Among this year’s lineup of newcomers at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2016 Summer Festival was American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley — which gives you an idea of the level of luxury casting to which chamber music lovers have been treated.
The North Carolina native switched from his position as Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster to become first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014 — and he’s currently only 32.
For this edition of the Summer Chamber Festival, Bendix-Balgley took part in four programs, and I made sure to catch all of them. He made his debut here with Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet in E-flat, joined by violist Jonathan Vincour, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist George Li (I’m not exaggerating about the “luxury casting”).
This was the kind of playing that can change your attitude toward Dvořák, make you realize that we need to hear more and more of him, not just the warhorses. They sustained their intensity across the generous arc of the piece, not merely settling for its lyrical pleasures: the Piano Quintet as a page-turner epic novel.
For appearance no. 2, Bendix-Balgley joined Bion Tsang and Yura Lee (on cello) for Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat (K. 563), which made for a fascinating contrast with the overbrimming Romanticism of the Dvořák: the graceful restraint of his phrasing revealed emotional depths and the power of implication.
During his third concert Bendix-Balgley teamed with fellow violinist David Chan for Prokofiev’s remarkably far-ranging Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56. Along with expertly sounding its acoustical surprises and trompe-l’oreille effects, I admired how the musicians explored Prokofiev’s independence of line — of musical thought — from two similar voices, interrogating notions of “harmony.”
Beethoven was the focus of Bendix-Balgley’s final appearance (July 25), when he convened with SCMS artistic director James Ehnes (on first violin), Beth Guterman Chu and Rebecca Albers (violas), and Raphael Bell (cello) for the “Storm” Quintet in C major, Op. 29.
The Summer Festival is known for its mix of musicians who have regularly played for years as partners and ad hoc ensembles working together for the first time, and their account could have easily fooled listeners into taking this particular group for the former. By that I don’t mean only the level of risk-taking and involvement in the playing, but the conviction they seemed to share about the “Storm” Quintet’s emotional landscape and structural quirks.
Here’s a sample of Bendix-Balgley’s captivating, richly characterful playing: