A Festival’s Growth to Maturity

United StatesUnited States Seattle Chamber Music Society, Winter Festival: James Ehnes (artistic director and violin), Anne-Marie McDermott and Orion Weiss (piano), Cynthia Phelps (viola), Robert deMaine and Andres Diaz (cello). Nordstrom Recital Hall, Seattle, Washington.  23.1.2015 (RC)

The Seattle Chamber Music Society, more than 25 years old, began as a modest affair on the verdant campus of a private school. It grew slowly but surely, its strong administration and board keeping in check the ambitions of its founding artistic director Toby Saks. Other festivals came and went. Growing from a couple of weeks in the summer to a full month of three concerts a week, the festival transformed itself into a local institution. The musicians got better and better—and younger, particularly as violinist and current artistic director James Ehnes’ influence grew in importance. He arrived on the festival’s doorstep before he was 20 and now he is in his early forties. Ehnes has always been a first-class musician, who simply became a more mature player. There was also a major shift, this time in venue. People moaned about the loss of the original pastoral setting, but realized Nordstrom Recital Hall was a vast improvement not only in terms of location, but acoustics and size.

A winter portion was inaugurated some years ago to stretch the festival. The format is the same: a 30-minute concert—the choice of repertoire to be determined by the musician—precedes the full recital. Full houses are now routine—even in the initial half hour—which did not used to be the case. What has not changed is the repertory. It is, for all practical purposes, standard fare: a little of the Baroque era, a little more from the 20th and 21st centuries, and everything else from the 19th. The society occasionally ventures into unknown territory, and often with surprisingly enthusiastic results from audiences, and has also begun a club of patrons who commission new works.

One of the most exciting moments of the entire festival was the performance of Vivaldi’s four concertos (Nos. 5, 8, 10, 11) from his “L’estro armonico.” There were nine musicians: four violinists, two violists, and one cellist, double bassist and harpsichordist. The violinists, led by Ehnes, had the major assignments with each musician taking first chair with a concerto. The rest are mostly continuo although the cello has several virtuosic passages which Robert deMaine, now principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, delivered with great flourish. The nine played with enormous accuracy and joie de vivre. Rarely has Vivaldi sounded so alive. Although the harpsichord was a gesture to Baroque practices, the strings were not, and the combination was actually rather felicitous. Also in the Baroque world was Handel’s D Major Sonata (HWV371), with Ehnes as the violinist. He didn’t particularly observe period style, but was a persuasive proponent for himself. French harpsichordist Luc Beausejour was his fine partner.

Beethoven contributed two works, an early string trio (Op. 3) and violin sonata (Op. 30, No. 2). The trio is not without its charm but after a while it simply seems too long, even with such expert advocates as violinist Erin O’Keefe, violist Cynthia Phelps and deMaine. The violin sonata is a superb work of great depth, and Ehnes played with intelligence and finesse. All of these sonatas give the pianist a lot do, and Orion Weiss met the challenges with aplomb. Another violin sonata was from Mozart, in B-flat Major (K. 454). Violinist Karen Gomyo has a big tone and big technique which she used to great advantage. The pianist Anton Nel, a festival veteran, was fully her equal.

Paired with the Vivaldi was Mozart’s quintet for piano and winds (K. 452), a perfect opening gesture for the program. The musicians were all local except for pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who has always been an appealing chamber music musician. If my memory serves me correctly, this appearance marked her festival debut. I hope she returns.

Ernst von Dohnanyi has been performed rather a lot during festival days, and he is always well served. His Piano Quintet in C Minor was given a like treatment—incisive but long-limbed.

Two big-time works that are meant too close a program did so: Mendelssohn’s F Minor Piano Quartet and Brahms’ String Sextet B-flat Major, although both composers have been more profound on other occasions. The musicians played with verve.


Richard Campbell



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