Midsummer night music, over the lake

Vigorous, intelligent playing at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival's second home at Overlake School.
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Anton Nel. (Harriet Burger)

Vigorous, intelligent playing at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival's second home at Overlake School.

The Seattle Chamber Music Society has now moved its six-week summer festival from Lakeside to Overlake school near Redmond. I attended a concert this Monday Aug. 11, which was a fine program of music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Ravel, showing the festival's characteristically eclectic mix of performers and combinations, with ten performers in four different formats. Two solo piano pieces by Beethoven in the free "pre-concert," including the late Sonata in E major Opus 109, were followed in the main concert by the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel, an early Mozart String Quintet, and Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio to end the evening.

Anton Nel, a performing artist and teacher originally from South Africa but now based in Texas, was the pianist in all the Beethoven pieces. He showed a fine technique and an impeccable sense of style in the rarely played but demanding middle period Rondo in G. His performance of the late E major Sonata was throughout carefully considered; the elusive first movement came over well without any overstatement, and the extraordinary concluding variations were played at an apt tempo — they can drag if played too slowly — and at the end with a fine sense of repose and closure.

For the "Archduke" Trio, Nel was joined by violinist Ida Levin and cellist Robert deMaine. Between them, they gave this masterpiece a well balanced, vigorous, and musicianly performance, bringing out very well its energy, optimism, and humor. Particularly characterful was the scherzo, played with great verve. The performance gained impetus as it progressed, and provided the concert with a rousing end, provoking from the audience what one might call a "Seattle Standing Ovation" — people leap to their feet after the last chord, and two or three seconds later are on their way to the parking lot.

Ravel and Mozart shared the first half. Joseph Lin and Amos Yang played the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello, which by coincidence had featured in a Seattle Chamber Music Festival pre-concert I reviewed last year when it was played by James Ehnes and Robert deMaine. It is a fine and somewhat neglected piece, well worth hearing more frequently than it is usually programmed. Underneath its suave surface this is spare, edgy, and inward music whose character was well caught by Lin and Yang. Yang is on a welcome return from San Francisco, where he is now Assistant Principal Cello after leaving the Seattle Symphony.

It is a cliché that much of the music Mozart wrote in his youth is astonishingly precocious, but the String Quintet in B flat K 174, written in the composer's seventeenth year, fully deserves such a description (but not any implication it may have of superficiality). Vibrant, inventive, with great variety of mood and color, it is the first of Mozart's six great compositions for the classical string quartet with an added viola. There is little if anything finer in Mozart's chamber music than these quintets, but they are rarely heard in live performance, presumably because touring string quartets, or the impresarios who engage them, are reluctant to incur the cost and trouble of an extra player for one piece in a program otherwise consisting of quartets. (Curiously, however, there is not the same reluctance with the Schubert String Quintet which needs an extra cello and is often performed). The Festival programmed the Mozart Quintet in C last year, and it is to be hoped will showcase them all in future years.

On this occasion, an ensemble led by Scott Yoo did the Quintet full justice. The eloquent dialogues between Richard O'Neill on first viola and the leader made a particularly good impression. The performance was generally richly toned and athletic, though not enhanced by the platform mannerisms of one or two of the players.

The Overlake School Fulton Performing Arts Center proved acoustically very satisfactory, and suitable in size for an event of this kind. The concert attracted a near capacity audience, which made up in enthusiasm for a rather noticeable lack of youth. There are two further Festival concerts this week, Wednesday and Friday nights.


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