The closing night of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2013 Summer Festival opened with a heartfelt message of thanks to festival founder Toby Saks from SCMS board president Diana K. Carey.
Carey made note of the more than 450 concerts and 325 musicians Saks has overseen since the first festival took place 32 years ago at Lakeside School. She also mentioned two gifted teenage performers Saks invited to the festival years ago who later became SCMS star attractions: violinist James Ehnes, now SCMS artistic director, and pianist Adam Neiman (so young when he first appeared here, Carey quipped, that he had no driver’s license — a problem when you’re trying to get to Lakeside).
The mention of Saks drew a standing ovation in Benaroya Recital Hall (where the festival now takes place). Then the music began — and the reasons for the crowd’s enthusiasm became clear.
First up was Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, No. 11, performed by Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill and Robert deMaine.
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The quartet is an oddity because its middle movement — later adapted for string orchestra as “Adagio for Strings” — is part of our classical music DNA, while many listeners (I’ll confess: I’m one of them) would have trouble picking its opening and closing movements out of a lineup.
Those outer movements are marked by a restless, muscular agitation, framing the quieter adagio in stark manner. Ehnes and company gave the whole piece an astute reading, letting its parts speak for themselves. And on the familiar “Adagio — attaca,” they found, in the layered harmonies and rising motifs, stray poignant hesitations as if the whole intensifying tissue of sound were about to falter.
In Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18 No. 1, the music slipped from muscular to feathery and back again with turn-on-a-dime ease, often within a few measures of a single movement. First violinist Erin Keefe was a dazzler, her racing filigrees of notes never losing their poise or clarity.
Seattle Symphony concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, violist David Harding and cellist Amit Peled complemented her with rich finesse. In these players’ hands, the weaving complexities and unexpected turns of the piece’s slow second movement, especially, made it feel as though the distance between early Beethoven and his later string-quartet experiments was not so great after all.
Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring for Piano, Four Hands,” with Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss performing, closed the evening with a keyboard explosion that drew an instant standing ovation. The strange and radical nature of “Rite,” stripped of its orchestral colors, emerged clearly as Polonsky and Weiss nailed all its rhythmic intricacies, endowing them with a sometimes feral and sometimes fiercely mechanical logic.
“Rite” was also a spectacle to watch because of its intimate arms-slipping-between-arms division of labor. One hundred years old this year, Stravinsky’s masterpiece, in any form, still is an invigorating challenge.
Friday’s free preconcert recital, like many of the festival’s free recitals, offered something special — so special, in fact, that SCMS was recording it for commercial release. Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, performed by Ehnes and Weiss, will be part of a CD on the Onyx label (as will the Barber string quartet and works by Bernstein, Ives and Elliott Carter recorded earlier this week).
Ehnes, a prolific recording artist on Onyx, took a step in this direction when he paired SCMS’ 2010 performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet with his recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. It will be good to have his and Weiss’ fine handling of the spare yet highly atmospheric Copland work — which relies far more on sensitive interpretation than technical pyrotechnics — available for repeat listening.
The festival started unusually early this year, drawing lighter crowds over the Fourth of July weekend. (The July 5 recital, however, attracted quite the luminary: Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. He was there, he said, because two names on pianist Andrew Russo’s lively all-contemporary program were entirely unknown to him — a situation that seemed to both concern and delight him.)
The festival’s final-week concerts were sold out, and next year’s Summer Festival will start on July 7, avoiding any holiday interference. Mark your calendars.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org