The weekend in classical music: Schumann, Stravinsky, and Hagen

Clara and Robert Schumann

To hear pianist David White tell the story of one of the most famous clove triangles in the history of music, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann’s music wouldn’t exist as we know it without the presence of Clara Schumann — friend to Johannes, wife of Robert, accomplished pianist, and gifted composer. it is hard to disagree with this sentiment. Robert tended to be at his best with Clara as his muse, and the durability of Brahms music today — especially his piano music — depends to some degree on Clara’s advocacy.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth, the Onyx Chamber Players presented a two night mini-festival of music by these three 19th Century icons. I was only able to make it to Sunday evening’s performance of C. Schumann’s Piano Trio, Brahm’s Op. 101 Piano Trio, and R. Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

Due to a mistake by the Seattle Times, Sunday’s performance was delayed by 30 minutes. A preview which ran in the Times noted an incorrect start time of 7:30 pm — instead of 7 pm. When I make a mistake like this, I get carping emails from publicists. When the Seattle Times messes up, concert start times get moved. Oh well. A few people straggled in between when the concert was supposed to start and when it actually did. Not enough to warrant a change though.

Delay or no delay, Sunday’s performance will stand as one of the fall’s best. James Garlick, who is splitting his time between music gigs in Seattle and violin studies at Juilliard, has improved dramatically since the last time I heard him play. His sound is more even and playing more controlled, which was especially an asset in the Clara Schumann’s trio which opened the concert.  Its four movements are beautifully languid.  I wish cellist Meg Brennard were more present. In the opening trio, she blended nicely with Garlick and White. For Brahms’ trio and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, however, her playing faded in and out of focus. The result was slightly underpowered Brahms. Tempestuous yes; stormy no. David White was superb on keyboard. He gave the other musicians room to make their own statements, convey minor key pathos, while amplifying the effect of each and every piece on the program. Constance Gee (viola) and Michael Lim (violin) joined the three core Onyx Players for the quintet. Their contributions were as fine, but the stars of the night were truly Garlick, White, and Brennard.

The day before at PACCAR Pavilion Geoffrey Larson and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra — quite possibly Seattle’s cutest orchestra — started their second season with Mozart, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. Mozart’s overture to the Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Second Symphony are performed frequently enough that it is hard to pull off a really memorable performance of either. SMCO’s performance of the Magic Flute overture came close. It had lots of restless spontaneity and good ensemble work.  It was an example of how live music can and often does impress.  Beethoven’s symphony, however, lacked spark and even came across as ragged here and there. Larson’s choices seemed safe. He failed to keep in mind Beethoven’s revolutionary ideas which would come to fruition in his next symphony.

Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments is short, cleverly neo-classical, and lots of fun. One clarinet, flute, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones along with Larson’s guidance at the podium made this piece the best of the afternoon. Stravinsky’s rhythms always give musicians a work out, and the Octet is no exception. SMCO’s players were up to the challenge.

On Friday night, a smaller SSO took to the stage for their first Baroque and Wine concert of the season. I wish this wine and music fad would fade quickly. It is a gimmick that doesn’t put the emphasis where it needs to be: the music. Then again, with so much competition from Seattle’s robust early music scene, pairing wine with a concert of Baroque favorites might be just the enticement necessary to get a new audience to revel in the genius of Bach and Handel.

The concert also marked the premiere of another commissioned piece of music. Eighteen pieces in all will be debuted over the course of the season. On this night, it was Daron Hagen’s CON GAI. Hagen didn’t start from scratch for the piece. With his opera Amelia fresh in the minds of Seattle audiences, he went back to it and expanded a selection into a short piece which rushes forward, with brilliant shouts from the trumpets. If only it were longer. If only the piece didn’t seem so out of place on a program of Baroque masterpieces like Bach’s First Brandenberg Concerto and the second of three suites from Handel’s Water Music. Hopefully Hagen will adapt more music from Amelia for the concert stage. He has lots to music to choose from, and an orchestral suite could give the opera a life outside of McCaw Hall.

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3 thoughts on “The weekend in classical music: Schumann, Stravinsky, and Hagen

  1. Zach, thanks so much for attending the Onyx concert. It is gratifying that you enjoyed it, even with the delay. Thanks also for your comments about balance. My cello is scheduled for major work at the end of the month. It really felt as though my cello was uneven and not ringing. Now I’m really looking forward to having this work done. Sometimes I do simply play too lightly, but my hope is that much will be fixed with cello surgery.

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