Call it “symphony creep.”
Last year at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, Seattle Symphony players Jordan Anderson and Efe Baltacigil were among the featured musicians.
Now in SCMS’ upcoming Winter Festival — expanded, for the first time, from one weekend to two — 10 Symphony players are taking part. Most are on hand for a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (see below). But timpanist Michael Crusoe, in his 32nd season with the Symphony, and percussionist Michael A. Werner, in his fourth season, have more conspicuous roles, in a performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with pianists Max Levinson and Jeewon Park.
Fiendishly difficult to play, this 1937 masterpiece is also pulse-pounding fun to hear as it ranges from eerie to effervescent in mood and blends dazzling sound colors with rhythmic intricacy.
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It was a knockout in 2011 when Crusoe and Werner tackled it in the Seattle Symphony Musician Chamber Series, with Oksana Ezhokina and Cristina Valdés at the keyboards. Crusoe also took part in SCMS’s only earlier performance of it, in 1985.
Last week, in the instrument-crammed percussion room backstage at Benaroya Hall, the two men discussed both the challenges and pleasures of the piece.
“The piano parts are, by the far, the hardest,” says Werner modestly. “We don’t have too many really technical moments. … But to put the piece together as a whole is quite difficult.”
“You’ve got to be real sensitive to playing off one another,” Crusoe notes.
The sonata is a favorite of James Ehnes, the new director of SCMS and a longtime friend of Werner. Ehnes contacted Werner about doing it in the Winter Festival, and Werner then invited Crusoe to be his fellow percussionist on it.
More than most composers, Bartók makes the timpani sing, both in this piece and in his orchestral scores.
“In his Concerto for Orchestra,” Crusoe points out, “there’s a spot where the timpani actually leads the ensemble to the new key with this huge glissando. When you land, you want to be at least in the ballpark, if not right on it. Otherwise it could really stick out.”
“It’s not super-busy writing,” Werner adds, “but it’s very tasteful. … When he does something, it’s meaningful.”
“And exposed,” Crusoe notes.
That’s because the percussion parts don’t just underlie the other instruments but interlock with them in a highly dramatic manner.
While they’re not festival regulars, Werner and Crusoe don’t anticipate any sense of crashing the festival party. Werner knows some of the musicians through his connection with Ehnes. Others he met during his 13 years as a musician in New York.
It’s reflective of the high caliber of talent the festival brings to town that stunning performances regularly emerge from the briefest of musical acquaintances. Crusoe and Werner, for instance, have yet to meet their pianists on the Bartók. Rehearsals start Monday.
“I’m sure they’re incredible players,” Werner said, “but I am curious as to whether the two of them have ever played it together.”
“This is my fourth time around with the piece,” Crusoe says, “and it doesn’t get any easier. It can be really tricky. It’s not just your part, per se. It’s fitting everything in.”
When it works, as it did when Crusoe, Werner, Ezhokina and Valdés played it in 2011, it can be a thrilling, continually shape-shifting Rube Goldberg contraption of sound.
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion is on a 3 p.m. program, Jan. 20, with Bartók’s suite for piano, Op. 14, and two pieces by Brahms, including his Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major, Op. 18.
Other highlights of the festival include Dvorak’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 87 (Jan. 18); Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” for string quartet and recorded words (Jan. 19); Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos, with special guest Luc Beauséjour on harpsichord (Jan. 24); and a second appearance by Beauséjour in Telemann’s Sonata for Oboe and Harpsichord in A minor, on a program with Schubert’s glorious String Quartet in G Major, D. 887 (Jan. 25).
The festival closes Jan. 26 with works by Beethoven, Debussy, Wolf and Mendelssohn. Festival director — and violin wizard — Ehnes appears in every concert (always a good thing). For Benjamin Britten fans, there’s an unusual lineup of Britten pieces for solo instruments: viola (Toby Appel, Jan. 19); oboe (Nathan Hughes, Jan. 25) and cello (Robert deMaine, Jan. 26).
Each concert, except the Brandenburgs, is preceded by a short free recital. Open rehearsals and a child-friendly Family Concert (11 a.m. Jan. 26, $10) are also on the schedule.
Single tickets are $15-$45. Series tickets range from $129 for three concerts to $285 for all six. Tickets and info: 206-283-8808 or go to www.seattlechambermusic.org.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org