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Schmelzer, Weichlein & Rosenmüller: a German law firm? No, a partial list of the 17th-century composers featured on the season-opening concert of Byron Schenkman and Friends. This wide-ranging and imaginatively conceived concert series brings together top chamber players in repertoire that spans three centuries, seldom making obvious choices.

Sunday’s program at the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, titled Before Bach, included the works of Heinrich Biber and Biagio Marini, as well as the three aforementioned composers. If you’re imagining a dainty, bloodless evening of ye olde music, think again: the sonatas, partitas, and other pieces on the program are dashing, colorful virtuoso works, full of brilliant roulades and given performances that were downright theatrical.

Much of the theatricality came from baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews, the longtime duo partner of Schenkman (who plays a wide range of keyboard instruments). Matthews was, as usual, spectacular in her virtuosity and her musicianship. In the earliest work on the program, Marini’s Sonata No. 14 (1629), Matthews launched into florid, almost operatic lines with tremendous dash and flair, matched in every measure by Schenkman’s intuitive keyboard playing.

The evening featured the West Coast debut of the ensemble Gut Reaction (a pun on the source of strings for early bowed instruments), founded by violist Jason Fisher who missed the concert because of the early arrival of his baby. Luckily, Seattle’s Laurel Wells was available to sub for him in fine style. The other players were Jesse Irons (violin), Sarah Darling (violin/viola), Michael Unterman (cello), and Schenkman at the harpsichord.

The level of ensemble was remarkable: clean intonation, beautifully resonant sound (the bottom octave of that cello made the whole recital hall rumble), and artistic phrasemaking of considerable impact. There was plenty of drama: sound levels brought down to a mere thread, then suddenly built up again in a massive crescendo. Violinists Irons and Matthews traded lines back and forth, each embellishing the music a bit more; Wells and Darling engaged in some high-energy dueling-violas passages.

Every piece was given its own character. The final Johann Rosenmüller Suite in C, with its stately Pavane and then a series of more spirited dances, was so danceable that toes were tapping in the audience.

It wasn’t a very big audience, though: clearly the word hasn’t gotten out yet. Next up for this series is a Nov. 23 concert featuring a quintet of musicians playing Mozart and Weber, musical cousins with a lot in common.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at