Seattle Chamber Music Society in Premiere by Gary Kulesha

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Kulesha, Dvořák: various artists, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 20.7.2012 (BJ)

Secure in the settled possession of one of the finest violinists now before the public—James Ehnes, formerly a frequent guest, and now artistic director—the Seattle Chamber Music Society concluded this program with the most impressive performance I have heard in years of Dvořák’s F-minor Piano Trio, Op. 65. Before that, however, the spotlight was trained on a new work commissioned by the SCMS Commissioning Club.

This was the Piano Quartet by the 57-year-old Canadian composer Gary Kulesha. First we had a pre-concert spoken introduction by the composer, an articulate and persuasive advocate for his own music, with excerpts from the piece played by violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Efe Baltacigil and pianist Orion Weiss.

The concert proper began with a little-known early Piano Trio by Debussy, written at the age of 18—a pleasant if relatively minor piece, to which a fluent performance by Stefan Jackiw on violin, Robert deMaine on cello, and Andrew Armstrong on piano did ample justice. Kalesha’s quartet, which followed, proved to be a charming work. Its style bore out Kulesha’s proclaimed desire, having put modernist techniques behind him, to explore other facets of human and musical expression beyond the Angst that serial and other techniques too often find it difficult to go beyond—or, to put it perhaps tendentiously, to rise above.

Played with evident dedication, the work evinced plenty of rhythmic vigor and vivid instrumental color. An idiom somewhere between tonality and what might be called post-tonality also enabled the composer to establish an often compelling sense of harmonic pulse. If the Quartet is to be judged by the highest standards, I would say that it is a shade unadventurous in texture: for too much of its length, it pits unison lines in the strings against chords in the piano. But to write a work that is serious without pomposity and entertaining without frivolity is a worthy achievement, and SCMS’s usual devoted audience clearly enjoyed the result.

The F-minor Trio is one of Dvořák’s greatest works, and its quality was comprehensively realized in the passionately committed and searingly beautiful performance that ended the evening. There were richly glinting tones and magisterially projected lines from Ehnes’s violin, supported by Julie Albers’s strong etching of the cello part. At the piano, Adam Neiman played as finely as I have heard him do in many excellent outings for the festival over the last few years, drawing particular brilliance from the composer’s exploitation of the keyboard’s upper registers. Thus music and performance combined to crown one of the most rewarding evenings the Society has achieved this summer.

Bernard Jacobson