Seattle Chamber Music Society: An Evolving Force in the City

15/08/2014

 Seattle Chamber Music Society: An Evolving Force in the City

After 30 years, the Seattle Chamber Music Society is a fixture in the city’s music scene. The pair of appealing seasons — winter and summer, which just concluded — are usually sold-out, financially well-endowed and highly respected. The summer season is a month of three concerts a week and the winter, six concerts over two weekends. More than 50 musicians, some local and some out-of-town, play the two festivals. They are mostly young with impressive resumes from leading schools, performances at prestigious halls on two continents, and a slew of awards.

Cellist Toby Saks, who had a substantial career on the East Coast before joining the University of Washington music faculty in the late 1970’s, had a dream of a chamber music festival. But that was about it. With ambition and determination and talent in her back pocket, she began to gather patrons with an interest in chamber music like Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, who were primary benefactors of all kinds of music ensembles in Seattle. At first were a handful of concerts every July at Lakeside School, a secondary school on the edge of the city with a New England prep school ambience. Immediately the series had cachet and quickly developed a reputation for performances of the standard literature. The festival grew slowly; the winter portion came later. The board of trustees was cautious. Every musician is paid the same fee. The only summer competitor was a branch of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which was not cautious financially and collapsed in a sea of debt.

In the early years, not every festival was an artistic success. Musicians were variable and inevitably so were performances. But there was always enough first-class musicmaking to keep sustain one’s interest. The Lakeside campus was pastoral charm itself, especially

with the al fresco suppers, and the festival held its own. Concerts were given in the school’s auditorium and the short pre-concert recitals in McKay Chapel. Saks pushed her audience toward musical adventure but never too much. The repertory was essentially conservative but not so much so that it was deadening. With Saks quietly giving approval, a handful of trustees took matters into their own hands and created a commissioning club.

Slowly change came. A winter season was inaugurated, the summer lengthened to a month, more musicians  added, and very important, the not-so-good ones were given their pink slips, replaced by better and better players. Audiences grew as well. Saks and her husband, Martin Green, provided a spacious house near Lake Washington for rehearsals (three could be held simultaneously without any bleeding of sound from one room to the next). Musicians were housed in private residences and ate well during rehearsal days with a professional cook in the kitchen. Administration was in the capable hands of Connie Cooper. Eventually Lakeside’s charm grew thin, including second-rate acoustics, and the society moved into Nordstrom Recital Hall, the smaller of the two performances venues at the newly opened Benaroya Hall downtown. Both recitals and concerts are held there, separated by about 30 minutes. Inevitably there were power struggles within the organization but they were rather sotto voce and did not reach the ears of public. The difficulties of Saks’ approaching retirement were handled with notable discretion. She fully retired last season, not long before her death from pancreatic cancer. This season was dedicated to her. She didn’t play so much anymore but her vision remained intact.

James Ehnes, the Canadian-born violinist, came to the festival as a very young man, and never left, even as his career expanded to two continents. He married, moved to the United States and had two children, the second of whom arrived unexpectedly during the festival.

While the repertory has not changed dramatically, there are slight variations in it. Musicians are engaged for fewer concerts, and some very familiar artists are not heard as often. Since he began to assume control of the festival—a slow, steady progress—musicians seemed

to get younger. They include Edward Aaron, Inon Barnatan, Augustin Hadelich, Ricardo Morales, Stefan Jackiw. Veterans include Ida Levin, Adam Nieman, Richard O’Neill, Jon Kimura Parker, Anna Polonsky, Cynthia Phelps, Stephen Rose, Orion Wess, Ronald Thomas and Bion Tsang.

Old hands have been saying for the past few years that this festival is the best ever. This is not just hype; it has the ring not only of enthusiastic loyalty but experience. The ensemble seems better, more cohesive, more tonally varied, more sophisticated in interpretation.

The Haydn String Quartet No. 62, the “Emperor,” was vivid and Brahms’ String Quintet in F, equally so for different reasons. Andrew Wan, now concertmaster with the Montreal Symphony, offered a Bach in G Minor Sonata for Solo Violin that was sensitive to period concerns but not a prisoner to them. I liked Beethoven’s B-flat Trio for clarinet, cello and piano for its suave reading and light-hearted manner. Nieman’s six preludes of Rachmaninoff possessed dynamic fury but were never overdone.

Violinist Alena Hove and soprano Denna Good-Majob, the winners of the 2014 society’s young artist award, revealed their technical accomplishments and refined musical manners (even though, on the down side, the festival has steered away from singers in general). Levin is always a musician one anticipates and this year she did not disappoint in Schumann’s Violin Sonata in A Minor. Barnatan was her very able partner. Chopin’s Cello Sonata, with Aaron and Barnatan, was not entirely successful. Barnatan overwhelmed Aaron too often, an easy thing to do given Chopin’s overwhelming attention to the piano. I found Shostakovich’s G Minor Piano Quintet to be pallid.

Violinist Alena Hove and soprano Denna Good-Majob, the winners of the 2014 society’s young artist award, revealed their technical accomplishments and refined musical manners (even though, on the down side, the festival has steered away from singers in general). Levin is always a musician one anticipates and this year she did not disappoint in Schumann’s Violin Sonata in A Minor. Barnatan was her very able partner. Chopin’s Cello Sonata, with Aaron and Barnatan, was not entirely successful. Barnatan overwhelmed Aaron too often, an easy thing to do given Chopin’s overwhelming attention to the piano. I found Shostakovich’s G Minor Piano Quintet to be pallid.

R.M. Campbell

R.M. Campbell was the music and dance critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 30 years and wrote for a number of other publications. His book, Stirring up Seattle: Allied Arts in the Civic Landscape, is due out this fall.

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