Seattle Chamber Music Society commissioned a new work by prominent film composer James Newton Howard — and it's a winner.
Every summer, a brand-new piece of chamber music comes to life through the efforts (and the wallets) of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club. This year’s world premiere, by the prominent film composer James Newton Howard (“Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” with Hans Zimmer), was unveiled at Monday’s SCMS concert, and it’s a winner: one of the most memorable new works to emerge in the festival thus far. Complicated, jumpy and disquieting, the Howard piece (bearing the title “They have just arrived at this new level”) bubbles away with a sense of almost cinematic drama.
It’s definitely not a score for sissies. This propulsive, energetic work for string quartet, flute and clarinet/bass clarinet pits the instruments against each other, as well as in occasional harmony. Its virtuoso requirements for all six players make the piece sound positively orchestral in many passages, and the variety of colors produced by the instruments is ear-boggling. The first-rate sextet performing the premiere was composed of string players James Ehnes, Alexander Kerr, Cynthia Phelps and Clive Greensmith, with virtuoso flutist Jeffrey Barker and the infinitely subtle clarinetist Anthony McGill.
Ehnes, who also is the festival’s artistic director, introduced the premiere and two other Howard works in the first half in a manner as articulate and adroit as any television commentator. He explained Howard’s quirky titles (the premiere was named for a caption in a painting, and another piano piece took its title from an overheard sentence, “We can talk about God some other time”). Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong gave a blistering, pulse-pounding account of Newton’s “1:33 … At Least,” and Armstrong played the jazzy, ruminative piano piece with an easy authority.
The program’s second half was on more familiar ground: Rachmaninoff’s Trio No. 1 and Brahms’ G Major Violin Sonata (Op. 78). The trio (violinist Nurit Bar-Josef, cellist Yegor Dyachkov and Armstrong) was well balanced, with Armstrong dialing down the considerable thunder power of the piano part in order to accommodate the strings. The final Brahms sonata got an immaculate performance by violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, admirably partnered by Max Levinson at the piano, though a little more of Brahms’ lilt and schmaltz would not have gone amiss.
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We’re in the next-to-last week of the festival, with many highlights remaining. Clarinet fans will want to catch Wednesday’s concert featuring Anthony McGill in two works; admirers of Korngold are in luck on Wednesday and Friday, with his piano quintet and a suite on the schedule. Next week has the great Franck Piano Quintet in F Minor, and the July 27 finale features Bach’s “The Musical Offering.” We’ll be Bach.
The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, with world premiere by James Newton Howard, Monday evening; festival continues through July 28 at Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $52 ($16 students and 30 and under; $30 rush tickets); 206-283-8808, seattlechambermusic.org).