might mark a turning point for the foundation. Three fine guest musicians – Sean Osborn (clarinet); Erin Keefe (violin); and Alexander Tutonov (piano) – joined Natalya Ageyeva, a pianist and the foundation’s founder. A large crowd turned out for the performance, and, on paper, the program looked interesting.

If there is one constant that ties each of the foundation’s concerts together it is the quality of the playing. Chamber music fans undoubtedly remember Erin Keefe from the Lakeside School chamber music festival this past summer. Numerous, memorable performances sang from her bow over the course of the six week festival. My personal favorite was her and Stefan Jackiw’s sultry performance of Prokofiev’s Duo for Two Violins.

On Friday Keefe was a study in contrasts. On the one hand, she presented a languid, long-lined, Vocalise by Rachmaninov arranged for violin and piano, while in Rodion Shchedrin’s In the Style of Albeniez, she was the exact opposite.  Keefe and Ageyeva surmounted Shchedrin’s terse Catalan ideas that give the impression of perpetual motion.

Sean Osborn is also a familiar face on Seattle concert stages. A clarinetist of superior quality, he is capable of the most virtuosic feats on his instrument. He is also equally comfortable containing his considerable talent for the benefit of chamber performances.

I left the concert feeling uneasy in part because Osborn seemed underutilized. Osborn is a highly capable musician, yet he didn’t have a chance to shine on his own terms. He was one of four musicians playing five unbalanced arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s 50 Russian Folk Songs for Piano Four Hands. During Stravinsky’s suite from the Soldier’s Tale, Osborn was understandably overshadowed by Keefe – Stravinsky’s music and the story which inspired the piece, are violin centric. I am by no means an expert on the Russian clarinet repertory, but a quick Amazon.com and Google search uncovered at least some music for clarinet or clarinet and piano, including pieces by Goedicke, Prokofiev, and even Stravinsky, his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet.  Adding Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet would have created a mini-Stravinsky retrospective I would have appreciated.

The rest of my unease emanated from the program itself. The pieces seemed haphazard and while interesting on their own, weren’t interesting together. Most disconcerting, were the selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet the Nutcracker reduced for piano duo. Closing the concert with Tchaikovsky’s memorable dances on the day before Halloween puzzled me. I would have preferred hearing Anton Arensky’s First Suite for Two Pianos, which appeared during the first half, at the end of the concert instead. Arensky’s yearning, sentimental music dangled from the finger tips of Ageyeva and Tutunov creating one of the evening’s highlights.

When I first wrote about the Russian Chamber Music Foundation back in the February 2008, I mused about the programmatic possibilities under the rubric of Russian chamber music. Russia doesn’t have a long chamber music history, but the repertory is surprisingly deep and varied. Composer retrospectives, like the Rachmaninov retrospective presented last year, can make good programs. A concert of Russian folk music might be interesting too. Or, how about a concert that examines the Futurist movement which is a crucial link between the 19th Century and composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Now that The Russian Chamber Music Foundation found its audience and regularly attracts top musicians to perform, I hope it will attend to developing focused programs that stand apart from Seattle’s other chamber music offerings.

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