Seattle Chamber Music Society begins its Winter Festival

By Philippa Kiraly

I’ve never heard a Seattle Chamber Music Society concert more satisfying than this one, perhaps because we don’t have much chamber music on this level in the winter here (with the exception of the UW World Series) nor much in an intimate venue. Thursday’s concert at Nordstrom Recital Hall, the opening of SCMS’ Winter Festival, hit the ear with particular effect.

As pianist Anna Polonsky mentioned to the capacity audience, Nordstrom is where the summer festival relocates to this coming July, and while the charm of the Lakeside School ambience will be gone (anyone going to picnic out among the traffic noises or on the floor of the Nordstrom lobby?), those listening last night were reminded that this is what it will sound like in July as well, and by any standards it was great.

For the first time that I remember at the start of a season, artistic director Toby Saks did not come out on stage to welcome the audence, though she was present. Instead she handed it over to Polansky as she came out with the other performers for the first work, a comfortably informal approach.

Violinist Lily Francis and cellist Robert deMaine joined her in playing the Trio in C Minor by a 16-year-old Shostakovich. It’s a fascinating piece in one long movement, substantial in content, in which the future Shostakovich hallmarks are already coming to the fore: the quirkiness, the dissonant, unexpected harmonies cutting in, a spooky feel. At the same time he switches back and forth from this to a typical tonal Russian style, at one point pure Rachmaninoff in its lush romanticism.

The players, as happened all evening, were completely attuned to each other, with the teenage emotions, peaceful one moment, passionate the next, wild, furious, with angst, all brought out in the music. Knowing how Shostakovich’s path developed musically in later years, it was of particular interest to hear this early work in such an excellent performance.

Pianist Alon Goldstein also spoke before the performance of Schumann’s Trio in D Minor for violin, cello and piano, putting it in context. Earlier, instead of the preconcert recital, he gave an illustrated lecture on Schumann whose 200th birthday is this year. Goldstein, violinist Ilya Kaler and cellist Amit Peled are performing all three of Schumann’s trios in the festival. Kaler is new to SCMS but not new to Seattle. Those who remember the International Chamber Music Festival here in the 1990s may remember him as concertmaster of the European orchestra brought here by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, and he is a frequent chamber music collaborator with Goldstein and Peled.

The sweep of the trio allows plenty of work for violin and cello but this is a pianist’s piece. The three played with intensity and passion, urgency and propulsion, with a gentle mourning feel to the slow movement, where Kaler’s warm silken tone shone, and happiness in the last. There was complete silence in the audience between movements, intent on the compelling performance.

Elgar’s Quintet in A Minor completed the concert, played by violinists Erin Keefe and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, cellist Bion Tsang and pianist William Wolfram. Only here did Nordstrom’s problematic acoustics rear their head.

While performers love to play here as they can hear each other so well, the dry acoustics tend to sabotage any loud, high, intense playing on the violins as heard by the audience. Keefe, as first violin here, had plenty of this to contend with and all through the performance, her high notes had a screaming quality that detracted from the whole.

It’s to be hoped that all the first violins in the festival weeks here now and in the summer are alerted to this so they can be wary of it.

Otherwise, this was vintage Elgar, one of his last works, and played with the robust richness it deserved.

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