Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival Brightens Up These Congested Post-Holiday Weeks


James Ehnes, violinist and artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and pianist Andrew Armstrong provided some of Sunday’s most exciting music in a program of Beethoven, Debussy and Shostakovich. The festival continues until January 27.

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It may be winter, but it’s still festival time in Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. On Sunday afternoon, January 20, a joyous crowd of spectators thronged the crowded hall of the recital hall, on their way to a program of chamber gems: a trio, a duet and a quintet.

Artistic director James Ehnes was on hand for the event, the third of six concerts in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s annual winter equivalent to its longest summer festival. Unsurprisingly, Ehnes – one of the country’s most acclaimed violinists – and his duo partner, pianist Andrew Armstrong, provided some of Sunday’s most exciting music in a program that spanned from Beethoven to Debussy and Shostakovich.

Beethoven’s stormy Violin Sonata in C minor (Op. 30, No. 2) of 1802 ranks among some of the finest works of the genre, and Ehnes gave it a lofty reading. Patrician in the phrasing, powerful in the approach, this interpretation was also perfectly balanced between violinist and pianist. Armstrong was with Ehnes in every well-chosen phrase, every pause and every attack. The interaction in the Adagio Cantabile movement was particularly fine.

The program’s hors d’oeuvre, Debussy’s charming and evocative Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, brought together three first-rate musicians: two musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (principal flautist Demarre McGill and harpist Valerie Muzzolini ) and violist Matthew Lipman, a festival chamber musician. Debussy offers many textures: the instruments are blown, plucked and rubbed (respectively), and Debussy gives them a lot of bright and colorful interaction. The three musicians, all closely tuned to each other, emphasized the contrasts between delicate and declarative passages in a stylish, often ethereal performance.

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Shostakovich’s Quintet for piano and strings in G minor (Op. 57) is one of the great chamber works of the 20th century. Composed during World War II, the five movements of the quintet range from expressions of furious energy and sardonic humor to quiet lyricism and existential despair, all rendered with a wide range of colors and effects from the five instruments ( violinists Scott St. John and Sean Lee, violist Sharon Wei, cellist Efe Baltacigil and pianist Joyce Yang). St. John took a commanding lead throughout, making fine performance points in his extended solos. The performance brought out Shostakovich’s huge emotional range – and also brought the house down.

What a gift this winter presence offers to chamber music lovers in the region, in these jam-packed post-holiday weeks when summer seems like an eternity.


Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival, until January 27; Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20 to $55; 206-283-8808,


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