MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Virtual Festival of Chamber Music


[clip from the earlier incarnation of the James Ehnes Quartet, which launches Seattle’s Virtual Summer Festival this week]

The Seattle Chamber Music Society launches its Virtual Summer Festival this evening. This isn’t just a visit to the archives but a 12-concert series of all brand-new live performances that will be taped before being released to the public as streams.

The concerts will be made available on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule at 7pm PST. These will be “on-demand”: in other words, you won’t have to view them at the specific streaming time but can access all concerts for which you have purchased a pass through 10 August 2020 — as many times as you like.

This is an experiment and a risk. How many will pay for internet performances, as opposed to free streams? Each concert costs $15, or you can purchase a pass to all 12 programs for $125. For the first time, SCMS’s Chamber Festival is thus available to anyone anywhere with internet access, and performances cannot be “sold out.”

I wrote about the planning that went into this approach for the Seattle Times.

Artistic Director James Ehnes and his quartet will perform part two of their complete Beethoven quartet cycle in the three concerts on offer this week. This continues and concludes the journey they began in January — under normal circumstances — at the shorter Winter Festival.

Meanwhile, Ehnes put his quarantine time to use at his home in Florida by recording the solo partitas and sonatas of J.S. Bach and the corresponding Ysaÿe sonatas. He will be releasing these in a series, starting here.

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, COVID-19 Era, festivals, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival Goes Forward

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James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society artistic director, in the recording studio he set up while sequestered at his home near Tampa, Florida, where he just completed recording Bach’s solo violin Sonatas and Partitas. (Courtesy of Kate Ehnes)

Here’s my story about Seattle Chamber Music Society’s plan to go forward with its beloved, month-long Summer Festival with an online version.

Along with its terrible human toll, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the performing arts. Cancellation announcements are now so routine that the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s (SCMS) decision to proceed with a 2020 Summer Festival comes as a welcome respite…

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Meanwhile, here’s something from James Ehnes’s makeshift home studio. I’ll write more about his latest project there in an upcoming post.

Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, music news, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2020 Winter Festival

This year really seems to be racing along at breakneck speed. We’re already in the middle of the 2020 Winter Festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

I’ve got a bad case of FOMO since I wasn’t able to catch any of the the first three concerts last weekend. SCMS’s artistic director James Ehnes and his string quartet (violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Edward Arron) launched the season with a major #Beethoven250 undertaking. They played no fewer than half of the Beethoven quartets, each program mingling examples from the three periods.

The clip above is of the Ehnes Quartet from some years ago playing Beethoven (I believe in Seoul)–at that time, the formation included Robert deMaine as the cellist. Anyone who was able to experience last weekend’s half-cycle: please share your reactions in the comments.

Tonight starts the second and final weekend of Winter Festival. The programming idea for Friday and Saturday is now about twos, threes, and fives: violin sonatas by Grieg and Mozart, piano trios by Schubert and Ravel, and the two magnificent string quintets of Brahms.

Sunday brings a matinee concert (3pm) of J.S. Bach concertos: Concerto for 2 Violins and Orchestra in D minor, BWV 1043; Concerto No. 5 for Harpsichord and Orchestra in F minor, BWV 1056; Concerto No. 4 for Harpsichord and Orchestra in A major, BWV 1055; and Concerto for 3 Violins and Strings in D major, BWV 1064R.

And each of these three concerts is prefaced by half-hour prelude recital, starting one hour before the concert begins and free of charge. There’s also an open rehearsal today, at Nordstrom Recital Hall, of the Op. 88 Brahms String Quintet, at 1:15pm.

Complete 2020 Winter Festival Calendar

Filed under: James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Intriguing Voyage Out Anchored by 19th-Century Delights in Seattle

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Sebastian Currier

My review of Monday evening’s Summer Chamber Festival concert, which presented the world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s piano quintet Voyage Out, along with music by Fanny Mendelssohn* and Antonín Dvořák:

Under the smart and tastefully reliable artistic direction of the distinguished violinist James Ehnes, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has basically hewed to a longstanding programming formula: an overlooked work by a familiar composer, a piece featuring instrumentation unusual for the chamber format, and a blockbuster or two, typically from the 19th century…

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*This observation was cut from my review, but since the event has still left me seething, I want to include it:
As if patriarchal strictures hadn’t suppressed Fanny Mendelssohn’s voice sufficiently during her own lifetime, contemporary technology continued the insult to this wonderfully gifted composer in the form of entitled, inexcusable rudeness: in both the first and second movements, the same audience member had to silence a cell phone’s intrusions (not before the beastly device rang out a full cycle of Westminster chimes as the Adagio was supposed to have ebbed into silence).

Filed under: Antonín Dvořák, commissions, Fanny Mendelssohn, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Kernis and SSO to the Grammys

This Sunday we’ll find out whether Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony’s recording of the Violin Concerto by A.J. Kernis with James Ehnes as the soloist wins either (or both) of its two Grammy nominations: for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Classical Instrumental solo. Hard to believe two years have passed since that wonderful premiere. Here’s the review I wrote back then:

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot, James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

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Filed under: Aaron Jay Kernis, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival

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Jame Ehnes, left, Ani Aznavoorian and Andrs Daz in performance from a previous Seattle Chamber Music Festival Summer Festival. (Paul Joseph Brown)

I spoke with James Ehnes for the Seattle Times about the upcoming Summer Festival:

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2017 Summer Festival to feature musical postcards from across Europe, an American composer’s world premiere and a community performance of Bach before the closing open-air concert at Volunteer Park.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, Beethoven, commissions, James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot, review, Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony Unveils a New, Custom Concerto

ajkernisMy latest for The Seattle Times: a preview of Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto for James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony:

How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.

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Filed under: commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 35th Summer Festival

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Cynthia Phelps is a regular participant in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.

Tonight the 2016 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival begins, with James Ehnes and his colleagues fresh from a Beethoven quartet marathon in Seoul. My preview has been posted on the Seattle Times website:

“Chamber music is about being able to trust your colleagues,” says violist Cynthia Phelps. That’s what enables the risk-taking that’s essential for this intimate musical medium, she explains. “And the chance to live and work together during the Summer Festival is a wonderful model for building that trust.”

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Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Rekindle your spirits with Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival

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My preview of this month’s Winter Festival by the Seattle Chamber Music Society for the Seattle Times is now online.

Filed under: James Ehnes, preview, Seattle Chamber Music Society

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