Although it officially opened to the public last November, Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Center for Chamber Music in downtown Seattle is about to get its first full-on workout with the monthlong 2022 Summer Festival. Throughout July, an international roster of 48 musicians will turn Seattle into an epicenter for chamber music.
“It’s going to be the central hub not just for our rehearsals but for social activity for the musicians,” SCMS Artistic Director James Ehnes explained in a recent video call. “The more time musicians spend together, the more they consistently learn from one another and invest in SCMS overall.”
The heart of the 3,800-square-foot center, located at 601 Union St. in a prominent corner of the Union Square complex, is an intimate, comfortably furnished concert salon with a 60-person capacity. Known as the “Living Room,” it can be used for rehearsal and public performance. The Center also comprises two other rehearsal rooms, a lobby for patrons and an office section for SCMS administration.
“It’s above all a community space,” said John Holloway, SCMS’ new executive director. “When they’re in town, the musicians will spend the majority of their time right here within these walls, where they can have their meals and relax between rehearsals.”
SCMS’ summer and winter festival concerts will continue to take place at the 536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall in nearby Benaroya Hall.
To realize the Center for Chamber Music, SCMS undertook the most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history, raising $5 million ($2 million for construction and startup costs and $3 million for the society’s endowment to sustainably cover operations). It was “an organizational risk fueled by necessity,” Ehnes said.
And it proved to be a lifeline when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck. Although the lockdowns deprived the center of its originally planned unveiling to the public, the space was ready just in time to provide a safe, alternate venue from which performances could be streamed. This enabled the 2020 Summer Festival to go forward with a full month of freshly performed programs; many other organizations had to resort to raiding their video archives if they wanted to stream content. The experiment enhanced SCMS’ online presence, growing its remote national and international audience.
Apart from that unforeseen development, the Center for Chamber Music embodies a significant step forward for the organization. For one thing, the center gives SCMS a centralized headquarters for the first time since it was founded in 1982 by the late Toby Saks, a cellist and music professor at the University of Washington. Previously, different areas of the organization had been scattered around Seattle.
But the obvious logistical advantage of having this hub so close to SCMS’ main performance venue at Benaroya Hall is just part of what Ehnes had in mind when he launched the project. The center will serve as a “laboratory” where closer ties with the community can be forged, he said. “We want chamber music to be a more consistently accessible part of life in Seattle, for both chamber music lovers and young players.”
As a related example of this mission of outreach, SCMS is presenting The Concert Truck, a 16-foot box truck that opens to become a mobile concert hall, complete with piano, lighting and a sound system. The Concert Truck began playing free concerts in various parks and neighborhoods around the region on June 23 and will continue until July 2, as a kind of prelude to the Summer Festival. Ehnes, an internationally renowned violinist — Gramophone named him artist of the year last fall — will be among the musicians performing in The Concert Truck concerts.
Already since last fall, the center has been hosting a series of artist residencies that are planned to keep chamber music going throughout the year, filling the gap between festivals. These spotlight musicians in recital in the Living Room. “It’s the most accessible recital format we can create,” Holloway said. “This is the kind of space Schubert was writing his chamber music for. Listeners can hang out and socialize afterwards, with no barrier between musician and audience.”
Changing displays of paintings by local artists adorn the walls. Some longtime patrons might recognize a familiar echo from Saks’ concert grand, the center’s main piano. This is the same instrument that was used for countless rehearsals when her home in Madison Park provided the main gathering place for the musicians.
The center also presents lecture-demonstrations, master classes and sight-reading parties where music lovers can bring along their instrument to read through a given piece with SCMS guest artists who are passing through Seattle. There are no coming dates set yet for those.
And the center will be home base for SCMS’ first Music Academy, which launches this fall. Following a competitive application process, “some of Seattle’s most talented young musicians will be coached by our visiting artists to perform in the community,” Holloway said.