Our own fine chamber musicians

Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley.

By Philippa Kiraly

Last week, Nordstrom Recital Hall was packed for the performances of Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival, but it was not so full for last night’s chamber music concert by Seattle Symphony musicians.

Chamber music lovers missed out, as this concert was right up there in quality with the Winter Festival performances. On the program were Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2, Britten’s “Lachrymae” and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3.

There are three chamber concerts at Nordstrom by symphony musicians this year, and they are an opportunity for audience members to hear how individual musicians sound as opposed to en masse in the orchestra. It’s also an opportunity for musicians to put their own interpretations on a work, rather than having always to submit to a conductor’s choices. Musicians love to play chamber music for that reason, as well as for all the wonderful literature there is available to explore.

Just because these musicians choose to play in an orchestra does not mean they are necessarily less good than those who play chamber music professionally. It means that a more secure job and staying in one place is important. Life on the road can get old very quickly.

While all the performances Friday were of high caliber, it was the playing of violinist Artur Girsky which stood out for this listener. The tone he drew from his instrument was so beautiful as to bring a lump to the throat, so honeyed, shaped and expressive, absolutely gorgeous in the Schubert trio. At one time Girsky was concertmaster of the Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra, now plays second violin in Seattle Symphony and is a member of OdeonQuartet.

With him in the Schubert were cellist Meeka Quan DiLorenzo and guest pianist Oksana Ezhokina. It’s one of Schubert’s most substantial chamber works, a full 45 minutes. It’s largely a work for piano with string accompaniment, and Ezhokina made the most of it. She has a strong technique, but I would have liked more nuance, more subtlety in her playing much of the time. The opposite could be said for DiLorenzo whose tone was warm with depth but who tended to be self-effacing. In short, there was a slight imbalance with the piano often a bit too heavy and the cello a bit too light.

Nevertheless, there were many exquisite moments, particularly the mysterious feel to the cello theme in the second movement and any time the violin came to the fore.

Violist Mara Gearman chose Britten’s “Lachrymae,” Reflections on a Song of John Dowland, which the composer wrote for violist William Primrose in 1950 and which is a major addition to viola literature. It’s a theme with many short variations which all run into each other, but Britten only gives the 16th century Dowland’s actual melody at the end.

The work shows off the many assets of the viola with its rich sound, deeper not only in pitch but in quality. Gearman played this difficult, plaintive work superbly and with ease, accompanied by Ezhokina, a sympathetic partner.

Lastly came the Shostakovich quartet. Almost all Shostakovich’s work comes with baggage, i.e. it’s helpful to know the context or at least the date and how the Russian government was viewing artists at the time. He wrote this quartet in 1946, when the regime was again cracking down on anything artistic it considered out of its control.

On the surface, this quartet can be heard as quirkily light and cheerful, will-o-the-wispish, later like a rather wild dance, but underneath there are all sort sof undercurrents, and the will-o-the-wisp becomes grotesque, the dance frenetic, fearful, descending to chaos, the chords like gunshots. The last movement is like the dance of the heartbroken jester as he stumbles through his routine, becoming quieter and quieter to the end.

It was played here by violinists Elisa Barston and Mikhail Shmidt, Gearman, and cellist Walter Gray. Excellent ensemble work was a hallmark of a fine, expressive performance, but I felt the cheerful side of the quartet was prominent, that there was too little sense of the anguish which is there. I have often felt that Shostakovich’s works can only really be given their full impact when played by musicians who have lived under dictatorship, when they can make the hair rise on your neck. Nevertheless, I always leave a Shostakovich performance feeling I would like to hear it again.

The next chamber music performance by Seattle Symphony musicians will be April 22, and should be well worth hearing.

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2 thoughts on “Our own fine chamber musicians

  1. Clearly you are coming from an untenable premise.

    If you are always looking for the kind of “anguish” only “musicians who have lived under dictatorship” can produce, you are going to like Shostakovich performances less and less in the future, and that’s sad for you, because dictatorships are an endangered species.

    Sure, the quartet brought out the cheerful part of Shostakovich in mvt 1, and the audience gave a hearty group chuckle upon the playful release of the frenetic tension with the cutesy cadence. But that’s what the composer wanted. For movement 1.

    I am afraid you made up your reviewing mind right at the end of Mvt. 1 that this quartet performance was “too cheerful” for your taste. (Not to mention, gasp, only one of these quartet members is from the former CCCP….obviously they can’t do real “anguish” you must have said to yourself). But there was abundant “anguish” in the second movement, and the fourth, and most of fifth. Sure, you are writing your opinion, but you’re making it sound as if you heard the cheerful Mendelssohn Octet instead.

    I was there, and I cannot understand how you missed the “anguish” coming in waves during the Shostakovich performance (where they’re supposed to come) Friday night. Any more anguish, and you’ll be listening to Korean soap-opera soundtracks.

    Shostakovich is not Puccini. The anguish is not worn on lapels and stamped on foreheads or measured by the bucketfuls of tears. The deep silent anguish is only felt in contrast to the sardonic, twisted, superficially “cheerful” sections, passages, and movements, and the more the empty cheerful side is played up the more anguish and despair would also be emphasized….but never overtly.

    The trick as a Shostakovich performer is: how to convey maximum despair without showing any tears, without calling the whaaaa-mbulance? Because, you know comrade, the KGB is watching, and if you dare let down your guards and show your true emotions….(insert knife-finding-throat gesture here)

  2. Ms.Kiraly….if you are so snooty about the source of you Shosty Anguish (“must be played only by formerly oppressed musicians”) then may I ask for your creds?

    I mean how can I trust that you actually know what you’re pontificating about, let’s call it “authentic anguish,” if I can’t be sure you’ve ever lived und Stalinesque oppression yourself?

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