Mellow summer music, with extra spice from Charles Ives

Seattle Chamber Music Society at Lakeside School presents an opening week concert with warm and relaxed playing of German masters and a notably confident and exuberant performance of a rarely heard sonata by an eccentric American composer.
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Pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Scott St. John.

Seattle Chamber Music Society at Lakeside School presents an opening week concert with warm and relaxed playing of German masters and a notably confident and exuberant performance of a rarely heard sonata by an eccentric American composer.

The Seattle Chamber Music Society's second concert of this season, on Thursday, July 5, at Seattle's Lakeside School, featured two mellow pieces by Schumann and Brahms, separated by the first violin sonata of Charles Ives. The performances were fine, the audience appreciative, and the atmosphere agreeable. The surprise of the evening was that the two great icons of the German romantic era in music were upstaged by Ives, the quirky American from Connecticut who during his life enjoyed more esteem as an insurance industry executive than as a composer. In part this was due to the witty and illuminating introduction by pianist Jeremy Denk, who charmingly talked us through the piece's strange and unpredictable mixture of classical musical form with Civil War hymns and folk music from rural Connecticut. Violinist Scott St. John gave a confident and exuberant performance of the work. Between them, they delivered it with such an easy assurance and humor that one might have thought they had been playing it together for years, though this seems unlikely. In his talk, Denk described Ives as one of America's finest and most imaginative composers, deplored the neglect of his music in his own country, and challenged the audience to say how many of them had listened to any Ives on July 4. (Of course, none of us could raise a hand.) The neglect is the more surprising because, of all 20th century composers writing outside the conventions inherited from the 19th century, Ives is one of the easiest to listen to and to enjoy. The rarity of Ives performances makes it hard to say how well the music would last on repeated hearings. There are no such doubts, obviously, about Schumann or Brahms, though neither of their works given in this concert is among their most crowd-pulling. Schumann's Trio in F major, Opus 88, for violin, cello, and piano is less frequently heard than his Trio in D minor for the same combination. It has strongly characteristic themes, but the working out shows some of the reliance on formula and repetition that can mark his later music. Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Ronald Thomas (cello), and William Wolfram (piano) were the convinced and expressive players. Brahms' Quintet in F Opus 88 for the Mozartian combination of two violins, two violas, and cello ended the concert, with Seattle Chamber Music's Associate Artistic Director James Ehnes and Carmit Zori on violin, Cynthia Phelps and Richard Neal playing viola, and Robert de Maine on cello. This is Brahms at his warmest, most relaxed, and most genial, and the performers responded with playing of generous tone and, not least in the fine slow variation movement, admirable finesse. The energetic fugal finale brought the concert to a rousing end. It had been preceded by a short recital, open freely to all, in the Lakeside chapel in which James Ehnes and Robert de Maine played Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello. Having arrived a little late, I heard this through the loudspeakers that relay the Lakeside concerts to people sitting out on the lawn in front of the concert hall. The composition is to my mind one of Ravel's most interesting, ranking with the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for inwardness and intensity. So far as I could tell - outside there on the lawn there was some competition from Interstate 5 – this was a powerful and very accomplished performance. Seattle Chamber Music's Summer Festival - at Lakeside until July 27, and then at the Overlake School for another couple of weeks - provides programs of unusual interest. Performances are on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, and tickets can be hard to get. The festival is not the place to go for the mainstream string quartet repertory, because Director Toby Saks and her colleagues choose works for less usual combinations - strings and piano, and in August, for example, a Dohnanyi Sextet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet, Horn, and Piano. In doing so, the festival fills a valuable but neglected niche and gives opportunity to hear all sorts of fine but unusual music. Perhaps, in future years, it may enable us to hear the other three violin and piano sonatas of Charles Ives.


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