A tribute to Shangrow and an evening of remarkable music making

James Ehnes

By Philippa Kiraly

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer festival has headed to The Overlake School in Redmond for its final five concerts, the first of which took place in those beautiful surroundings Wednesday night.

But first, the Society’s associate artistic director, James Ehnes, came out to give a tribute to the late George Shangrow, citing his long time support for the festival. In his honor Ehnes then played the largo movement from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin.

The concert following was one of those superb performances which live in the memory. The centerpiece was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 in C minor, “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism.” It’s always been my view that Shostakovich’s work, and this quartet in particular, can only be played with full impact by those who have lived and suffered under dictatorship. I was dubious, beforehand, that these four young men—violinists Augustin Hadelich and Stefan Jackiw, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Edward Arron—could bring the necessary depth of experience and insight to make this work a success.

I was wrong. Technically, they caught the harsh richness, the downright ugliness, the moments of beauty and artful shaping, the bonding. Emotionally, a well of sadness returned continually with unplumbed grief, alternating with bouts of fury, rage, and frustration, and the sense of helter-skelter panic and fear, bound together with unremitting tension. The triple chords in the third movement felt like prison bars, coming back over and over to remind the hearer of their overwhelming presence.
It was a riveting performance, holding this listener frozen.

Finding the right work to perform after this, something of a musical stature to lift the hearer away from jangled nerves and with its own nobility, could have been hard, but Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio in B Flat Major was exactly the right choice. As performed by violinist Scott Yoo, cellist Ronald Thomas and pianist Anton Nel, it was sheer pleasure. The three are veterans of the festival, their musicmaking together an unspoken cameraderie, their interpretation classical and elegant. The sound bloomed with a warmth and tenderness it was not difficult to attain in this fine little auditorium. The piano was a much better instrument than had been available for the last month at Nordstrom, and it showed.

The concert had begun with Elgar’s Sonata for violin and piano in E Minor, with Ehnes and pianist Anna Polonsky. There is sadness here too, as the composer faced the terminal illness of his wife, so it was a fitting opener before the Shostakovich, but it is a much more civilized piece of music. Ehnes and Polonsky covered its range of feeling from vigor and questioning to gentleness and yearning with lovely tone and expressive playing.

All in all, a night to remember.

Four more concerts remain, through Friday August 13. For tickets, go to seattlechambermusic.org.

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