Review: Onyx Chamber Players at Town Hall Seattle

By Gigi Yellen

David White is a great performer! At the keyboard, he is a crisp, athletic artist, defining an energetic musical rapport among his fellow players that, in turn, keeps an audience on the edge of its seat.

But he’s more than that: he’s a gifted and entertaining speaker, whose pre-concert energy added great value to the experience of the small crowd of cognoscenti gathered at Town Hall for this Sunday afternoon concert of Haydn and Mendelssohn chamber music. Onyx continues its 2009-10 season commemorating the dual bicentennials of Joseph Haydn (died in 1809) and Felix Mendelssohn (born in 1809). The newly-reconstituted Onyx is White, violinist James Garlick, and cellist Meg Brennand.

Rather than talking before each piece, White collected a variety of gems into a single pre-concert talk, pacing and tossing off examples at the keyboard. Poking fun at himself for doing a Bernstein (by invoking not just Leonard Bernstein but the comedian Allan Sherman’s joke about Bernstein), and thus transforming the didactic into the charming, he proceeded to enthuse about both Haydn and Mendelssohn as pioneers.

Musical examples flew by; biographical details added color. (But David, do check on that Mendelssohn thing: as I understand it, Felix was baptized as a Lutheran at age 7, and his father was never a cantor.) It was great to hear Haydn called “the Harry James or Benny Goodman of his day.” To tell you the truth, White himself has something of the jazzman’s air at the keyboard, stomping on Haydn’s downbeats, and keeping his bandmates in tight eye contact.

This was clearly an audience of friends, one that deeply appreciated the return of Seattle cellist Brennand to the concert stage – and she returned the appreciation with a muscular, joyous performance. From the program notes: “Meg is proud to be a stage III cancer survivor, and she is overjoyed to be back with Onyx this season.” Her sound is robust, and she is a joy to watch as a chamber player, precise and collegial.

In the Haydn A-flat Piano Trio (H. XV:14), Brennand and violinist James Garlick shared an exquisite ensemble moment, re-entering the Adagio. In his first season as a member of Onyx (previous violinist: Cecilia Archuleta), Garlick’s gentle touch on the fiddle was at its best in the lacy Andante of the Haydn Piano Trio in D (H. XV:7). Busy all over town as both chamber and orchestral player, the hardworking Garlick has found himself two great mentors in his Onyx colleagues.

The musical star of the day was a piano quartet in d minor by the 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Joining Onyx as guest violist was a familiar companion, the multitalented J. Melvin Butler, longtime organist/choirmaster at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Billed as a “student piece,” this work received its first complete North American performance at this concert, according to White. Of course, the 12-year-old Mendelssohn was already making mature art, so this “student piece,” with its breathless rhythms, hinted at the Midsummer Night’s Dream music that would emerge just four years later. Garlick had a chance to shine in cantorial-style violin solo in the third movement.

When Brennand’s cello finally got its chance to sing full out (in a program characterized by a great deal of background work for the cello), it was in the last work on the program (during which, alas, I had to leave after the first two movements), Mendelssohn’s C Minor Piano Trio Op. 66. She is a confident, muscular player, equal in weight to White’s powerful keyboard presence.

Onyx will play two more concerts this season, both at Town Hall. They deserve an audience greater than the 100 or so who turned out on Feb. 28. On May 16, they’re doing music by both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and on June 20 they’ll conclude the Haydn/Mendelssohn bicentennial season with another concert of works by Papa Haydn and Felix.


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