By Philippa Kiraly
Each year for the past decade or more, I have been saying that Seattle Chamber Music Society surpasses itself with a season which is even better played with even more superb (and young) performers than the year before, and with programming which is far more interesting than it used to be.
This year is no exception. A couple of last year’s newcomers, violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Ran Dank, are showing themselves to be musicians of unusual sensitivity as well as extraordinary technique. So too are violinist Nurit Bar-Josef, the very young concertmaster of the National Symphony and cellist Edward Arron, also recent additions; while another youngster, violinist Andrew Wan, who shares the concertmaster position at the Montreal Symphony, is new this year and already showing his ability to join in the very rarified level of musical performance we’ve come to expect at the Festival.
All these and more go to prove that classical music is alive and well in this country with excellent performers coming up all the time, and judging by the audiences SMCS gets, the audience for chamber music is there too.
Not of any lower caliber are those musicians who have been coming for years and are favorites of many concert-goers. Playing Sunday night were violinist Ida Levin and pianist Adam Neiman who I first heard here, to the best of my memory, in the early 1990s, and later this week we’ll hear pianist Anton Nel who celebrates his 21st year at the festival.
Sunday’s performance began as usual with a free recital, this time with our homegrown violist, Richard O’Neill from Sequim, performing Schumann’s “Maerchenbilder” with Neiman. We don’t often get to hear the viola as the featured instrument. By virtue of its pitch, one fifth of an octave lower than a violin, it is often more a harmonizing influence. O’Neill, one of very few violists to have received an Avery Fisher Career Grant (only given to the cream of the musical cream and several of SCMS musicians have been awarded one), gave us the opportunity to hear the mellow richness and bottomless warmth that the viola contributes, as well as its agility, in a performance which ranged from furious and frenetic to lighthearted and dancing to anxiety and ending with almost a lullaby.
The concert proper began with a masterly performance of Mozart’s Trio in B-Flat Major for violin, cello and piano by Dank, Bar-Joseph and cellist Robert deMaine. Dank particularly kept an early classical sensibility to his playing throughout, caressing the keys with a light touch, clean articulation and achieving an elegance which nevertheless had plenty of expression.
However, since all three players used a sense of restraint—musicians didn’t let it all hang out in the 1780s—the balance suffered somewhat as the piano lid was full open, and no matter that Dank never pushed the music, the sound of his 21th century piano always seemed overloud next to the other two. It would have worked better if the lid had been down to about six inches.
Next came a remarkable performance of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2. Thanks to Steven Lowe’s useful program notes which put it into context, it was possible to hear the music against the background of World War II and musicians like Prokofiev sent to a safe distance from the front in an area with a rich folk music tradition. You can hear the war and the folksong in this quartet. It dances, it’s quirky, rustic and fascinating, at the same time often aggressive, discordant, staccato, scratchy, and above all, full of vitality. Played by Hadelich, Levin, O’Neill and deMaine, it received a huge ovation of shouting and applause.
Last, and rather tame after this, came the Trio in A Minor for violin, cello and piano by Edouard Lalo.
One of the values of an extended chamber music festival is the oportunity to hear works we otherwise wouldn’t by composers who have never gotten the recognition given their more famous contemporaries. Lalo is another, like Frank Bridge in Friday’s concert, overshadowed by others. Also like Bridge, he isn’t a great composer, but his work is nevertheless well worth a hearing. This is a substantial quartet, expansively written. The many forceful and energetic sections are offset by some exquisite quiet ones, and the contrasts were well brought out by violinist James Ehnes, cellist Bion Tsang and Neiman.
I’m glad to have heard it, once.