Opening night at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival ranged from eloquent Bach to the intense, rough-hewed energy of Bartok.

Share story

In the beginning there was Bach, and James Ehnes.

You couldn’t ask for a more illustrious start to a festival. Ehnes, the internationally celebrated violinist who heads the Seattle Chamber Music Society, opened this year’s Winter Festival with an eloquent reading of Bach’s solo Violin Sonata in G Minor. Music lovers drank in Ehnes’ performance — the purity of his phrasing, the precision of his intonation and the power of his interpretation.

Clean, elegant lines and effortless playing made listeners forget what an athletic feat it really is to play at this level, with four Bach movements culminating in a sizzling, speedy finale that pushed at the boundaries of what is possible on the violin. The music waxed and waned so naturally, and Ehnes made this lyrical virtuosity sound so easy. The audience responded with an ovation that made it clear everyone was well aware they were hearing something rare and spectacular.

Concert Preview

Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival

The festival continues 3 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 24-31, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $16-$50 (206-283-8808 or

The concert that followed brought Ehnes back to the stage, this time with pianist Andrew Armstrong, in a sonata from the other end of the violin spectrum: Bartok’s searing Sonata No. 1, a work of tremendous intensity and rough-hewed energy. Contrast was the key here, with Ehnes refining his sound in the second movement down to a mere thread before the two players launched into the wild, violent ride of the final allegro.

All this blazing intensity was balanced by the works that bracketed the Bartok: Mozart’s charming and well-mannered Flute Quartet in C Major (K. 285b) and Schubert’s buoyant, tuneful Piano Trio in E-Flat Major (Op. 100). The Mozart benefited from the spirited, graceful performance of flutist Lorna McGhee, partnered by a stylish trio of strings: Erin Keefe (violin), Rebecca Albers (viola) and Robert deMaine (cello).

The Schubert trio gives the cellist the nicest lines, and Edward Arron made the most of these in a beautifully detailed, expressive performance. Alexander Kerr was an able but more understated partner on the violin; Max Levinson’s fluent, nicely judged piano supported the strings without receding too far into the background. This long, four-movement trio, like other late Schubert works, merits the comment made in another context by fellow composer Robert Schumann, who referred to Schubert’s “heavenly length.” The E-Flat Major Trio does go on, and themes appear and reappear, but always in slightly new guises, and — in the hands of players like these — impressive new levels of interpretive finesse.

Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall was packed for this opening recital and concert, and tickets are reportedly in very short supply for several of the concerts that follow. No wonder: These are enticing programs, and it’s a long time until the 35th Summer Festival in July.