After a 15-month pandemic hiatus, the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival is finally “live” again — for four concerts, at least. A careful and partial return to Benaroya Hall for four, one-hour Sunday programs began Sunday in the hall’s Taper mainstage, with a concert that was both wonderful and weird. Wonderful for the quality of the music and the thrill of live performance, and weird for the tiny, well-spaced attendance for concerts that are usually jampacked in a much smaller venue, the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya. (According to festival artistic director/violinist James Ehnes, Benaroya Hall regulations currently permit a maximum of only 400 listeners in the 2,500-seat Taper mainstage.)
Inside the hall, it was the “new normal”: temperature/symptom screening for audience members, socially distanced seating, everyone (including the performers) masked. But it was live music, exceptionally beautiful live music, and just being there felt like a rare privilege. Ehnes launched the proceedings with a brief tribute to Connie Cooper, who steps down as executive director at the end of this season — her 25th with the SCMS.
In a preconcert interview, Ehnes had remarked, “We’re really hungry for live performance,” and that hunger showed in the zest and urgency of the music-making. The program was an enticing one: a Beethoven String Trio (G Major, Op. 9, No. 1), with Ehnes (playing the viola this time) joining violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and cellist Edward Arron, and the great Franck Violin Sonata with Augustin Hadelich and pianist Alessio Bax.
The Beethoven trio, full of bubbly good cheer and tuneful melodies, got a spirited and well-nuanced performance. It was the Franck Sonata, however, that brought audience members to the edge of their seats and riveted the communal attention. Hadelich, who joins Ehnes among the preeminent violinists of this generation, tore into the Franck Sonata with a passionate intensity that infused every line with significance and beauty. Phrase upon phrase emerged with lambent, glowing tone quality and the surging romanticism that has made this sonata such a cornerstone of the repertoire.
Bax was a true partner at the piano, adjusting almost magically to every interpretive twist or turn by Hadelich, and fully providing the kind of near-orchestral sonority the score requires. The piano opening of the third movement was given a mysterious, soft-focus quality that perfectly underscored the score’s free-flowing ruminations for the violin. Hadelich’s bow control in that movement was phenomenal: a final fade that disappeared into a whisper and then silence. The last movement of the Franck escalated to a theater-shaking intensity that filled the auditorium. This is the beauty, imagination and excitement that chamber music fans live for, and it was here in full measure.
A concert like this one proves the undying satisfaction that only live music can provide. But the Seattle Chamber Music Society has also found surprising rewards in its streamed concert series — rewards that will likely last well past the eventual lifting of the pandemic restrictions and the resumption of the normal live concert model. Ehnes says the Society has discovered an audience outside the concert hall: their streamed concerts have reached listeners in every state and several other countries, providing “a service for those who can’t be in Seattle. There’s a hunger for this music. And there’s lots to decide about how we might structure a festival in a hybrid form.”