The Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival, continuing through Jan. 29, offers stellar playing and interesting programming. It also feels like you’ve heard some marvelous music put together by a family — a family that includes the audience.

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The music is, of course, the most important thing by far.

And the music on Saturday night was impressive indeed, with performances of power and finesse from the musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

But there are other factors, too, that contribute to the experience of this festival. The intimacy of the surroundings lets you see when the players are visually consulting each other, when they’re working hard to support each other (or to stay out of the way), when they’re trading ideas or comically one-upping each other. By the time the performance is over, you feel you’ve heard some marvelous music put together by a family that includes the audience in its embrace.


Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival

Continues through Jan. 29, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $52 (206-283-8808 or

The clarity and elegance of Mozart’s K.424 Duo, the sizzling surprise of Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio, the passionate eloquence of Fauré’s Piano Quartet (Op. 15) – all these are what the audience came for on Saturday night, and what brought them to their feet in appreciation. But it matters, too, when violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti makes an extramusical visual statement by striding onto the stage in a glittering silver gown; when she and violist Richard O’Neill exchange eloquent and quizzical glances at a witty turn in the music. It matters when you see Anton Nel lean into the string ensemble from the piano bench as he decides exactly which touch will best support them from his more powerful keyboard.

The concert lineup is a great example of director James Ehnes’ strengths in programming, with an emphasis on both variety and quality. The Mozart duo, all elegance and wit and beautiful timing, set the tone – which was immediately reversed by Jennifer Higdon’s jolt of fresh air in her 2003 Piano Trio. Here violinist Alexander Kerr, cellist Denis Brott, and pianist Natalie Zhu played the warm, neo-impressionist chord clusters of the first movement (“Pale Yellow”), followed by the wildly propulsive and energetic second (“Fiery Red”), which required huge feats of virtuosity and timing (Zhu was particularly impressive).

What a fascinating piece: proof that a composer today can write tonal music and still break new ground in some surprising ways. Programming the Higdon Trio is a fine illustration of Ehnes’ commitment to quality contemporary composers.

The evening’s closing work was the often-played Fauré Op. 15 Piano Quartet, which brought together violinist Ehnes with violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist Yegor Dyachkov, and pianist Nel. Here the crucial, tragic third (Adagio) movement was sometimes a bit out of focus; some of the unisons and chords were just slightly askew. In the second (Scherzo) movement, Nel kept the keyboard light and almost pointillist in style; he’s a master of articulation and balance. Together, the four players fully realized the surging, questing elements in this arch-romantic score.

The Winter Festival is short – just two weekends – so next weekend’s three concerts are the finale. Friday night gets my vote: pianist Orion Weiss playing Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in pre-concert recital, followed by a Janacek rarity (“Pohádka”), the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, and Steve Reich’s eloquent, disturbing “Different Trains” for string quartet and pre-recorded tape. “Different Trains” contrasts benign memories of Reich’s transcontinental American train journeys during his World War II-era childhood with the memories of Holocaust survivors on very different trains in Europe. It’s a work you won’t soon forget.