On a sunny May morning — one of the few spring-like days in a season of incomparable gloom — I lock my bike to a tree in an upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood; pulse quickening to allegro ma non troppo, I mount to the front door of an imposing house. I pause to savor the moment, wishing I had perhaps worn a better shirt. From deep inside, familiar voices of piano and strings faintly hum. Per instructions, rather than knock, I squeeze down the latch and heave the door gently inward. I am at the home of Jan Condit, a local arts benefactor and music lover, to attend a rehearsal of the Onyx Chamber Players.
I am not the only guest. Sitting at the end of the hall facing the living room, Jean Johnson and David Lowe, longtime friends of the group, are also listening; David straddles a chair with the score for Schubert's Trio in E-flat propped open on an ottoman, Johnson is settled in an armchair, chin resting reflectively on the palm of her hand. I take a spot in another armchair and fall under Schubert's spell.
My reverie is soon broken. This is no performance, but a hard-working rehearsal on a tight schedule. David White, pianist, works in Chicago; James Garlick, violinist, is pursuing a masters degree in music at Julliard. Only Meg Brennand, cellist, is a full-time Seattleite, with commitments to Seattle Baroque Orchestra, other groups, and teaching. Despite the time constraints, the Onyx Chamber Players mount five or six concerts a year, preparing in intense rehearsal periods of just a few days.
With an all-Schubert concert coming up Sunday (May 29) at Town Hall, and an all-American program June 17 at St. Mark's Cathedral, the artists are focused on details. After welcoming me, the group quickly returns to task on Schubert's massive Piano Trio in E-flat major.
Onyx is notable for its crystalline sound and dynamic connection with each other and their audience — not with flamboyancy (though David White is certainly a dramatic performer and speaker) but with the spark of creation. Here in rehearsal, it is fascinating to watch the discipline that enables such spontaneity.
On first impression, David White directs. Calling an abrupt halt, he zeroes in on one measure, comparing articulations in the cello and violin parts. White is a presence in any setting: balding, strong-featured, verbal, and forceful. Today he is wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt, and I think he must either have a side job in construction, or work out a lot — he's not someone I would care to wrestle with, physically or intellectually. Biceps bulging, he thrusts an arm at James Garlick's score: "Don't be in any hurry here," he says, moments later adding to both his collaborators: "It's not 'gypsy' enough, not enough sweep."
So White wears the pants in this ménage-à-trois, I think. Wrong.
Minutes later, working another section, Meg Brennand frowns: "Either we are 'under-nourished' or David is playing too loudly..." Some discussion follows on the qualities of Jan Condit's piano versus the concert grand downstairs at Town Hall, the group's favored venue. Brennand delicately adds: "Audiences suggest that sometimes the strings are a bit covered by the piano parts." White responds obliquely, directing at me a brief explanation of Schubert's extensive revisions of the Trio in E-flat major.
The version Onyx is preparing is a hybrid of the three known versions of the piece, with much of the original dense piano scoring intact alongside the pared-down string parts of Schubert's "death-bed" edition. White knows his music history and theory; every concert includes a brief, and always entertainingly informative, talk. It seems to be in his blood.
Violinist Garlick, who joined Onyx in 2009, comes across at first as a slightly deferential junior member, if only because of his boyish good looks and reserved manner. He, too, soon speaks his mind.
"I think it's too loud," he opines after listening to White and Brennand's piano-cello duet in the second movement. They discover that Brennand's score is missing a notation shared by the piano. Discussion includes comments such as White's "the polytonality of these three measures should not be missed," and Brennand's suggestion to Garlick: "Let's change the accent to the downbow."
"Am I still sounding 'pecky'?" asks Garlick. "I think so," says Brennand, "but maybe it's just me..."
After much close work, they run through the movement, and I sit back to enjoy: The rough spots are largely smoothed away; the layers and shimmering depths of Schubert's final opus fill the room. Onyx is working its magic.
Later, over cold cuts and salad on Jan Condit's sunny garden patio, I learn more about Onyx' rocky road.
White co-founded the group 11 years ago as the Queen Anne Chamber Players, with Brennand and violinist Andrea Chandler. David Brewster, seemingly everywhere (and currently publisher of Crosscut), had a hand in promoting them in their early days; Jan Condit invited them to a series of concerts at her spacious home in North Bend, and continues to offer her living room in Seattle for rehearsals. Violinist Cecilia Archuleta replaced Chandler early on and remained until 2009. It was she who suggested the name "Onyx Chamber Players," apparently as a reference to the polished gleam of a grand piano.
White's influence and interests are reflected in Onyx's concert history of year-long programs of Mozart, Beethoven, and a bicentennial commemoration of Haydn's death and Mendelssohn's birth. By his own admission, White has ceded much influence to Brennand and Garlick, agreeing to more flexible programming that still highlights particular composers. Modern work also features in their repertoire: The June 17 concert at St. Mark's includes the Piano Quintet of 20th-century composer Amy Beach (with violist Melvin Butler and violinist Laurel Wells), Philip Glass' Facades, and David White's Piano Trio.
Repertoire aside, Onyx has an approach to music that sets it apart.
"We play the music looking forward from the time it was composed, not back," explains White. "We keep the music rooted in the tradition of its period, and that includes a sound and a dynamic, even a performance style, contemporaneous with its composition. We don't impose later sensibilities. It's just not historically accurate."
Onyx has weathered some formidable challenges in its own history. Brennand survived stage 3 cancer; after her return to Onyx, White suffered a pianist's worst nightmare, severing tendons in his right hand in a knife accident. Miraculously, he fully recovered control. Once back together, however, differences led to Cecilia Archuleta's withdrawal and the search for a new violinist.
Garlick, according to Brennand and White, was a lucky find.
"We both are grounded in early music," explains Brennand. "That's helped us meet in the music. And James is just so gifted." Both Garlick and Brennand perform with Seattle Baroque Orchestra; the lightness and transparency of baroque sound inform their work with classical and even early romantic composers, according to Brennand. "David's amazing virtuosity as a pianist makes it possible for us to explore all the colors of these works; it's what gives Onyx our unique voice."
There is more to it than that. Watching Onyx perform is a bit like watching acrobats: precision timing, utter concentration, watchful joy, and the sense over and over again that each member is there with and for the others. If anything, this interpersonal dynamic has improved with the addition of Garlick.
"It's tough to join a group with two established members," White says. "But on the other side, you have something to grab onto. Meg and I have a very common philosophy about why to make music in the first place. We enhance each other, and we have over all these years. And I think that's made it easier for James, too, to come in on the tail end of it."
"Can you describe that philosophy?" I ask.
"Well, it's getting to the music from the inside out. Performers are a dime a dozen, but composers are the great geniuses. Meg just has a real gift; she plays the music, not the score. She cares about getting into the soul of the music. It's not that other people can't do it or don't do it, but Meg has a unique" — for once White seems at a loss for words.
Garlick helps him: "We all take the ego out of the performer, which is rare. I think one of the great things about playing with David and Meg is that you feel it's about the music, and about something more important than the performer."
Perhaps that is the Onyx magic: an alchemy derived from devotion to the music, respect for one another, and willingness to perform dangerously at the creative edge of possibility. Layered brilliance, inner light, and unmistakable authenticity make the Onyx Chamber Players a true gem.
If you go: Onyx Chamber Players, 7 p.m. Sunday (May 29), Town Hall Seattle (downstairs), 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. With guest artists J. Melvin Butler, viola, and Steve Schermer, double bass. Tickets cost $20 ($18 seniors, $10 for 25 and under). More information by phone (800-838-3006) or online. Also: All-American program, 7:30 p.m. June 17, Saint Mark's Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle, WA. Tickets cost $18/$12 and are available at the Cathedral Shop at the church, by phone (206-323-1040), or at the door on the night of the performance.