Chamber music concerts make case for local talent

Morton Feldman and John Cage.

Like most cities with an active cultural life, we are spoiled by performances from some of the biggest and best names around.  They come through Benaroya Hall each season, dazzle with their stardom and occasionally their playing.  Because of the enterprising work of Toby Saks and the Seattle Chamber Music Society, we are also privy to emerging talent long before they make it big. So dominant are the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s festivals that it has been said to me that some patrons subscribe only to the summer and winter festival and nothing else. No Seattle Symphony. No opera. No UW World Series. Nothing but chamber music from July to August and a long weekend in January each and every year.  Meanwhile, there are countless organizations, groups, and individual musicians toiling away with exceptional performances that are barely, if at all, noticed by music lovers or the press.

In the past month, three performances, barely covered — if at all by the mainstream media — showcased the depth of the chamber music talent right here in Seattle. Three concerts, and three ensembles that in any other city would have found healthy appreciation.

Under the auspices of the Russian Chamber Music Foundation, the Finisterra Trio closed out the Foundation’s winter concert. The trio has been soaking in the accolades lately. Their newish release on Naxos of Daron Hagen’s piano trios has garnered praise from all corners of the classical music press. The group is also the ensemble in residence at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. The trio offered the substance on a program that earlier featured the lighter contributions of the Seattle Violin Virtuosi.

Anton Arensky is known for only a handful of works these days. His unusual quartet fro two cellos, two piano trios, and a smattering of piano pieces. His obscurity is the result of a derivative style. An early influence was Rimsky Korsakov. Later, Tchaikovsky’s ideas imposed on Arensky. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio appeared in 1882 and twelve years later Arensky came out with his first trio. Supple Tchaikovskian melodies are everywhere in the piece, drifting effortlessly between the instrumentalists. The brooding main theme of Arensky’s first movement is reminiscent of the primary theme in Tchaikovsky’s trio. Passion, muscle and grace mixed together in the Finisterra Trio’s performance. Even though the music is sentimental, the trio seemed to keep this aspect of the music at some distance. Although it sounded less emotional, the playing was technically charged. The trio ended the afternoon with Rodion Shchedrin’s Three Funny Pieces — a bawdy collection of miniatures the group hammed up with over-the-top mugging to the audience.

A few weeks later Jane Harty and Music Northwest continued their long tradition of interesting chamber programs in West Seattle. The draw on the program for me, was Morton Feldman’s Two Instruments for cello and French Horn. The concert’s theme — low notes — presented the entire chamber repertory for the combination of cello and French Horn. Both instruments are used in orchestral music to lay a melancholy undercoat of sound behind the rest of the orchestra. When the spotlight shines on either the cello always get the moody solo and the horn always belts out a noble call that rises above the orchestral mass of sound . Feldman’s piece doesn’t deviate from these understandings of the cello and the horn. Amram’s Three Songs for Marlboro do.

Since there isn’t much, three pieces according to cellist Ruth Marshall, the first half of the concert combined Brahms’ F major Cello Sonata with Jean Francaix’s Divertimento for French Horn and Piano. The two pieces contrast sharply. Francaix’s set is filled with short bubbling ideas, while Brahms’ tensely shifts between storm and stress. Brahms’s brooding sonata is full of familiar moods for the cello, but for the French Horn, Francaix’s trippy joy sounded peculiar on the instrument. The stars of Music Northwest’s concert were the duo of Marshall and horn player Danielle Kuhlmann. Young and energetic, both are at the start of their musical careers. Youth brings advantages — daring, technical prowess, urgency — to  performances. These advantages sparked charismatic performances of Brahms’ sonata and Amram’s Three Songs. Less successful was Feldman’s Two Instruments which required more nuance than the duo gave.  Because it is a rarely played piece, it was nonetheless a pleasure to hear the work played by Marshall and Kuhlmann.

The next night, the Onyx Chamber Players filled the basement of Town Hall for their annual celebration of Ludwig Beethoven. Gigi Yellen wrote about the concert for TGN. I won’t repeat her critique. The members of the ensemble hail from Seattle (Meg Brennard), Chicago (David White), and New York (James Garlick). Garlick, the newest member of the group, left Seattle last year for graduate studies at Juiliard. The training is paying off with more stable, fuller playing. This is only the second time I have heard White play, but I am coming to believe he is one of the best active pianists playing in Seattle regularly. His playing reflects careful study and an awareness that he isn’t the only performer on stage. On cello, Brennard was a soulful and enthusiastic partner too.

For more information about each:

www.musicnorthwest.org

www.onyxchamberplayers.com

www.russianchambermusic.org

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