James Ehnes is subtly changing the Seattle Chamber Music Festival

The acclaimed Canadian violinist brings some welcome new approaches, but a few bad habits linger on.
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Violinist James Ehnes.

The acclaimed Canadian violinist brings some welcome new approaches, but a few bad habits linger on.

With the conclusion of its 31st Summer Festival this coming Sunday (July 29), the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) is rounding off its first complete season under new artistic director James Ehnes. If the transition seems unusually smooth and seamless, that's because from the start Ehnes made it clear that his plan is to emphasize continuity over abrupt change.

“What I have in mind for the festival,” Ehnes said last summer, “is to refine and expand on its possibilities.”  Instead of calling for a radical facelift, he is introducing more subtle modifications to the long-established character of the festival. Ehnes himself has been a familiar part of its tradition since 1995, when the 36-year-old Canadian violinist was still in his teens. The rapport he developed with his predecessor, Toby Saks, deepened over the years. Ehnes has retained the basic model inherited from Saks, who founded SCMS in 1981 and continues to be involved as associate artistic director.

That model, familiar from many summer festivals across the nation, involves both the core programming and the reliance on a roster of performers who are mixed and matched into flexible, ad hoc ensembles for each concert. So far the most significant changes appear to encompass the areas of repertoire and greater community engagement.

For each of the festival’s dozen concerts at Nordstrom Recital Hall (the smaller performance space at Benaroya Hall), Ehnes committed to including at least one work that had never previously appeared on an SCMS program; several have featured two, along with a few premieres in the prelude recitals. Another encouraging development is the inaugural chamber music in the park event: a free public concert on Wednesday evening (25 July) at Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill and featuring sextets by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, with Ehnes among the performers.

The outdoor concert is being supplemented by free live radio broadcasts of each of the 12 summer festival concerts at three neighborhood parks: along with Volunteer Park, these include Westlake Park downtown and Cascade Playground in South Lake Union. Or you can just listen from the comfort of home via KING-FM’s live broadcasts and the Monday, Wednesday, Friday performances. The traditional pre-concert prelude recitals remain free to the public, and anyone wanting to dig more deeply into the process of making chamber music can stop in to observe four free open rehearsals.

Two concerts I attended over the past week revealed some ways in which Ehnes and his colleagues have been “refining and expanding on” the festival’s possibilities. Also evident were a few persistent shortcomings that have crept in over the years like comfortable bad habits.

The program of July 18 opened with the Op. 14 String Quintet by Sergei Taneyev, a friend of Tchaikovsky and a favorite of the festival, which has long shown a soft spot for Russian chamber music from the late 19th century. But there was no danger of settling into default mode thanks to the blend of newcomer and Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacigil with SCMS stalwarts (violinists  Stefan Jackiw and Augustin Hadelich, violist Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Ronald Thomas).

Ehnes has been adding a handful of his associates to the SCMS roster, such as the formidable pianist and fellow Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, who performed in the season’s first two concerts. Baltacigil,a Turkish cellist, is proving to be an especially valuable new presence with his balance of expressive range and nuanced control. The Quintet, itself not an especially profound piece though richly pleasurable, affirmed the real appeal of chamber music: each player projected a recognizably individual personality without sacrificing the ensemble’s coherence, crafting a performance of the moment that can’t be replicated, above all in the characterful variation finale.

Ehnes has also begun filling in some major gaps in the SCMS repertoire. In the brief Winter Festival he took part in an electrifying account of Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, and for this program he scheduled the first John Adams piece in the festival’s history. "Hallelujah Junction" (1996) is a tour de force for two pianos, requiring its performers (here the excellent team of Orion Weiss and Adam Neiman) to create a fiendishly exacting illusion of being “out of sync.” The piece taps into Adams’s “trickster” Americana mode and ends with a section evoking what he describes as “a Nevada cathouse pianola.”

Music for two pianos (or one piano, four hands) has turned out to be a subtheme running through much of the festival programming. Following the pair’s bravado theatricality and blink-of-the-eye rhythmic precision in the Adams, they could hardly help seeming oddly overqualified for what followed: an obscure piece of early Beethoven, the Op. 6 Piano Sonata for four hands (not one of the canonical 32 piano sonatas). Clearly not a showpiece but an exercise likely written for the composer’s private students, it made for a charming bit of filler.

Ehnes himself joined with the rest of his recently formed Ehnes String Quartet (violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine) to perform Ravel’s sole work for the genre. The Ehnes Quartet had recently played the Ravel at Montreal’s Chamber Music Festival and are obviously in love with this music, continuing to discover and bring out new facets that give this interpretation genuine individuality and intimacy. If the Taneyev brought to mind a sprawling Russian novel, their Ravel exuded an aura of early cinema as they spun a fabric of mysterious, fleeting sensuality that left the audience spellbound.

Now, as to those lingering bad habits. An ongoing challenge built into the festival’s structure is its “musical chairs” aspect: from one concert to the next, these players need to readjust to new ensemble configurations. Even if they’ve played together before, tight rehearsal schedules don’t allow much leeway to work out interpretive details or to accommodate each other’s tics. Sometimes the chemistry works out wonderfully, as in the concerts with Baltacigil, but by definition the chemistry is unpredictable. A special kind of spontaneity actually comes from deep familiarity.

And so, the piece that opened this past Sunday’s program, Schubert’s Rondo Brillante for violin and piano (Amy Schwartz Moretti and Anna Polonsky), lacked a coherent overall vision, despite dazzling contributions from both of these very fine musicians. It leapfrogged from virtuoso showpiece to lyrical reverie to fiery dance without an agreed-on “subtext” to draw it all together.

The concert’s most satisfying performance, by contrast, benefited from the shared viewpoint Robert deMaine and Adam Neiman brought into focus when they played the Op. 38 Cello Sonata in E minor by Brahms. It certainly allowed for spontaneity, for thrilling in-the-moment choices that spiced up Brahms’s elaborate counterpoint while also emphasizing the rhythmic vitality of his musical thought. At the keyboard, Neiman played off cellist deMaine’s expressive phrasing to enchanting effect: part of the enjoyment came from listening to these players listen to each other.

Ehnes joined yet another ensemble (including violist Marcus Thompson, newcomer cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Andrew Armstrong) for the concert’s concluding work, the Quartet for Piano and Strings by English composer William Walton. This score, which Walton wrote in his teens, just after the First World War, represented another novelty for the festival. But while the Adams piece brought a fresh outlook to its program, the players never quite persuaded me of the merits of the Walton — a heavily eclectic though ambitious effort of a young composer. At times Ehnes almost seemed to be continuing with Ravel’s sleekly beguiling melodies, yet Armstrong’s heavily exaggerated attacks at the piano often simply drowned out the strings. Aside from some lovely moments in the Debussyesque slow movement, acoustic balance between these forces remained a problem, which didn’t help make the case for the meandering stretches of Walton’s Quartet.

Still, it’s a welcome sign to see Ehnes begin to reconsider the festival's overreliance on chamber music of the 19th century. His extensive knowledge of so many corners of the literature will certainly prove an invaluable asset as he continues to shape the festival’s future.

If you go: Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival continues through July 29. Concerts are at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206-283-8808. Tickets: $15-45.




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