By R.M. Campbell
The Seattle Chamber Music Festival, which opened its 29th season Monday night, has a long, distinguished history. For nearly all of its 28 years, it has been located at the Lakeside School. The New England-style prep school informed the festival a few years ago that it was claiming summer usage of its concert hall, throwing the administration into a search for an alternative. Nordstrom Recital Hall was always a good possibility, in terms of size and acoustical properties. The drawback was its urban setting in contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Lakeside campus.
The opening concert in the new venue proved what a good choice the festival made. The house was nearly full, with 100 more seats than at Lakeside. Even the pre-concert recital was packed. The festival has grown considerably from a handful of weeks to a month of concerts, with an extension at Overlake School on the Eastside and Winter Festival in January, also at Nordstrom. There is still pre-concert dining and free broadcasts outside the hall on the Benaroya property. Most important the acoustics are so much better — greater clarity and richness — than St. Nicholas which are marginal at best.
The music-making itself was splendid. The calamity of the evening was poor pianist Andrew Armstrong, who suffered a spider bite earlier that day and was unable to perform. He was scheduled to play with violinist James Ehnes the Bartok Second Violin Sonata. Adam Neiman, another pianist, stepped into the breach and offered Rachmaninoff’s “Five Pieces,” scheduled for Wednesday, instead. Armstrong was supposed to play in Debussy’s Piano Trio in G and so Neiman stepped in once again, with only a scant rehearsal late Monday afternoon. Armstrong will rejoin the festival Wednesday. The night, in some ways, belonged to Neiman who also played the Brahms’ B Major Piano Trio. That is heavy duty, but Neiman, a veteran with the festival, proved long ago what a stalwart and resourceful musician he is. The festival is lucky to have him.
Rachmaninoff’s “Five Pieces” are not well-known except for the second, the famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor. In them Neiman revealed what a thoughtful and clear-headed musician he has become. He always had facility and ready intelligence. Over the years, he has added depth and nuance to his playing. The breadth required in the Rachmaninoff is considerable and he rose to the challenge.
Despite little rehearsal, he also rose to the challenge of the Debussy, which, gratefully, he knew very well. With Erin Keefe as the violinist and Robert deMaine as the cellist, the group managed to convey the romanticism of the piece, composed in 1880, when the composer was only 18. They made neither too much nor too little of the overt romanticism of the piece. They played to the work’s strengths. DeMaine has a big, glorious tone which he used to full advantage. Neiman played surely and was mindful of his colleagues.
He was also the good partner, if forceful at times, in the Brahms. Augustin Hadelich was the violinist and Bion Tsang, the cellist. Together they gave life and vigor to this ubiquitous work. One of the new faces at the festival, Hadelich is a superb musician, with both a handsome tone and stylish musicianship. Tsang is a well-known quantity, and he played with customary aplomb.
The only work without a piano, and thus no Neiman, was Barber’s String Quartet. This work is not played often enough. It has a welcome place at the festival. It is good to hear the Adagio in its original setting, rather than its transcription for string orchestra, which is famous. With only four musicians, the slow movement can seem thin, and it did on occasion Monday, but it is important to hear it as Barber conceived it. The four strong string players were led by Ehnes, with Andrew Wan, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola, and Edward Arron, cello. They had a firm grasp of the essentials and gave the powerful, effective reading.
The festival continues through July 30. The Overlake dates are Aug. 4 – Aug. 13.