Music lovers wait all year for those electric moments in the Nordstrom Recital Hall, when small ensembles of some of the world’s finest musicians gather onstage for the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer festival of great classics and bold new works.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Society, like most other festival presenters, into uncharted territory: “virtual” concerts, streamed online. They’re recorded in the SCMS’ Center for Chamber Music in Seattle and in other sites, and accessed online by patrons who listen and watch from afar on their computers or other devices.
So how’s that working out?
First, it is futile to imagine that virtual concerts can replace the galvanic energy of being in the same room with musicians whose spontaneous intensity and virtuosity can make music lovers forget to breathe. Sharing in the moment that force field of live music is not something you can duplicate on a screen.
And yet: it can come pretty darned close, as you learn to immerse yourself in that online world. Today we experience so much on screens that many music lovers are accustomed to hearing and watching performances online. There are advantages: online viewers can take a pause, or listen to one portion of the concert while saving the rest for later. You can hear and see the performance again (through Aug. 17, at least, for SCMS’ summer festival). Pre- and post-concert interviews with the artists add personal touches to the program.
A “virtual festival” also offers the chance to experience performances that would be impossible to achieve live — like Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Siren for Solo Flute, 7 Flutes and Piccolo.” The incredibly nimble flutist Marina Piccinini played all the parts, recorded and captured simultaneously on the screen as if in a Zoom meeting. The intricacy of the interweaving musical lines, the wonderfully dexterous and subtle playing, and the sheer virtuosity of Piccinini’s technique were all heightened by the clever manipulation of the images. This performance, premiered on Wednesday evening, must be seen and heard to be believed.
And you can get to know new and challenging repertoire in a way not possible with one hearing. Wednesday’s concert, recorded July 22, featured four works by Kernis (whose Violin Concerto — composed for and recorded by James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony — won two 2019 Grammy Awards).
Hearing Kernis talk about his “Mini Kernis Festival” on Wednesday evening, with three world premieres among those four works on the program, was particularly illuminating and timely. His “Elegy (for those we lost),” composed two months ago in memory of the victims of COVID-19 and premiered by pianist Alessio Bax, could not have been more “in the moment” with its quiet lyricism rising to an anguished crescendo and subsiding again in resignation. Kernis’ “Un Bacio,” premiered with beautiful clarity by solo pianist Joyce Yang, proved an epic piece of substantial difficulty.
A lighter note was sounded in Kernis’ 2012 ”Feng Shui for Your New Home,” which the composer called “a benediction for the new physical home of the festival” (the Center for Chamber Music). With Kernis at the piano, tenor Nicholas Phan deftly negotiated some challenging settings of verses about the ancient art in which the forces of energy are balanced to harmonize individuals with their environment.
The program’s opener was a spirited and subtle performance of the Debussy Violin Sonata in G Minor by violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Orion Weiss.
And finally, there was Mozart: the “Divertimento for String Trio” (K. 563), in a warmly spirited performance by Tessa Lark (violin), Cynthia Phelps (viola) and Ani Aznavoorian (cello).
And then, there was silence.
No rip-roaring ovation; none of the electricity generated between thrilling performers and a delighted audience. The virtual world, post-concert, can be a chilly place.
Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Virtual Summer Festival, Concert No. 8, recorded July 22 and streamed online July 29 (available, along with 11 other online concerts as they appear, through Aug. 17). $125 for all 12 concerts, $15 per concert; 206-283-8808, email firstname.lastname@example.org or seattlechambermusic.org