Playing by numbers

Two local groups make it a weekend at Benaroya

The Seattle Chamber Players properflutist Paul Taub, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinist Mikhail Schmidt, and cellist David Sabeenever actually play together, just the four of them. In fact, I cant think offhand of a single work for that combination. Its delicious hubris on their part to start up a chamber group with no repertory, but theyve flourishednext season is their 10th.

Seattle Chamber Players

Benaroya Recital Hall, May 23

Northwest Sinfonietta

Benaroya Recital Hall, May 24

Of course, they can count on friends like pianist Anton Nel, violist Susan Gulkis, and bassist Mark Bernat, who joined the string half of the SCP recently for Schuberts Trout Quintet. Friendliness was the key to this genial performance, a sort of weekend-house-party reading. Every time I hear this quintet, I think what a shame it is that the double bass wasnt (isnt) used more often in chamber music. It doesnt thicken or weigh down the texture at allon the contrary, its buoyant pizzicato and staccato lighten everything up. Schubert also wrote a piano part mostly in sparkling treble-register octaves, and with these two simple steps achieved a model of transparency.

Opening the concert was the Emperor Waltz by the other supreme tune-maker of the 19th century, Johann Strauss. Not only was he a master of melody, but also of orchestration, form, rhythmic subtlety, and poetic atmosphere. His finest waltzes (the Emperor, The Blue Danube, Artists Life) are tone poems fully equal to those of Liszt, Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, or any other mid-romantic. Arnold Schoenberg made chamber arrangements of a few of these waltzes for a fund-raising concert to support the more radical doings of his Society for Private Musical Performances. For the Emperor, he chose an ensemble of string quartet, flute, clarinet, and piano; he wittily translated the originals orchestral effects (the percussion in the march introduction becoming growly piano clusters, for example), and couldnt help embroidering on a few more counter-melodies as well.

The SCP also commissions pieces to fit their unique instrumentation. Iranian composer Reza Vali has long used the folk music of his homeland as inspiration for concert pieceshes now up to the 15th set of Folk Songs for various combinations. In its format, seven brief movements, and its air of exuberant earthiness, the new set is cousin to Bartoks Rumanian Folk Dances. Vali added percussion, a whole stageful dexterously handled by Matthew Kocmieroski, to the core SCP quartet. The suite abounds in imaginative color. Three examples of many: 1) The opening call-to-prayer on humming/buzzing flute over chanting strings. 2) The wailing cello solo in the third movement, with violin, marimba, and alto flute trills murmuring underneath. 3) The sixth movement, in which everyone but the violin plays chimes, just a breath of ultra-soft bell sounds surrounding the long high violin solo. The SCPs performance was bracing, with maybe a shade here and there of just-one-more-rehearsal insecurity.

Tacomas Northwest Sinfonietta, led by Christophe Chagnard, has plenty of excellent playersstrong winds and solid strings, especially the first violins (if an orchestras strings have a weak link, its usually here). Wagners Siegfried Idyll, which opened their concert last week, showed them off well, and was loveliest in its passionate climaxes. But I just couldnt warm to Chagnards Haydn, the Symphony no. 82, though I did appreciate the clarity and energy. I thought the dryness of the Sinfoniettas sound might be partly attributable to the halluntil I heard David Tonkonogui soar through Shostakovichs Cello Concerto no. 1 after intermission. More distressing, though, were the gridlock rhythms, to the point, in the second movement, of downright inelegance. Ignore the bodily element in Haydnheartbeat, breath, the sway of dancing feet and hipsand its a domino effect: The phrasing rigidifies, which freezes up the flow of ideas, which makes everything sound arbitrary and unmotivated. And if ever there was a composer who was a master at leading the listener through a piece clearly and irresistibly from one delight to the next, it was Haydn.

Tonkonoguis Shostakovich performance only requires a one-word description: definitive. But here are a few more: gripping, technically dazzling, emotionally overwhelming. Theres simply no cellist Id rather hear in this repertory, except the cellist who inspired it, Rostropovich himself.

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