Chamber ensemble Byron Schenkman & Friends plays an evening of music by Beethoven and Schubert, written while the composers were suffering through crises.
When great artists are struggling, that pain sometimes comes through in their work — but not always. Take Beethoven and Schubert, who produced some of their loftiest music during periods of intense suffering.
That’s one of the ideas behind the programming for this Sunday’s Byron Schenkman & Friends concert (May 15), which pairs a Beethoven sonata for violin and piano from early in his career with the Piano Trio in E-flat major, one of the last pieces Franz Schubert completed before his early death at age 31 (in 1828, the year after Beethoven died at the age of 56).
“Even though both of these composers experienced moments of extreme crisis around the time they wrote these works,” Schenkman said in a recent interview, “it inspires me with endless awe that they could write such transcendently joyful and serene music.”
Byron Schenkman & Friends play Beethoven and Schubert
7 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $10-$65 (206-215-4747 or byronschenkman.com).
A harpsichordist, pianist and music director, Schenkman inaugurated his chamber music series in 2013. Beethoven, he explained, was just beginning to acknowledge his incurable deafness when he wrote the “Spring” Sonata (the fifth of his 10 violin sonatas) in 1800. The composer was even contemplating suicide, as he recorded in his moving “Heiligenstadt Testament” two years later.
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Yet anguish is hardly what comes to mind when you listen to the “Spring” Sonata, which is in the same key as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. The nickname is a posthumous adornment that, for once, seems germane. Classical music is riddled with silly nicknames that have nothing to do with the pieces they refer to — like the “Moonlight” Sonata — invented by publishers, not composers, as gimmicks. In this case, Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata actually makes sense: The piece sounds fresh and springlike.
“Along with the serenity, there’s a kind of goofiness in places,” Schenkman said. “I think this is part of the sense of acceptance the music conveys, of being able to have a sense of humor about what is going on.”
Schubert’s final years brought a sharp decline in health — likely the effects of syphilis, along with the dreadful mercury treatment used at the time — yet saw an extraordinary creative flourishing. Though the Trio in E-flat for piano, violin and cello includes a haunting lament in its slow movement — David Bowie fans might recognize it from a memorable scene in the film “The Hunger,” in which Bowie’s character plays cello — for the most part this work exudes the high-spirited camaraderie of friends.
That spirit is in keeping with Schenkman’s philosophy of musical collaboration. A well-known figure in Seattle’s early-music scene as a keyboard soloist and chamber musician, he cofounded Seattle Baroque Orchestra in 1994. The impulse to launch Schenkman & Friends sprang from his love of chamber music “as a force that connects people and that brings people healing and joy.”
“My experience is that the best music happens not when you have the best possible player of each instrument,” he said, “but when you have the best possible combination of players of the instruments.”
With Schenkman at the piano, the program’s lineup will include violinist Liza Zurlinden (formerly of the conductorless ensemble A Far Cry) and Seattle Baroque Orchestra cellist Nathan Whittaker.
And Schenkman’s circle of like-minded performers won’t be limited to instrumentalists. The concert’s most unusual item calls for tenor Ross Hauck, an early-music specialist: “An die ferne Geliebte” (“To the Distant Beloved”), a pioneering cycle of songs Beethoven wrote in 1816, which became an inspiration to such Romantic masters of the song cycle as Robert Schumann. Schubert, who — in contrast to Beethoven — was principally known as a songwriter during his own lifetime, was the other great innovator of the song cycle.
Why juxtapose instrumental and vocal music on a chamber program? At the dawn of the Romantic era, Schenkman explained, composers’ understanding of the relationship between music for instruments alone versus music with voices started to change. “The whole idea of music being able to express our deepest feelings, things that words cannot express: That was something new.”
This concert brings the third season of Schenkman & Friends to its close. In store for next season is a wider range of repertoire that plays on the relationships between the Baroque, classical and early Romantic periods, with the music of Bach as a recurrent theme. Schenkman will also showcase his more recent collaboration with klezmer violinist Steven Greenman in a program titled “Russians and Jews.”
Whenever he shares the stage with musical friends, Schenkman said, his aim is “to share the energy of all the people in the room — including the audience. I like to play with musicians who are sensitive to that and who will not only play off each other but will play off that energy as well.”