Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2016 Summer Festival reunites longtime favorite musicians with newcomers including mandolin star Chris Thile and the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic in a month of classics and surprises, from July 5 to 30.
“Chamber music is about being able to trust your colleagues,” says violist Cynthia Phelps. That’s what enables the risk-taking that’s essential for this intimate musical medium, she explains. “And the chance to live and work together during the Summer Festival is a wonderful model for building that trust.”
She’s referring to the spirit of relaxed camaraderie that makes the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival so appealing to like-minded musicians. It somehow manages to blossom without fail, despite the frenzied schedule of classics to polish and new pieces to learn.
For Phelps — who spends the regular season as principal violist of the New York Philharmonic — the Emerald City has long been a home away from home during the four-week festival SCMS presents each summer.
Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival
July 5-30, with three concerts each week, starting at 8 p.m. $30-$50, preconcert recitals start one hour before each concert and are free. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (206-283-8710, www.seattlechambermusic.org)
The 2016 edition launches Tuesday, July 5, and runs through July 30. Offering 12 different concerts and related events (including a free performance in Volunteer Park on July 27), this 35th-anniversary festival convenes 49 musicians from around North America and Europe.
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In 1987, during the early years, Phelps got her first taste of the collegial atmosphere she admires. It was enough to make her decide to keep coming back — one of a loyal core of musicians who have become longtime regulars at the festival.
Along with those familiar faces, the 2016 festival will feature 13 newcomers, including such prominent musicians as violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic; pianist George Li, silver medalist in last year’s Tchaikovsky Competition; and Stephen Williamson, principal clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
James Ehnes, who took over from festival founder Toby Saks as artistic director of SCMS, has been a festival regular since 1995, when he was 19. An internationally acclaimed violin soloist, Ehnes points out that the programming he devised for this month aims for a balance between pieces for smaller and larger forces.
“I really enjoy the intimacy in that hall [the upstairs recital hall at Benaroya, the festival’s home]. You can play very softly and draw the audience in. There’s an unusual number of sonatas on the concerts this summer that explore the more intimate nature of duos, but we also have larger-scale pieces, including Octets by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, and even a piece that includes a narrator.”
Ehnes spoke by phone the day before he flew to Seoul, South Korea, to play the complete string quartets of Beethoven with the James Ehnes Quartet, an ensemble comprising fellow SCMS regulars (with violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Rober t deMaine).
Within days of returning from their Korean Beethoven cycle, the Ehnes Quartet will inaugurate the Summer Festival (July 5) with two of the composer’s quartets: an early quartet during the free prelude recital and the matchless Op. 132 A minor Quartet in the concert’s second half.
“The A minor Quartet is the most profoundly moving piece I know,” Ehnes says.
If tickets for that not-to-be-missed event are no longer available, you might want to catch Ehnes on July 25 with a group of colleagues playing Beethoven’s Op. 29 String Quintet. “In a way, I think of this as closing a certain chapter for me personally, for the time being, in this summer of Beethoven.”
If you’re convinced you’ve encountered all the Beethoven there is to hear, the program July 8 may hold a surprise: a couple of early pieces the composer wrote for a patroness who played the mandolin. The performer will be Nickel Creek mandolin virtuoso and Grammy winner Chris Thile.
“Chris is one of the most multifaceted musicians I know,” Ehnes says. “Whether he plays Bach or bluegrass, he’s totally captivating.”
Thile will play two concerts (July 8 and 11) and a special late-night concert at the Triple Door on July 8.
On July 11 he’ll join with Ehnes to unveil the annual SCMS new work commission. This year it’s by cellist and composer Jeremy Turner (Ehnes’ former roommate at Juilliard), a duo for mandolin and violin titled “The Inland Seas” that was inspired by Turner’s experience of the Great Lakes. Cynthia Phelps also appears on that program, playing Schumann’s gorgeous “Märchenbilder.”
After the positive reactions to a narrated performance of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” two years ago, Ehnes wanted to explore that theatrical vein again by presenting William Walton’s “Façade,” a scandalous “entertainment” from the early 1920s that made the young British composer famous (also on the July 8 program).
“Talk about contemporary relevance: It’s basically a rap, where the poetry is as much about the rhythm of the words as their meaning,” Ehnes explains. “It’s written for an unusual combination of instruments with a fun, youthful energy.”