Seattle Chamber Music Festival enters final week of 2010 season

By R.M. Campbell

Memories can be short and distorted, but it seems to me, as the Seattle Chamber Music Festival enters its final week of the summer, this season has been if not the best than one of the best in its nearly 30-year history.

Two things are certain. The move from the dull acoustics of St. Nicholas Hall at Lakeside to Nordstrom Recital Hall has been an unqualified success, not only in terms of box office but musically, aided in part by the vastly improved acoustical presence of the hall. There is no question Nordstrom can turn shrill in the upper registers, especially the violin, if musicians are not careful. In the early days, they were not and the hall got a bad reputation. But other musicians, more capable and more sensitive, found ways to make the hall what it is today. All concert venues have their individual profiles which musicians must take into account. Festival concerts at Nordstrom had a ring of freshness, vibrancy and clarity they did not have previously. This improved acoustical status seemed to encourage musicians to play even better than they did at Lakeside.

Also, there have been quantum changes in the musicians who come to Seattle to play. Violinist James Ehnes, who succeeds Toby Saks next year as artistic director, is responsible for a lot of that. He is very much in tune with some of the best musicians today, and they have come here on his invitation. Most of them are inevitably young, but they are gifted and collaborative by nature. The result is in the music-making.

Concerts at Overlake School in Redmond are an innovation of a few years ago. Slowly they have grown in box office appeal. Always, they have been on a high level musically. The hall itself is acoustically attractive. Wisely, the programs are different than Seattle and the same mix and match of musicians continues. Some play in both venues, others do not.

Robert deMaine was the cellist in the Mendelssohn Second Cello Sonata, with Anna Polonsky as his pianist, in Monday night’s recital. DeMaine is the possessor of a huge sound, which the sonata did not always allow to bloom. But he is facile technician and major talent, so he gave a reading with a predictable deep focus and concentration. Polonsky also has a nimble technique and is a good partner, so she made for an excellent duo. That said, this is not one of Mendelssohn’s most ingenious works, although it provided an apt vehicle for deMaine and Polonsky.

Joaquin Turina’s B Minor Piano Trio was the only bit of adventure in the evening. Sort of. A 20th-century composer he may have been, but his music does not reflect much influence of the time. It is steadfastly conservative and conventional, despite its “exotic” sensibilities. The whole evening needed something more bracing. Nevertheless, its advocates — violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Edward Arron and Polonsky — did everything they could to make the work as vivid as possible. Jackiw has been coming to the festival for four years. He is both provocative and compelling, a brilliant musician. Arron is new to the festival. A widely experience cellist, he brings an acute musical sensitivity to all that he does and is a keen ensemble player, going forth as a soloist when needed and receding into the whole when required. He is both a passionate musician and a refined one. Polonsky was a good partner to both of them.

String quartets are not programmed on festival concerts with any regularity for all sorts of very good reasons. For this outing was one of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, the C Major, Op. 59, No. 3. Its group of advocates were first-class: Augustin Hadelich and Scott Yoo, violin; Richard O’Neill, viola, and Ronald Thomas, cello. If these four superb musicians played together all the time, the performance would have been a remarkable one. But for an ad hoc group, it was even more so. The performance had a great verve, sublime expression and pinpoint ensemble. They played as if they played together all the time, even in the fastest, more difficult sections, they played as one. Even in the furious fugue of the final movement when O’Neill’s string broke and they had to stop playing in order to give him time to change it, the four gathered their resources when he returned to his seat and played with equal fervor and togetherness. This was an exciting reading, a revelation as well.

The evening came to a close with Josef Suk’s Piano Quintet in G Minor. Again, this is not a piece with consistent gestures of inspiration, but the five musicians — Joseph Lin and Ehnes, violin; Lily Francis, viola; deMaine, and Orion Weiss, piano — played it as such, with vigor, attention to all sorts of details and flair. The audience, for the second time, rose to its collective feet to show its appreciation.


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