Seattle Chamber Music Society Releases Stunning Piece From ‘Dark Knight’ Composer

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The Seattle Chamber Music Society has commissioned a new work from eminent film composer James Newton Howard – and it’s a winner.

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Each summer, a brand new piece of chamber music comes to life through the efforts (and wallets) of the Commissioning Club of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. This year’s world premiere, by eminent film composer James Newton Howard (“Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” starring Hans Zimmer), was unveiled at Monday’s SCMS concert, and it’s a winner : one of the most memorable new works to emerge in the festival so far. Complicated, edgy and ominous, Howard’s play (titled “They’ve just gotten to that new level”) bubbles with a sense of almost cinematic drama.

It’s definitely not a score for sissies. This propulsive and energetic work for string quartet, flute and clarinet/bass clarinet pits the instruments against each other, as well as in occasional harmony. Its virtuosic demands for all six players make the piece sound positively orchestral in many passages, and the variety of colors produced by the instruments is bewildering. The top-notch sextet that premiered included string players James Ehnes, Alexander Kerr, Cynthia Phelps and Clive Greensmith, virtuoso flautist Jeffrey Barker and the infinitely subtle clarinetist Anthony McGill.

Ehnes, who is also the festival’s artistic director, presented Howard’s first and two other works in the first half as articulately and deftly as any television commentator. He explained Howard’s original titles (the first was named after a caption in a painting, and another piano piece took its title from an overheard phrase, “We can talk about God another time”). Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong gave a searing, thrilling retelling of Newton’s “1:33…At least” and Armstrong played the jazzy, meditative piano piece with easy authority.

The second half of the program was on more familiar ground: Rachmaninoff’s Trio No. 1 and Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G major (Op. 78). The trio (violinist Nurit Bar-Josef, cellist Yegor Dyachkov and Armstrong) was well balanced, with Armstrong toning down the piano part’s considerable thunderous power in order to accommodate the strings. Brahms’ final sonata got a flawless rendition from violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, paired admirably by Max Levinson on the piano, though a little more rhythm and schmaltz from Brahms wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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We are in the penultimate week of the festival, with many highlights remaining. Clarinet fans will want to catch Wednesday’s concert featuring Anthony McGill in two works; Korngold fans are in luck on Wednesday and Friday, with his piano quintet and a suite on the programme. Next week, Franck’s Grand Piano Quintet in F Minor, and the July 27 finale will feature Bach’s “The Musical Offering.” We will be Bach.

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the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival, with a world premiere by James Newton Howard on Monday night; the festival continues through July 28 at Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $52 (students $16 and 30 and under; peak tickets $30); 206-283-8808, seattlechambermusic.org).

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