SSO musicians take to Nordstrom in wide ranging chamber program

By Philippa Kiraly

It’s always enlightening to go to hear Seattle Symphony musicians playing chamber music, as they now do regularly at Nordstrom Recital Hall. The chance to hear players not merged in a group, with often unusual offerings, were again what drew audience to Friday night’s concert.

The unusual was the string quartet, his only one, composed by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1945. This is a remarkable work, some 30 minutes long, of considerable complexity: a piece that would take multiple hearings to take in its full measure, its layers, its intricate justapositions of rhythm and melody, its combination of European style and Brazilian musical heritage. It would be hard to hum any part of it, though often one instrument would have a long melodic line with the other two playing unexpected decorative accompaniments around it. It was given a masterly performance by violinist Mariel Bailey, cellist Bruce Bailey and guest cellist Laura Renz, a well balanced trio.

The ensuing Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat major could however have been titled in this performance as Piano Sonata with violin accompaniment. Balance was extremely lopsided with the extensive piano part in an over-enthusiastic performance all too often rolling over the violin.

Emma McGrath, associate concertmaster of the Symphony, is a very fine player with beautiful, honeyed depth to her tone, but only in patches could one hear this. The sound of her violin was rarely completely drowned but often it could only be heard as a thin line.

The pianist was Ben Hausmann, the orchestra’s excellent and sensitive principal oboe, wearing another hat. From the start his approach to the Strauss was startling, cutting where it should have been just crisp, over loud where it needed just to be loud, often with entrances out of sync with the flow of the music. The piano part is huge.

Strauss, probably also in an excess of enthusiasm (he was only 23 when he composed it) wrote a very heavy part with a plethora of notes, seemingly almost as many as a Brahms piano concerto. Hausmann played with a great deal of pedal and unfortunately quite a few missed or incorrect notes and what felt like disregard for the violin.

Where he did play more quietly, his touch and innate sensitivity came back to the fore, and the duet between the two instruments were something to be savored, but these moments were too few.

Finally, concertmaster Maria Larionoff with guest pianist Robin McCabe played another violin sonata, this time No. 2 in D Major by Prokofiev.

It felt like coming home to hear this familiar work, after the demanding, fascinating Villa-Lobos, and the assault of the Strauss. These two played as a violin sonata should be played, as a matched pair, with the melodies and harmonies of each instrument interweaving to create a nuanced whole. The result was sheer pleasure.

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5 thoughts on “SSO musicians take to Nordstrom in wide ranging chamber program

  1. There appear to be several errors in this review. The reviewer first calls the Villa-Lobos work a “quartet,” then lists three players, calling them a well-balanced “trio.” Furthermore, I believe Laura Renz is a violist, not a cellist.

  2. Re Villa-Lobos Quartet you write: “It was given a masterly performance by violinist Mariel Bailey, cellist Bruce Bailey and guest cellist Laura Renz, a well balanced trio.”

    I am wondering how anyone who is writing reviews can make such a mistake… Are you actually qualified to even be doing this?

  3. I was at this concert, and I’ll defend Phillipa Kiraly’s assessment of it, if not her precision in describing the Villa Lobos. In fact, the work was his only string trio (Villa Lobos wrote many string quartets), played ably by Mariel Bailey, Bruce Bailey, and violist Laura Renz.

    Kiraly’s description of both the Strauss and Prokofiev performances was quite accurate. I did think that Emma McGrath was not in the least cowed by the volume of sound coming from Haussman’s piano — she held her own quite ably. I liked their fire and brimstone approach to this work on Friday night. It’s not the usual way that violin sonatas are played, but that made it interesting. You wouldn’t want to hear everything played this way, but as a change of pace, it was quite refreshing.

    As for Larionoff and McCabe, they were sublime.

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