internationally celebrated violinist James Ehnes — who first played with Seattle Chamber Music Society 20 years ago, at the age of 19 — has designed a festival of piano trios, repertory blockbusters and 20th-century music to chase away the winter blues.

Share story

Music lovers, take heart: a respite from the bleak midwinter blues is on the way.

Like Persephone, Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) will re-emerge after six months of absence from the scene. This year’s edition of the Winter Festival includes six concerts and related events during the last two weekends of January.

“This winter is really all about what I hope are balanced individual programs within a larger framework that provides context,” said James Ehnes, artistic director of SCMS.

Concert preview

Seattle Chamber Music Society 2016 Winter Festival

7:30 p.m. Fri-Sat, 3 p.m. Sun, Jan. 22-31, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$51 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).

Ehnes — also an internationally celebrated violin soloist — has designed the festival to appeal to subscribers and one-time concertgoers alike.

For the former, the programming features some unifying threads across the whole festival: in particular, an exploration of piano trios, with each concert anchored by an exemplar of the genre (from its pioneer Haydn to Anton Arensky, a teacher of Rachmaninov).

Each program includes at least one repertory blockbuster, but four of the concerts juxtapose these with music from the 20th century by either American or Eastern European composers. There’s also a look at four-handed and two-piano pieces during the second weekend.

But listeners able to attend just a single performance, Ehnes explained, shouldn’t be left with the feeling of “only getting what is clearly a part of a whole.” Each of the concerts, he said, stands on its own and will be loaded with enough contrasts so “you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.”

Ehnes is about to embark on his fifth season helming SCMS, which was founded in 1982 by cellist Toby Saks (1942-2013). Saks, who had a knack for identifying promising artists, initially invited Ehnes to perform in 1995, when he was 19. That summer’s appearance marked the violinist’s first trip to Seattle from his native Canada, but he has remained a regular presence at SCMS ever since.

This commitment continues alongside a flourishing career as a much-recorded, sought-after concert soloist and chamber musician with regular dates at the world’s leading concert venues.

During the interim since last summer’s SCMS festival, Ehnes performed at London’s Wigmore Hall and in Paris and Salzburg; he also made his debut with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center (under Gianandrea Noseda, just named that orchestra’s new music director).

Along with the prestige, Seattle benefits from the extensive network of musicians Ehnes is able to cultivate who then accept his invitation to perform for SCMS.

The 2016 Winter Festival features the usual blend of loyal longtermers and newcomers. Of the 18 musicians on the roster, five are making their SCMS debuts.

Especially notable are cellists Astrid Schween, who succeeds Joel Krosnick as part of the fabled Juilliard String Quartet at the end of the season, and Yegor Dyachkov, a new-music champion based in Canada. (Visa-related red tape prevented Dyachkov from appearing here last year.) Both are part of the lineup for all three concerts in the festival’s second weekend (Jan. 29-31).

For Ehnes, the blend of the familiar with new discoveries — in both the repertoire and the performers — is a key to enjoying the festival: “Experiencing the widest range of musical expression,” he said, “really helps to deepen one’s musical appreciation.”

During the first weekend, Ehnes himself can be heard in his role as violinist. The concerts you really don’t want to miss are the opening (Jan. 22), when he partners with pianist Andrew Armstrong for the First Violin Sonata by Béla Bartók, an Ehnes specialty, and the next day (Jan. 23), as Ehnes joins colleagues to play Debussy’s sole String Quartet (returning to it for the first time in a quarter century).

Also on opening night: Ehnes playing Bach’s G minor Sonata for solo violin in the first of the six prelude recitals that start an hour before the concerts. Each of these is free to the public.

The Winter Festival presents a series of other events as well — open rehearsals, meet-the-artist talkbacks after the concerts, conversations with two festival artists hosted by KING-FM’s Dave Beck and a family concert aimed at children from 5-10 (Jan. 30). The concerts will also be broadcast on Classical KING-FM 98.1 and online at king.org.