After a pandemic 15-month hiatus, the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer festival is finally “live” again – for at least four concerts. A cautious and partial return to the Benaroya Hall for four hour-long Sunday programs began on Sunday on the hall’s main Taper stage, with a concert that was both marvelous and bizarre. Wonderful for the quality of the music and the thrill of the live performances, and strange for the tiny, well-spaced presence of the concerts which are usually crowded into a much smaller venue, the Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya. (According to festival artistic director and violinist James Ehnes, Benaroya Hall rules currently allow a maximum of 400 listeners on the 2,500-seat Taper main stage.)
Inside the room, it was the ‘new normal’: temperature / symptom screening for members of the public, remote headquarters, everyone (including performers) masked. But it was live music, exceptionally beautiful live music, and just being there was a rare privilege. Ehnes kicked off the proceedings with a brief tribute to Connie Cooper, who is stepping down as executive director at the end of this season – her 25the with SCMS.
In a pre-concert interview, Ehnes remarked, âWe are really hungry for live performances,â and that hunger was manifested in the zest and urgency of musical creation. The program was enticing: a Beethoven String Trio (G major, Op. 9, No. 1), with Ehnes (playing the viola this time) joining violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and cellist Edward Arron, and the great Franck Sonata for violin with Augustin Hadelich and pianist Alessio Bax.
The Beethoven trio, full of sparkling good humor and melodious melodies, achieved a fiery and well nuanced performance. It was Franck’s Sonata, however, that drew spectators to the edge of their seats and captured the attention of the community. Hadelich, who joins Ehnes among the eminent violinists of this generation, tore up Franck’s Sonata with a passionate intensity that imbued every line with meaning and beauty. Phrase after phrase emerged with a dismal, dazzling quality of tone and the surging romanticism that made this sonata a cornerstone of the repertoire.
Bax was a true partner on the piano, adapting almost as if by magic to every turn of Hadelich’s performance, and fully providing the kind of quasi-orchestral tone that the score needs. The piano overture of the third movement was given a mysterious and fuzzy quality that perfectly underlined the fluid ruminations of the violin score. The control of Hadelich’s bow in this movement was phenomenal: a final fade that faded into a whisper and then silence. Franck’s last movement degenerated into a theatrical intensity that filled the auditorium. It is the beauty, the imagination and the excitement that chamber music lovers live for, and it was here in all its measure.
A concert like this proves the eternal satisfaction that only live music can provide. But the Seattle Chamber Music Society has also found some surprising rewards in its streaming concert series – rewards that will likely last well beyond the eventual lifting of pandemic restrictions and the resumption of the normal live concert model. Ehnes says the Company has discovered an audience outside of the concert hall: their streaming concerts have reached listeners in all states and several other countries, providing “a service to those who can’t be in Seattle.” There is a hunger for this music. And there is a lot to be decided on how we might structure a festival in a hybrid form.