Summer of strings: A guide to Seattle's chamber music festival

The classics are on the menu, but James Ehnes is redefining the beloved festival.
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Chamber Ensemble: James Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, and Robert deMaine

The classics are on the menu, but James Ehnes is redefining the beloved festival.

Everyone has their individual barometer when it comes to deciding whether summer has actually “arrived” in our fickle city. But for many local music lovers, Seattle Chamber Music Society’s (SCMS) summer festival clearly marks the cultural solstice. Founded 32 years ago by cellist Toby Saks, SCMS – with an annual budget of around $1 million – has become a magnet for high-caliber North American chamber musicians.

It’s not surprising that so many artists would want to make Seattle in July — the orchestral off-season — a regular stop on the chamber festival circuit. Over the years, though, the results have been mixed. The sheer plenitude of offerings and players has sometimes resulted in unfocused programming and, on occasion, a frustrating lack of appropriate rehearsal time even for some of the most familiar warhorses. Still, that modus operandi worked well enough to bring in a reliably eager and loyal audience.

So what did James Ehnes have in mind when he spoke of making subtle changes to the festival’s model “to refine and expand on its possibilities”?

The Canadian native has ties to SCMS reaching back to the mid-1990s, when he was just launching his own career as a violinist. Since then Ehnes has matured into a highly prized soloist on the international scene, as well as a world-class chamber partner. Now in his second year as artistic director of SCMS, Ehnes is showing that his overall vision extends beyond merely replicating the model already in place. The rest of the month provides ample opportunity to hear how Ehnes and his colleagues are reshaping the festival – and to savor the pleasures of chamber music, for aficionados and newcomers alike.

One especially attractive innovation is the free outdoor concert at Volunteer Park, inaugurated last year. This time around (July 17 at 7 p.m.) the program features two works of Antonín Dvořák written during the composer’s stay in the United States.

Dvořák became a celebrity during that sojourn in America in the 1890s, when he premiered his most-popular composition, the “New World” Symphony, at New York's Carnegie Hall. It’s hard to better him for a more easily accessible entrée into the world of chamber music — "accessible" in the most positive sense, completely untainted by condescension. Dvořák is a goldmine of endearing melodies and intriguing, vital rhythms. But on top of that he’s a serious thinker who avoids the leaden impression that occasionally mars the music of his champion, Brahms.

The highlight performance of the festival so far, for me, was also Dvořák. The finale of the July 3rd program, his Quintet for Piano and Strings (Op. 81) was clearly patterned after the SCMS tradition of anchoring the evening with a chamber music blockbuster. But the warmth and exuberance on display here transcended any whiff of business as usual. Pianist Inon Barnatan lovingly shaped the turns in the famous Dumka slow movement, while maintaining a steady acoustic balance with his string partners (violinists Augustin Hadelich and Ida Levin, violist Rebecca Albers, and cellist Ronald Thomas) — an ongoing challenge in Nordstrom Hall.

Intimacy and an amiable, conversational rapport among the players are what give chamber music its unique texture. The sense of effortless interchange that often comes across is deceptive: A genuinely satisfying experience is driven by long-term knowledge not only of a score itself, but also (preferably) of one’s musical partners, spiced with on-the-spot, risky interpretive decisions. Spontaneity becomes most effective when pitted against expected patterns. This dynamic applies to any musical genre or medium, but in chamber music — as in jazz — it is amplified.

Another of the festival's programs so far provided a thrilling illustration of what's at stake in this rapport —  by way of contrast with a performance that misfired. The second festival program (on July 1st) was framed by two variants of high-octane ensemble playing. The first was the rollicking “La Revue de Cuisine” suite, from a surreal 1920s ballet by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů which mixes spastic Charleston and neoclassical cool. Here the contributions of extroverted trumpeter Jens Lindemann were complemented by some deliciously characterful playing by bassoonist Seth Krimsky. And the concluding Third String Quartet by Tchaikovsky answered the collective fun of the Martinů ensemble with dark, inconsolable passions (made especially memorable by first violinist Ida Levin’s succulent phrasing).

But the musical chairs principle that mixes and matches different players led to a disappointing result in the piece sandwiched between them: Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata (Op. 94bis). Here two fine musicians – violinist Jesse Mills and pianist Andrew Armstrong – didn’t seem to gel or even agree on a compelling point of view about this many-layered sonata.

Ehnes's other innovations include a new focus on local artistic personnel. This summer’s roster of 40 musicians counts several principals from the Seattle Symphony — Alexander Velinzon (concertmaster), Seth Krimsky (bassoon), Jeffrey Fair (our new principal horn) and Michael Werner (percussion) —alongside many long-time festival favorites.

Something else: Ehnes is opening up the programs to include a larger field of chamber music combos. Combos that call for brass, winds, even percussion – not just the tried-and-true blends of strings and keyboard. “Heptade” by Parisian composer André Jolive was another unusual offering in this vein: A hyper-complex percussion-trumpet duo, its unpredictable sound world proved mesmerizing.

It’s especially fitting, then, that this year’s SCMS commission birthed a sextet for horn, strings and piano: “Sanctuary,” by New Jersey native Lawrence Dillon. Given its world premiere on July 8, “Sanctuary” is an eminently likeable, somewhat eclectic piece that uses musical metaphors to explore the universal need “to retreat from oppressive forces” (in the composer’s words). The most haunting of the work’s four movements, “Scents and Recollection,” calls for some unusual playing techniques on the strings to voice the sense of a painfully distant past that’s retrievable only through the refuge of memory.

At the same time, Ehnes is turning his gaze toward the crown jewel of chamber music formations: the string quartet. (Oddly, a format that’s been overshadowed in SCMS history by other hybrids such as trios or piano quartets and quintets). I still recall the excitement of Ehnes’s Winter Festival performance in 2012 with his own quartet (including violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Robert deMaine), when they gave the first SCMS account of Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, a modernist masterpiece. This summer they will appear again for the Dvořák in the Park program as well as two Shostakovich quartets and the Samuel Barber Quartet (source of the perennial hit “Adagio for Strings”).

Meanwhile, a welcome thematic focus helps to make sense of the cornucopia of offerings – and to highlight the implicit point that chamber music is very much alive as a way of musical thinking. This summer it’s the richness of the American chamber music tradition. Thus the Dillon commission is part of a thread linked to other pieces by Copland, John Adams, Ives, Bernstein and Barber. Even Dvořák fits into the American scheme. 


While chamber music certainly attracts a hardcore following of lifelong aficionados, it’s also easy enough to dive in at any point. Along these lines, the festival is continuing its longstanding tradition of recitals, free to the public, at 7 p.m. on concert nights (an hour before the concert). It's amazing how much an average music lover can sharpen their musical "mindfulness" by investing a couple hours listening to a single chamber concert. And hearing and watching such talented musicians play together carries a useful reminder of the limits of technology: no recording, iPod file, or YouTube clip can quite match the intensity of that in-the-moment encounter.

If you go: The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival continues through Friday, July 26. Most of the concerts take place at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206-283-8808. 


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