Seattle’s about to get one of today’s world-class violinists to itself for two blissful weekends of chamber music. James Ehnes is coming back to town — along with 17 of his musical friends and a trunk full of some truly splendid scores — for the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s compact but eventful Winter Festival.
Ehnes became the artistic director of SCMS two seasons ago. In his “off” time from Seattle, the native Canadian is a prized soloist and chamber musician in demand around the globe.
This fall, for instance, took him to Melbourne, Moscow and Glasgow. And just a few weeks ago, when his duo partner became ill right before a recital in London’s Wigmore Hall, Ehnes saved the day stepping up to perform two of the monumentally challenging Bach solo partitas.
Ehnes feels a strong sense of loyalty to Seattle and has been involved with SCMS as a performer since he was still a teenager. Yet while the long-running festival is part of his blood, he’s been artfully introducing some subtle changes.
For anyone who relishes the amazing craft, interpretive spontaneity and emotional directness that give the chamber music medium such power, it’s good to see Ehnes bringing a new focus to the string quartet.
His own quartet (which includes violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Robert DeMaine — all familiar faces to SCMS audiences) will take the stage for Béla Bartók’s First and Third Quartets and Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, Op. 74 (programs of Jan. 30 and Feb. 2).
“Playing with my quartet is one of the great joys of my life, and since we have such a history at SCMS,” says Ehnes. The Feb. 2 concert will also serve to launch the ensemble on their first European tour, which should be a boost for Seattle’s reputation as a chamber music destination.
The Bartók quartets represent Ehnes’s ongoing advocacy for the Hungarian composer. Ehnes has already made splendid recordings of Bartók’s concertos and solo works for violin, and he launched his first full season two years ago with a program that included a breath-taking performance of the pioneering Fourth String Quartet.
“We’ve been doing a bit of focus on Bartók for the last few festivals. His is one of the greatest and most unique musical voices of the 20th century, and it bothers me that despite his name having great recognition among music lovers, a very great majority of his music remains unknown to the general public.”
As usual, Ehnes’s programming ideas encourage intriguing cross-connections and discoveries to be made. The Jan. 31 concert, for example, offers music by Bartók’s compatriot Zoltán Kodály. “I think it will be fascinating for our audiences to compare the Kodály [Serenade for Two Violins and Viola] to the Bartók String Quartets.”
Another approach to quartet playing will be on offer Jan. 25, when violinist Ida Levin joins with Benjamin Beilman, Richard O’Neill and Julie Albers to complete the SCMS’s mini-cycle of the three Tchaikovsky String Quartets.
“Ida has been the first violinist for all three quartets,” remarks Ehnes, “and she brings her incredible experience with quartet repertoire and amazing musical personality to the not-so-often heard 2nd quartet.”
Seattle in the summer as an attractive getaway for leading chamber musicians is self-explanatory — but in the heart of winter? Ehnes is deeply connected to his peers, and for this festival he’s succeeded in getting some new faces to join the party: violinists Ruth Palmer and Arnaud Sussmann, and pianist and frequent Itzhak Perlman partner Rohan De Silva.
There’s an underlying poignant note as well: This will be the first year since SCMS began that its founder, the cellist Toby Saks, will not be present. Soon after last summer’s month-long festival, she died of a recently diagnosed cancer.
Saks was never in doubt that she had handed over the reins to someone who can balance lofty artistic vision with the level-headedness needed to organize scores of highly individual musicians across a far-reaching repertoire.
Over the Winter Festival’s two weekends, patrons can look forward to an appealing mix of the usual suspects — Haydn, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Shostakovich — along with less frequently heard pieces by Alfred Schnittke, the Swedish composer Laura Netzel, and the American Amy Beach on the free-admission recital programs performed during the hour before each concert begins.
Other free events include open rehearsals, interviews with KING-FM host Dave Beck, live radio broadcasts and a special family concert based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” on Saturday morning, February 1. (Visit seattlechambermusic.org for details.)
And Ehnes has no qualms about programming one of the best-loved warhorses in all chamber music for opening night this Friday: DvoÅák’s Op. 77 Quintet for Strings. After all, his birthday (January 27) falls in the middle of the festival. “I have to admit this quintet is one of my very favorite things in the world, particularly the unbelievably beautiful third movement. So I programmed this as a bit of a present to myself.”
If you go: The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival takes place Jan. 24-26 and Jan. 30-Feb. 2 at Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St. Tickets at seattlechambermusic.org or 206-283-8808.