A lot of good and some bad close out third week of SCMS festival

By the third week of the Chamber Music Society’s festival the excitement of opening week is gone.  We’ve heard enough expertly crafted chamber music to carry us through to the fall.  A number of musicians have come and gone by the third week.   The third week is also when repertory experiments takes place. The chamber pieces which use wind, brass, and double bass tend to show up around this time. New commissions also show up from time to time here too, away from the intensity of opening week.

The third week is especially problematic for writers. Our adjectives are exhausted and an endless supply of Romantic melodies and classical formalities are dancing through the parts of our brain we use to listen to music. We’ve heard a lot of music with even more to come.

This year the third week of the festival ended with back to back evening concerts. Friday’s concert embodied some of the best and the worst of the festival so far. Franz Berwald’s Septet glowered for 20 minutes to start Friday’s concert. It’s a piece without much of a point even when it is played well as it was on Friday night.  I would have preferred to hear Jeff Fair (horn); Sean Osborne (clarinet); Seth Krimsky (bassoon); Jordan Anderson (bass); Ida Levin (violin); Che-Yen Chen (viola); and Jeremy Turner’s (cello) use their considerable talents in different repertory.

The Septet was followed by Stefan Jackiw and Ran Dank’s violent performance of Beethoven’s Op. 30 No. 2 Violin Sonata. Jackiw took a remarkable piece of music and turned it into a cartoonish exaggeration. Jackiw is a better musician than this performance. I have heard him play enough to know this. One patron derisively asked at intermission “has he been taking lessons from Lang Lang?” Jackiw seemed to favor chaos over craftsmanship. His playing was so strident, at times it sounded like he was trying to hack through his violin’s strings with his bow. Some have dubbed the sonata Beethoven’s “heroic” sonata. The piece’s heroic qualities are found in its material which is nearly always sweeping and dramatic; Jackiw’s excesses weren’t needed to make the performance successful. The audience didn’t seem to mind, then again, do they ever? They gave Jackiw and Dank a standing ovation.

While Ran Dank’s playing didn’t work for the Beethoven, it was the perfect fit for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, a piece he played during the preconcert recital. From the sonata’s opening volcanic outburst, our senses are assaulted by my music that punches, shakes, and caresses. It punishes pianists with demands few can execute successfully. Dank met the work’s demands. If he was feeling any pressure, he never let on. If the performance seemed over the top, it’s only because Rachmaninov demands as much in the piece and then some.

It’s fitting that a concert that began with Dank’s colossal performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata should end with an equally well played rendition of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Nurit Bar-Josef (violin); Emily Daggett Smith (violin); Richard O’Neill (viola); Robert deMaine (cello) and Adam Neiman (piano) were a bold, cohesive team. Though one of Schumann’s more successful and enjoyable chamber pieces, the quintet was well received on Friday night because of the musicians on stage.

Compared to Friday’s grab bag, Saturday’s concert was a uniform success. Robert deMaine opened the program with Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces for Cello and Piano. Adam Neiman accompanying him at the piano. It’s always a pleasure to hear two festival veterans like deMaine and Neiman play together, especially in poetic repertory like the Fantasy Pieces.

Mendelssohn’s two piano trios and octet are good, there is no denying this fact. But, what about his string quartets? They are good too. Hearing the First Quartet for the first time in concert on Saturday, it is a shame Mendelssohn’s six quartets aren’t played as often as Beethoven, Brahms, and even Shostakovich’s quartets. Emily Daggett Smith and Stefan Jackiw took up violin duties. Richard O’Neill and Jeremy Turner were on viola and cello respectively.

The First Quartet isn’t saturated with material like the Octet, or as immediately likable as his D Minor Piano Trio, other Mendelssohn pieces heard earlier in the festival. Its four movements are unusually restrained for a composer who exceled in sparkling virtuosic outbursts of musical genius. Its charms are found in the work’s illusive details which are seldom louder than four conversing voices. The quartet ends so disarmingly that for those of us paying attention to the performance, grateful to be hearing a Mendelssohn quartet being played, we had a few moments of silence after the piece ended — just enough time to soak up the last creamy notes before the rest of the audience caught on and doused our silent approval with applause.

The night ended with Brahms’ rip roaring First Piano Quartet. It’s hard not to tap your feet, bob your head, and get up and dance during the propulsive, room spinning finale. At the front of the piece is an expressive, nubilous sounding allegro that is a personal favorite of mine. Beginnings are everything. This quartet always grabs me no matter how many times I’ve heard it on CD or in concert. Ida Levin, Che-Yen Chen, Robert deMaine, and Ran Dank deserved every moment of the hearty applause – four curtain calls – they received.

There is one more week left in the Seattle part of the summer festival. A few of the highlights this week are the premiere of Gerard Schwarz’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano; Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata; and Antonin Dvorak’s Op. 65 Piano Trio After Friday, concerts resume at the Overlake School in Redmond where those who miss Lakeside can get abundant nature and ambience.

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2 thoughts on “A lot of good and some bad close out third week of SCMS festival

  1. Re the Brahms: what we witnessed was a murder of a classically beautiful composition and of the concept of “ensemble.”. With the exception of Robert de Maine, we watched three musicians compete to see who could hit all the notes fastest and loudest without looking at one another.
    The audience gave a standing ovation which merely makes me think that spectacle is more highly valued than performance. But, what does a jazz fan know?

  2. Hey Fletch, thanks for your comment. I perceived it differently (obviously) than you did. What did you think of the Beethoven sonata? To me, that was the problematic performance of the night.

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