Seattle Chamber Music Festival opens final week of 2010 Seattle season Monday

By R.M. Campbell

The Seattle Chamber Music Festival used to be criticized by some for its lack of adventure in programming contemporary music. The 20th-century was well enough represented but limited mostly to well-known composer who worked early in the century. This was not necessarily a reflection of artistic director Toby Saks’ taste but a reflection of her audience, which in nearly 30 years never developed a taste for novelties of the modern era. Her partial solution was a clever one: create a small group of patrons willing to contribute money in order to commission new work.

The latest effort was premiered Monday night at Nordstrom Recital Hall. It is a trio for violin, French horn and piano composed by Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, who started writing and arranging music in the latter part of his conducting career. The piece offered significant reasons why he is looking at composing as a second, really third, career, following his trumpet playing days at the New York Philharmonic and conducting. In addition to his trumpet and conducting lessons, he studied composition, primarily with Paul Creston. The program lists five men, all leading composers, Schwarz credits with being his “mentors.”

Obviously he took instruction seriously given the sophistication and intelligence of his Trio Monday night. It is well-crafted and blends the three disparate instruments readily so that one hears similarities more than dissimilarities. All have distinctive roles to play. It is tonally conservative — some of Schwarz’s mentors would undoubtedly find it too much so — but it is not in any way retrograde. Rather it reminded me of the mid–20th century American composers, like Creston, who Schwarz long championed. There is dissonance but usually as punctuation and means of contrast instead of a steady diet. Schwarz goes from one idea to the next — some more striking than others — with a sure hand. The beginning is especially effective and the finale, in complete contrast. wholly different but equally effective. And there is much to admire in between.

The standing ovation must have been very sweet to Schwarz and his family which was in attendance.

The musicians were excellent, beginning with violinist Stefan Jackiw, who had played at the festival for the past four years. He came here very young, so he is still quite young, no less talented or with fewer insights. His maturity has always been astonishing, his music-making lucid and sensitive. His tone is brilliant and technique first-class. He gave a full life to Schwarz’ expressive expanse. Jeffrey Fair, assistant principal horn at the Seattle Symphony, got most of the dramatic roles, which he delivered with boldness in spite of a couple of split notes. He has a warm tone and good ear. Adam Neiman, who has become a fixture at the festival, was the pianist. His part is not as individual as the horn and violin, but he made the most of what he had.

The premiere was dedicated to Gladys Rubinstein and her late husband Sam Rubinstein for their major support of the festival, beginning with its inaugural year.

Other works on the program were Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” and Bizet’s “Jeux d’enfants.” The Tchaikovsky is a staple on the chamber music circuit. With good reason. It abounds with magnificent tunes, lush tonalities and inventive rhythms. The string sextet calls for big-hearted musicianship and virtuosic advocates, which the festival provided with violinists Ida Levin and Emily Daggett Smith; violists Richard O’Neil and Che-Yen Chen, and cellists Robert deMaine and Jeremy Turner. These are superb musicians some of whom have a long-standing association with the festival, like Levin and O’Neill. Levin, O’Neill and deMaine were given some solo prominence which they took full advantage of the expressive possibilities Tchaikovsky handed them. Ensemble was first-rate and a sense of a brave bravura saturated the air. It was a splendid end to the concert.

Bizet’s work for piano, four hands, is not quite in the same league. But it is often amusing and deft, especially in the hands of Ran Dank and Anton Nel.

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