An increasingly enlightened audience at Seattle Chamber Music Festival

By Philippa Kiraly

Time was, maybe 17 years ago, when Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival was full of well known classics. We could confidently expect to hear Brahms, Beethoven, and Schumann, Mozart and Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Sure there was, is, plenty to choose from among much-loved works. Some amongst us grew restless, wanting to be more challenged by the music and have our minds expanded, and SCMS responded by building a program one year full of these more adventurous work. The audience stayed away in droves.

What a change nowadays!

Artistic director Toby Saks went back to the audience-getting programs, but increasingly began to slip in a work here and there by a less familiar composer, together with a little paragraph for the potential ticket buyer of how this was an eminently listenable piece s/he would enjoy.Also, she began to engage better and better performers to interpret them to the audience.

Fast forward to now, when the performers are as good as you will find at any chamber music festival worldwide, the audience doesn’t blink at attending concerts with less familiar works and receives them with enthusiasm.

Indeed, sometimes they are the highlight of the concert, performances which stay with you. Last Week, August 4, saw a memorable performance of a Shostakovich quartet. This Wednesday, Auguat 11, the work which stood out was Zoltan Kodaly’s Serenade for two violins (Joseph Lin and Lily Francis) and viola (Richard O’Neill).

It’s quite spare in its harmonies, allowing the individual instruments to shine while staying inside the group. Kodaly, a cellist, gave a major role here to the viola, the lowest instrument in this combination, and listeners had a chance to hear O’Neill’s expressive playing and tone unobscured.

Kodaly lures the hearer onward with new and unexpected ideas and harmonic combinations all within a firm open structure which in the hands of these three musicians was rock-solid. Their astonishingly exact synchronization made one feel that every connection was a joining together and a base for the next imaginative phrase.

At the same time the three played with closely similar style and tone, so that a phrase flowing from one to another to the third sounded as though it was played by one person on one instrument. That style fitted the music, and the tone of all three had depth and beauty as well as strength and vigor. The second violin, Francis, had the lion’s share of accompanying but this too required artistry in shaping to support the others.

Brahms’ Trio in C Minor for violin (Stefan Jackiw), cello (Robert deMaine) and piano (Anna Polonsky) sounded driven and a bit heavy in its outer movements, but achieved Brahms’ hallmark warmth in the middle ones.

Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor, the “Dumky,” for the same combination—violinist Scott Yoo, cellist Ronald Thomas and pianist Orion Weiss—was musically more satisfying. Six of these dumky, folk songs, make up the basis for the work, and the players made the most of the pensive, lyrical, sometimes mournful sections and the crazy wild parts which separate them. Dvorak gives the cello much of the lead in the slower parts, musically haunting in Thomas’ hands, while there were moments in Weiss’s playing where the pianos seemed to ring like a bell.

The recital prior to the concert was of interest also. The two young pianists Weiss and Polonsky have both performed at the festival for some years. As Polonsky told the audience, last year he proposed to her during the festival and this June they married.
At this concert they performed works for piano four-hands, i.e. two people playing on one instrument. Pianists who successfully perform double works are often related and perhaps it needs that closeness to know intuitively how to fit with each other’s playing for it not to sound clunky, as so often two-person piano performances do. These two have been performing together for some time and it looks as though we may be seeing the early days of a fine performing duo.

Their playing of Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variations, Op. 83a and Schubert’s Andantino Varie, D.823 from his French Divertimento had that instinctive intuition for each other’s musical approach, and a feel for the music’s era resulting in a fine performance.

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