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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 6, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 06
Memorable performances, so-so programming at Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival
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Memorable performances, so-so programming at Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY
WINTER FESTIVAL
BENAROYA HALL
January 29


One great work brilliantly played and two mediocre works brilliantly played: that's my summary of the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) concert I attended last week.

Artistic Director James Ehnes, himself one of the finest violinists around, has introduced some extraordinary musicians to Seattle audiences. You can attend any SCMS concert with complete confidence that the quality of performance will be top-notch. However, his selection of compositions for each concert is not equally reliable.

The January 29 concert began with a masterwork: Johannes Brahms' Opus 101 piano trio. One of the wonders of Brahms is that he makes a few instruments sound like many. This pared-down late work, his final piano trio, grows from a three-note theme, which is developed and varied throughout the four movements. Ehnes, cellist Andrés Diaz, and pianist Orion Weiss interpreted the piece with feeling and played it splendidly. At the end of their performance, my companion said, 'Brahms is always so satisfying. Dang!'

If Brahms makes three instruments sound like ten, composer César Franck makes the five instruments of his piano quintet sound like two: a piano and a very loud stringed instrument. Scoring strings to play in unison can be an effective dramatic device, but Franck overdoes it and then some. Unlike Brahms, he uses the number of players primarily for volume, not for harmonic richness. Although both the Brahms trio and the Franck quintet are based on a single theme, Franck repeats his theme without enough variation to create interest.

Nonetheless, five superb musicians - violinists Karen Gomyo and Yosuke Kawasaki, violist Beth Guterman Chu, cellist Wendy Sutter, and pianist William Wolfram - gave the best performance imaginable of the Franck. Gomyo deserves special praise for her beautiful tone and expressive playing. The other three string players are new to SCMS, and they are all a welcome addition. Wolfram is capable of so much more than this piece gave him to do, but he did it admirably.

Between the Brahms and the Franck, violist Che-Yen Chen and pianist Anton Nel played Schubert's 'Arpeggione' sonata, which was written for an archaic six-stringed instrument and is today arranged for either cello or viola. The piece is not one of Schubert's best - it's overlong, repetitious, and boring - but it certainly showcases the virtuosity of the soloist. Chen's formidable technique and warm tone so impressed the audience that he received an immediate and prolonged standing ovation.

Nel is one of my favorite SCMS musicians. In more than 20 years at the summer and winter festivals, he has consistently demonstrated great musicianship, a sure touch, and subtlety of interpretation. His pre-concert recital of two wonderful Mozart pieces (the fantasy in C minor, K. 475, and the sonata in C minor, K. 457) was one of the main reasons I wanted to attend this particular evening of the Winter Festival. He made the unusual choice of playing the two pieces without interruption, with the fantasy as a prelude to the sonata. Now that I've heard the two pieces played as one, I never want to hear them any other way. Bravo, Mr. Nel!

The Winter Festival will have ended before press time, but the Summer Festival is coming up in July, with a roster of excellent musicians. Please keep in mind that the pre-concert recitals are free, as are open rehearsals, interviews with the musicians at Benaroya Hall, and an outdoor concert at Volunteer Park. In addition, all concerts are broadcast live on KING-FM and in several Seattle parks.

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

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