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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 31 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 05
Chamber music flourishes in Winter Festival
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Chamber music flourishes in Winter Festival

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY
WINTER FESTIVAL
BENAROYA HALL
January 26


If you're a music lover and you've never attended a Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) concert, please do something about that as soon as possible. It really doesn't matter which concert you pick, because they're always splendid. I predict you'll be hooked for life, as I was in 1991, nine years after the late, great Toby Saks founded SCMS.

Saks's recipe for establishing and maintaining the stellar reputation of the SCMS festivals was all about excellence and balance. She discovered fabulous musicians, gave them great music to play, and made their time in Seattle so enjoyable that they wanted to return. She programmed each concert with a pleasing mix of old favorites, little-known pieces by well-known composers, and new compositions. Every season she added a gifted young musician or two to the mix.

In the mid-1990s, she introduced the insanely talented and charming violinist James Ehnes, then barely 20 years old. Several of Ehnes's equally accomplished cohorts soon joined in and infused the festivals with new vitality. I remember driving home from one electrifying concert during a summer festival that featured Ehnes, violist Richard O'Neill, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianists Wendy Chen, Jeremy Denk, and Adam Neiman, and thinking, 'In a few years all of them will be too famous to want to come back.' It took me a while to realize that there's no such thing as being too famous to want to come back to an SCMS festival.

A couple of years ago, Saks turned over the artistic directorship to Ehnes, who has proved a worthy successor. The January 26 concert that I attended was a good example of his smart programming and his ability to incorporate exciting new artists into the festivals.

Violinist Ruth Palmer, a newcomer to SCMS, blazed into the winter fog with a white-hot performance of the Bach Partita No. 2. This piece's concluding movement is the gorgeous, fiendishly difficult chaconne, which Palmer played with great skill and intensity.

Following the solo recital - have I mentioned that the pre-concert recitals are free and open to the public? - came a wonderfully satisfying concert of trios. Benjamin Beilman and Ida Levin on violin joined O'Neill for a delightful, rarely performed Terzetto by Antonín Dvorák. I hadn't heard Beilman play before and was very much impressed with his sweet, full tone, which Levin and O'Neill's rhythmic drive complemented perfectly.

Brahms's Piano Trio Op. 87, a larger, more serious piece, was beautifully performed by Ehnes, cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Max Levinson.

Some audience members left during the intermission that followed the Brahms, and they missed the pièce de résistance: Shostakovich's Piano Trio Op. 67.

The unforgettable performance of Palmer, Tsang, and pianist Rohan De Silva (a festival newcomer) brought out all the grief, sardonic humor, and ferocious anger of this momentous trio, which Shostakovich wrote in 1944 to commemorate the death of a close friend and, indirectly, the suffering of Russian Jews.

The works chosen by Ehnes for this concert illuminated one another, each piece preparing the listener to hear the next with greater understanding. Each includes a distinctive theme-and-variations movement (the final movement of the Bach and Dvorák, the second movement of the Brahms, and the third movement of the Shostakovich). Each contains dance elements and passages of exceptional rhythmic propulsion. Each demands musicians with courage, panache, and technical mastery. Well done, Mr. Ehnes.

You can sample the remaining concerts of the current festival, which runs through February 2, on KING-FM or king.org; but for chamber music, nothing matches a live performance. The communication among the musicians and between the musicians and the audience in the intimate setting of Nordstrom Recital Hall is remarkable. Sometimes the energy makes the walls bulge out. You have to be there.

For information about the concerts and educational events sponsored by SCMS, visit seattlechambermusic.org.

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