World Premiere Promises More Than It Delivers

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Dillon, and Mozart: Various artists, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 8.7.2012 (BJ)

Beethoven: Ten Variations on Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu, Op. 121a
Dillon: Sanctuary (world premiere)
Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major for String Trio, K. 563

With a quirky set of variations by Beethoven opening the proceedings, and one of Mozart’s greatest chamber works ending the evening, it would be gratifying to report that the new work in the middle of the program was worthy of its company. But it would also, I’m afraid, be a tad Panglossian.

Commissioned from the 54-year-old American composer Lawrence Dillon by the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s enterprising Commissioning Club, Sanctuary, 20 minutes in duration, turned out to be a sufficiently listener-friendly piece, but it reminded me of the late David Drew’s wonderful concept of a “Society for the Promotion of 20th-Century Program Notes.” Like Dillon’s amiable introductory talk, his program note adumbrated a work that would explore varying notions of refuge from oppressive forces, “connecting the world in which we live to the world we imagine.”

The reality as we heard it, however, proved considerably less arresting than its verbal description. The first movement in particular, which took its title Domed and Steepled Solitude from a phrase of Mark Twain’s, was said to pit “overwhelming clamor against quiet introspection,” but its contrast of recurring forceful chords with sustained notes on the muted violins was rudimentary, and lacked any strong sense of purpose. The concluding movement, titled A Reliable Pulse, seemed to me the most successful of the four, eschewing philosophical pretensions in favor of some genuinely diverting dance rhythms and syncopations.

Dillon can certainly write well for the instruments of his choice, and the performance, by Jeffrey Fair on horn, Nurit Bar-Josef and James Ehnes on violins, Rebecca Albers on viola, Julie Albers on cello, Jordan Anderson on double bass, and Andrew Russo on piano, was impressively committed.

So too was the performance of Beethoven’s Schneider Kakadu Variations by violinist Andrew Wan, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist Anton Nel. Lastly we were treated to a stylish account of Mozart’s superb string trio, K. 563, a work whose formal scope and expressive profundity make its “Divertimento” title seem altogether too modest. Partnered by Cynthia Phelps’s sonorous viola—cellist Ronald Thomas was perhaps a shade too reticent by contrast—Augustin Hadelich’s vibrant violin tone set the pace in a dashing yet sensitive reading of the first movement, with its peachy subordinate theme.

It was a pity that the players omitted the second repeat here, but in the fifth movement, a minuet with two trios, they neatly highlighted the effects called for by Mozart’s meticulously detailed instructions for varying the da capos. And the magically innocent and tuneful finale (in which a brief contretemps, when Hadelich’s multi-page part fell from his stand to the floor, was handled with unfazed good humor by both musicians and audience) brought the concert to a beautifully paced and vividly articulated conclusion.

Bernard Jacobson