Thanks to the foresight of Toby Saks, founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, the Winter Festival opened smoothly on Friday night at Nordstrom Recital Hall, the musicians in fine form, the hall full.
The festival was dedicated to Saks, who died last August; but a couple of years earlier she had turned over the artistic directorship of the society to violinist James Ehnes, a frequent performer with it.
However, what gave this festival its undeniable popularity among chamber musicians was the family feeling she engendered among its artists and the board members who housed them, by opening her large house for rehearsals, providing good and abundant food (she hired a chef for the duration), and by the ensuing camaraderie.
The festival goes on the same, its artistry in Ehnes’ capable hands and with the camaraderie, the open house and the food (chef and all) as usual, the last two thanks to Saks’ husband, Dr. Martin Greene.
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This Winter Festival has been expanded to two weekends, seven concerts in all, and Friday night it began with the usual free recital played by violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Rohan De Silva.
They began with Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1, in a spirited performance that well-displayed the musical artistry and impeccable technique of both. Beilman draws a deep, velvety tone from his instrument, his vibrato unobtrusive but varied according to the need of the music. De Silva, a newcomer to the festival but well-known in the field as a consummate collaborator, was in perfect harmony with Beilman.
The concert that followed had Schumann’s Trio for violin, cello and piano in D Minor, Bartok’s Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano, and Dvorak’s Quintet for Strings in G Major — the original version with five movements, Op. 18. The unquestioned highlight was the Bartok, whose work is a special focus of this festival.
His sonata isn’t an easy work to take in. Bartok had absorbed some of the winds of serialism and polytonality blowing strongly in the 1920s, and this sonata includes both. But at the same time it has his undeniable sense of melody and rhythm. It requires musicians who understand it from the inside to put it across to an audience, and violinist Ida Levin and pianist Max Levinson did, so much so that the audience cheered its approval at the end.
The Schumann, played by Beilman and De Silva with cellist Julie Albers, is one of only three he composed in this format. The piano has the lead role, and the cello is largely subjugated, doubling the piano, although De Silva never overwhelmed the two strings. It’s a passionate, lively work, and the musicians played it with verve.
Lastly, Ehnes, with newcomer violinist Ruth Palmer, violist Richard O’Neill, cellist Bion Tsang and double bassist Jordan Anderson, wrapped up the concert with the Dvorak Quintet. There are not that many quintets with double bass, and this one uses the bass as a firm anchoring line throughout.
It was striking during this entire concert how well-rehearsed the musicians were, given they only came together earlier in the week.
It bodes well for the rest of this festival and for the future. Saks would be proud.