By Philippa Kiraly
It seemed odd to go to Benaroya Hall, specifically the smaller Nordstrom Recital Hall, for a Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival concert but, well, we will get used to it. The Society was no longer allowed to use the Lakeside campus with its lovely grounds and peaceful ambience, but it also needed a larger auditorium to accommodate the increasing numbers of people who have flocked to the festival each year.
Judging by Friday’s packed audience at Nordstrom—the first festival performance I’ve attended this summer—the change is working. There were new faces among the many regulars, and executive director Connie Cooper said that some were tourists coming in off the streets after seeing notices of performances. (The outdoor ambience continues at The Overlake School in Redmond in August.)
The format is the same: a free recital with open seating at 7 p.m., the concert proper at eight, with the sound piped out into the Garden of Remembrance where anyone can picnic or listen for free.
Strings and piano have been by far the preponderant instruments at the festival over the years, but clarinet has often been added and, in recent years, increasingly frequent additions of other instruments.
Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoom and piano from 1926 is full of the composer’s hallmark quirky, astringent wit with melodies woven in. As played with panache by three of Seattle’s own, Symphony musicians Ben Hausmann, oboe, and Paul Rafanelli, bassoon, with Craig Sheppard at the piano, the trio bubbled lightheartedly, usually with a sense of laughter. Sheppard took over the tricky, often difficult keyboard part at short notice, replacing Festival artist Andrew Armstrong who has been sidelined with a serious infection but expects to be back soon. At times the piano overwhelmed the winds and Sheppard’s short preparation time showed occasionally in less than clean playing.
Nothing marred the performance of Grieg’s Sonata for cello and piano in A Minor. Cellist Bion Tsang and pianist Adam Neiman have been welcome performers at the festival for years, and each time they seem to play with even more depth and insightful musicianship, if that’s possible. From the first notes, urgent but not loud, it was possible to sit back and just appreciate a masterly interpretation.
Lastly came the Mendelssohn Octet for strings, a superb piece of music and all the more extraordinary when one remembers the composer was 16 when he wrote it. Played by violinists James Ehnes, Erin Keefe, Andrew Wan and Augustin Hadelich, violists Cynthia Phelps and Richard O’Neill, and cellists Robert deMaine and Edward Arron, the last three movements were a marvel of lightness and clarity. Tone, particularly in the second movement, had a richness and warmth without weight. In the third, the players brought out the impish, quicksilver feel (heralding Mendelssohn’s music a couple of years later for “A Midsmummer Night’s Dream”), while the fourth movement, quiet and fast, ended effectively in increasingly hushed notes.
However, in the first movement where the music is intended to be vigorous, it felt as though the vigor was more of late 20th century vintage, rather than the kind of energy which would have been appropriate in 1825. These musicians rarely hack at their instruments but came perilously close here.
There are many benefits to the Society in making its new home at Nordstrom. However, there are still, as there have always been at this hall, problems with the acoustics.
Musicians love playing here. They can hear themselves easily, and from on stage it all sounds wonderful. But fill the hall with bodies, and the dry acoustic begins to distort sound in a way the musicans do not hear from where they are. It happens when they are playing loudly in high registers. Sound goes from sweet to steely on the violins, to shrill on the high winds, to edgy and lacking resonance on the piano. Sound loses depth and becomes brash. It affected the playing of several musicians in this concert, but only within that loud, high range.
It doesn’t have to happen. It can be gotten around.
In this concert, some of the most beautiful playing and avoidance of the pitfalls came from Neiman at the piano throughout the Grieg, and from violinist Hadelich in the early recital, where he played Ravel and Ysaye with a honeyed depth of tone even in the midst of musical acrobatics.
I do hope that the festival directors will take into account this continued acoustical problem at Nordstrom. The superb musicians who come here to play need to know about it so that they may take it into account.
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