The Seattle Chamber Music Festival is a total-immersion event that features 12 concerts in four weeks (each with a 7pm solo recital before an 8pm main show) plus a special Emerging Artist Recital and a kids' concert. Those of us with less robust constitutions have to pick and choose from among the many offerings, and this summer the festival has presented an impressive amount of the new and unusual. All in all, the festival seems a little more sure of its fan base this year. The Lakeside School concerts were generous, with no concession to those of short attention spans (some lasted until 10:30 or later). Festival artistic director and cellist Toby Saks, as always, has a knack for booking engaging younger musicians, but she saved the real star power for the festival's final week: Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Mark Kaplan and New York Philharmonic principal violist Cynthia Phelps join many new and returning musicians. And again, there's the novelty factor: Saks seems increasingly comfortable with leading her audience through unexplored musical territory without fear of losing them—a very encouraging development.
Seattle Chamber Music Festival
Lakeside School campus, through July 30
A flute-cello-piano trio (performed on July 7) by Carl Maria von Weber, a composer better known for operas (and from those, mainly just the overtures) and concertos, got a taut performance by violinist Ida Levin, violist Toby Hoffman, and cellist Ronald Thomas. Most interesting was its third movement, a quick waltz that stylistically links Beethoven's and Mendelssohn's scherzo types. A string trio by Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) combined citrusy harmonies, motorized rhythms, and French mellifluousness. Hoffman and pianist Thomas Sauer then played a compelling interpretation of Benjamin Britten's moody Lachrymae (Britten's adaptation of a Renaissance lute song by John Dowland).
A four-cello arrangement of a Vivaldi concerto grosso (July 9) was a treat, not just for its instrumental sonic overload but also because baroque music is a rare visitor to SCMF programs. This concerto, Op. 3 No. 11 in D-minor, is one of Vivaldi's finest, and Thomas, Bion Tsang, Godfried Hoogeveen, and Saks made a fizzing showpiece of it. Neo-baroque severity (call-and-response cello tunes, funeral-march rhythms) saved the Suite for Two Cellos and Piano by Gian Carlo Menotti from its composer's tendency to wander. Violinists Phillip Levy and Maria Larionoff sounded marvelous in six of the astringent, palate-clearing duos from the collection of 44 by Bart�7/12), and Levy and pianist Adam Neiman offered Prokofiev's Five Melodies: just the sort of bonbons Heifetz used to play, played just the way he used to play them—with just the sort of honeyed panache Heifetz had. One performance that stood above the crowd for sheer loveliness and polish was Kodaly's balmy and tuneful Intermezzo (July 16) in the hands of Levin, Hoffman, and Tsang.
The big programming surprise this season was the WWII elegy and 20th-century monument Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time (July 19). Magic moments in this performance were clarinetist Frank Kowalsky's dynamic control in his third movement solo; the ensemble-frightening unison passages in the sixth movement; and the gently shifting colors pianist John Novacek brought to the chiming accompaniment of violinist James Ehnes' endless chant in the finale. The cellist gets a similar solo in movement five that requires superhuman technique at the very top of the cello's range. Saks was a bit tentative way up there, a bit unsure of pitch, but still managed to convey a transcendent serenity.
Shostakovich is always a popular composer at the SCMF. His 1934 Cello Sonata (July 12) got a deeply felt performance from both Hoogeveen and pianist Anton Nel that was particularly moving at the end of the slow third movement, a numbed and desolate passage in which Shostakovich seems to foreshadow the styles of contemporary Russians like Schnittke. As a general rule, the more theatrical a Shostakovich performance is, the less intense it is, and Scott Yoo's account of the 1968 Violin Sonata (July 16) was maybe a shade too extroverted for maximum emotional power. Both he and Novacek flailed about a bit, but they were admirably fearless about pushing the harshness envelope. (As the gentleman behind me remarked at the sonata's close, "It's not cotton candy.") Shostakovich could be quite the musical confectioner, though: Levy and Larionoff played three duets with piano accompaniment (by Saks, making what I think was her festival keyboard debut), the sort of low-camp fluff he could toss off before breakfast. Unlike most of his other light music, these duets were too banal to be even goofy fun.
Another irritating bit of trivia was Jean Francaix's 1972 Octet (July 9), which wasted some good players like bassist Barry Lieberman and bassoonist Arthur Grossman, whom we didn't otherwise get to hear. It's not just that Francaix's music is so insufferably cute; it's so self-conscious that you get tired of being constantly nudged in the ribs. He could have written a sincere waltz-finale, for example, but instead wrote a sniggering, winking parody. Self-consciousness is also the bane of a lot of the mainstream repertory this particular festival favors, as in an early Mendelssohn piano quartet (July 16) laden with pretentious, stormy passages. In his A-major piano quintet (July 7), Dvo(breve)r perhaps feeling constricted by his usual sonata-like straitjacket, resorted to splashiness and bombast out of all proportion to the intrinsic interest of the material. A really fine example, though, of large-scale romantic chamber music was Elgar's 1919 Piano Quintet (July 16), a sweeping and captivating work, never ponderous or Teutonic-academic. There was a little Britten in the rhetorical quirkiness of the first movement, and a little Merchant-Ivory in the caressing slow movement.
Two new pieces made great first impressions. For his brother Toby, Joel Hoffman wrote the Krakow Variations (just completed last February), an engaging viola fantasy on two Jewish themes, one elegiac, one bright. Pianist Neiman is also a composer, and with Ehnes and Saks played his splendid Mirror and Fugue (July 16). Its heady harmonies sit on the tonal-atonal cusp and its textures are open; Neiman was sparing with his material, letting each melody and gesture have its unencumbered say. The strings, for example, open the fugue alone with somber and ethereal lines which slowly build their own climax before the piano discreetly enters. Most contemporary composers aren't believers in the less-is-more aesthetic, so Neiman's spacious, judicious use of ideas is marvelously self-assured, not to say daring, for a composer only 20 years old. As a soloist, Neiman was very convincing in three of the four Chopin pieces he selected, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, the Nocturne in F, and the "Heroic" Polonaise. He did with the Waltz in A-flat just what every pianist likes to do with a Chopin waltz: play it so fast you can't tell it's a waltz.
The performer I was most eager to hear was Thomas Sauer, who gave such a powerfully introspective performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata at the festival's miniseries last January. From the evidence of his solo program (July 7) of Haydn's Sonata No. 49 and four Chopin preludes, his musical strength is the reconciling of opposites (especially necessary for Haydn): sturdiness and elegance, thoughtfulness and spontaneity, wit and pathos. In the "Raindrop" Prelude, Sauer did an amazing balancing act setting the repeated notes against everything else in the piece—now foreground, now background, each shift in perspective bringing the subtlest emotional changes.