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

An Enescu Discovery

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My latest piece for STRINGS magazine is on the very belated US premiere of an early string trio by George Enescu:

Fellow musicians — especially string players — have resorted to some striking superlatives to characterize George Enescu (1881–1955). Pablo Casals, a frequent chamber partner, once remarked that since Mozart, there had been no greater musical phenomenon, while Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin believed the Op. 25 Third Sonata (“dans le caractère populaire roumain”) represented “the greatest achievement of musical notation” he had ever known…

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Filed under: chamber music, George Enescu, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Strings

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

New Piano Quintet by Sebastian Currier in Seattle

Looking forward to this evening’s world premiere of Voyage Out: Quintet for Piano and Strings by Sebastian Currier — this summer’s Seattle Chamber Music Society commission. Currier will introduce the piece in a talk at 7pm. Also on the 8pm program are Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major and Dvořák’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet.

Above is a fascinating interview with Currier conducted by Frank Oteri in 2012, in which the composer discusses his aesthetic.

Filed under: commissions, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Midpoint of Summer Festival at Seattle Chamber Music Society

The Seattle Chamber Music Society has been on a roll with its SummerFestival lineup this week. I’ve especially enjoyed Emerson String Quartet cellist Paul Watkins in killer Beethoven (Cello Sonata No, 3) and Brahms (C minor Piano Trio, Op. 101, with James Ehnes and Alessio Bax), the piano four-hands version of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye with Inon Barnatan and Angela Drăghicescu, and the long-belated U.S. live premiere of George Enescu’s Piano Trio No. 1 from 1897 (thanks to the diligence of Angela Drăghicescu, who was joined by James Ehnes and Ani Aznavoorian to perform it — I have a report on the rediscovery coming out later in Strings magazine). Plus, a delightful account of the “Sunrise” Quartet by Haydn (who’s been all-too-missing from summers past), courtesy of Alexander Kerr, Benjamin Bowman, Beth Gutterman Chu, and Ani Aznavoorian.

Another series of gems has been provided by the tenor Nicholas Phan and colleagues in several chamber song cycles: Fauré’s exquisite La bonne chanson and a cycle Mr. Phan created by interweaving secular love songs by John Blow and Purcell (with Stephen Stubbs and Julie Albers, plus new obbligato violin parts for Alexander Kerr and Benjamin Bowman). The tenor returns this evening for a prelude recital of selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang (with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard) and, to James Ehnes’s violin, a Vaughan Williams rarity: Along the Field, his cycle of A.E. Housman settings. Also on the program tonight: Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, Op. 11, no. 4, more Enescu — Concert Piece for Viola and Piano — and Beethoven’s Op. 1, no. 1, the Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major.

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society

2019 Summer Festival at Seattle Chamber Music Society

The 2019 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival has already begun. Looking forward to discovering this early Enescu Piano Trio next week — in its belated U.S. premiere.

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Strange Loops and Golden Braids

Last night’s performance of The Musical Offering is a contender for the highlight of the four performances I attended during this summer’s festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

Today, by coincidence, as the thema regium occupies my mind, marks the 278th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. The performers — violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Edward Arron (the newly reformulated James Ehnes Quartet); violinists Yura Lee and Erin Keefe; violist Che-Yen Chen; cellists Julie Albers and Ronald Thomas; flutist Christie Reside; and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman — sustained a very special atmosphere throughout.

It differed in fascinating ways from the usual SCMS mood, Bach’s intellectual virtuosity holding the capacity audience spellbound, but with the tragic undertone that is also part of this music ever-present. Such a rare pleasure.

A few observations from Douglas Hofstadter’s 1970s classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach:

“The Musical Offering” is a fugue of fugues, a Tangled Hierarchy like those of Escher and Gödel, an intellectual construction which reminds me, in ways I cannot express, of the beautiful many-voiced fugue of the human mind. And that is why in my book the three strands of Gödel, Escher, and Bach are woven into an Eternal Golden Braid.

In [the Canon per Tonos], Bach has given us our first example of the notion of Strange Loops. The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. (Here, the system is that of musical keys.) … Implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way?

To give an idea of how extraordinary a six-part fugue is, in the entire Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, containing forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, only two have as many as five parts, and nowhere is there a six-part fugue! One could probably liken the task of improvising a six-part fugue to the playing of sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess, and winning them all. To improvise an eight-part fugue is really beyond human capability.

“Quaerendo invenietis” is my advice to the reader.

Meanwhile, the Boston Public Library has digitized and put online dozens of Escher’s prints here.

Filed under: Bach, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2018 Commission

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Composer James Newton Howard (Eric Charbonneau / Invision / AP)

For The Seattle Times: my look at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s commission for the 2018 Summer Festival: a new piece by veteran film composer James Newton Howard:

It would be hard to underestimate how pervasively film composers shape the general public’s image of what classical music “sounds like.” …

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Filed under: commissions, Seattle Chamber Music Society

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