Chamber music: the Lakeside formula

A recent concert shows both the rewards and the pitfalls of Seattle Chamber Music Festival's philosophy of programming with mix-and-match musicians from the summer circuit.
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Violinist James Ehnes.

A recent concert shows both the rewards and the pitfalls of Seattle Chamber Music Festival's philosophy of programming with mix-and-match musicians from the summer circuit.

On Monday evening, July 14, the Seattle Chamber Music Society kicked off the second week in its summer festival, now under way at the Lakeside School. It was Bastille Day by the calendar, but revolution has never been the point of the SCMS festival.

Instead, while the programming did make a bow to French composers — big pieces by Ernest Chausson and Ravel dominated the evening mdash; it was all very much in line with the formula that the SCMS has found serves so reliably for its wildly popular and longstanding celebration of live chamber music in a summer setting.

Essentially this involves a menu as follows: Pick a well-known composer (sometimes represented by an unusual twist), an infrequently encountered choice from the vast chamber lit, and round it all off in the second half with a rousing powerhouse work. (Items that are more off the beaten path — a new A.J. Kernis piece or Ives's Piano Sonata No. 1, to cite some recent examples — tend to be reserved for the pre-concert recitals.)

Contained within this predictable framework is the unpredictable element of collaboration. The large roster of participating high-caliber musicians allows for ever-changing configurations from among a nice mix of generations — with some playing together for the first time while others are recurrent partners, both within the SCMS context and crisscrossing elsewhere at chamber festivals.

Indeed, much of a given evening's potential excitement (or lack thereof) comes from on-the-fly choices as the players engage with each other and the eager audience. The latter extends from the typically sardine-packed Chapel recital space to music lovers encamped on Lakeside's rolling lawn, toes pointed skyward as the music plays over speakers.

Excitement — and a good deal more, including hairs literally flying off the string bows — was certainly in the air for a number of reasons in both the Chausson and Ravel. The latter's Trio in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano emerged as the thrilling highlight and topped off the evening. It's a strikingly textured and emotionally complex piece, typically labored over by Ravel with exquisite care but completed in a surge of inspiration shortly after the First World War broke out (and in which the composer subsequently enlisted, working as a driver). Perhaps its most fascinating aspect overall is how Ravel comes to the fundamental challenge of balancing keyboard and string textures from a completely fresh point of view.

And that's exactly how violinist James Ehnes (who also serves as the festival's associate artistic director), cellist Robert deMaine, and Adam Neiman on piano approached the work, applying yet another layer of insight into the sometimes-bizarre little organisms of sound and ensemble Ravel examines under his microscope. The slow movement, for instance — styled as a chaconne — features a passage where the piano ducks out, leaving the field to an aching duo for the strings, but later leads the others to a close with its dark dragging pattern. All three musicians were on trigger alert for Ravel's revels in meter in the finale, which climaxes by pitting the strings against piano in a radiant, orchestra-mimicking outburst.

It made for a fascinating contrast not only compositionally, but in terms of what it elicited from the performers, with Chausson's more homogeneous early Trio in G minor for the same instrumental combo — performed by Stefan Jackiw on violin (a young emerging star), cellist Ronald Thomas, and pianist Jeremy Denk. Here the fun lay in discerning how the musicians dug into Chausson's hefty late-romantic rhetoric, ripe as a rich brie, while getting us to set aside our contemporary skepticism and buy it too — at least for its duration.

It was hard not to be pulled in by the luxuriant brocade of sound Thomas and Jackiw wove as they teasingly played off each other's phrasings. Denk — whose playing has an intriguing edge, as if you've caught him in the process of suddenly feeling his way through a new insight — worked up the collective groove. At the beginning of the final movement, all three winked knowingly at what turns out to be an emotional feint, a false start that suggests liberation from the prevailing gloom before we're drawn back in to the tragic maelstrom.

The strategy of bringing various ad hoc ensembles together can obviously boost the spontaneity quotient, with results that are especially desirable for chamber music. But it can also backfire. That's what happened, in my opinion, in the opening work of the concert. Here the choice ("well-known composer with a twist") was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major (K. 414), but in the reduction the composer himself made for a growing market of domestic music making. It's an extraordinary piece, since this was the first piano concerto Mozart wrote after striking out on the bold path of a freelance musical life in Vienna (for several years the genre would serve him well, providing fresh material for concerts in which the composer also performed the solo part).

So it's hardly surprising that the Concerto bubbles with ideas and sudden, unexpected turns of thought. Mozart's arrangement of the orchestration for string quartet (here with Stephen Rose and Lily Francis on violins, Richard O'Neill on viola, and SCMS festival artistic director Toby Saks on cello) affords a chance to hear this already-lucid music from an unusually close-up perspective. (It's hardly an exact parallel, but listen to one of Liszt's piano arrangements of a Beethoven symphony and you get a sense of the different light that can be shed on a familiar work in a different "medium.")

However, the quartet's playing sounded tired and routine rather than spontaneous — a lot of wheel spinning just where Mozart's transitions should sound magical, a new riff on old ideas. Phrasings lacked cohesion and color. Pianist Alon Goldstein, in contrast, really had something to say with this music (he in fact recently played it at another festival in Pennsylvania), contributing a spellbinding lyricism to Mozart's dusk glow of an Andante and a neat rhythmic snap to the final movement. But it was as if Goldstein and the ensemble were playing on separate tracks, the latter struggling to engage with the quick rush of his ideas.

Part of the problem may have been that the Mozart felt tacked on rather than integral to the program. I would have been much more satisfied with the Schumann Violin Sonata (Op. 105) played in the prelude recital in its place. Both Jackiw and Neiman alternated in a casual but illuminating introduction — respectively wearing complementary all-black and all-white suits, a neat visual pun — before launching into an exciting performance of the Sonata.

What emerged was a real sensitivity to the contradictions and dichotomies in Schumann's musical personality — possible reflections of his own mental disintegration in this late-period work. It would have made an intriguing counterpoint to Chausson's introspection and Ravel's own wide-ranging fantasy in the Trio, which ends with an oversize exuberance that tempts you to imagine Ravel trying to blot out fears of the new war just begun.


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