Review: Despite being interrupted — twice! — by cellphones, Seattle Chamber Musi

The summer is zooming by, and the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival has started its second half with a July 15 program of particular merit. On Monday night, a receptive audience heard a world premiere, a famous Dvořák classic, and an impressive work by the “other Mendelssohn” (Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny).

Among the players were the artistic director and artistic adviser of the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival: violist Aloysia Friedmann and her husband, the pianist Jon Kimura Parker, respectively. Like the Seattle festival’s director, James Ehnes, Friedmann and Parker were advised and nurtured by the late Toby Saks, the region’s benevolent godmother of chamber festivals and the founder (in 1982) of the Seattle one.

Taking the stage for opening work on Monday evening were violinists Tessa Lark and Erin Keefe, violist Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Yegor Dyachkov — a well-balanced quartet that explored the dark intensity of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, with particularly fine playing from Lark. Along with this score, there was music of a less appreciated variety. The somber, delicately quiet close of the Mendelssohn’s first movement was attended by one of the most conspicuous cellphone interruptions I’ve heard in all my years of concert-going: a blast of “Westminster chimes” from the audience that visibly startled some of the musicians on the stage. What made the intrusion more unbelievable is that the phone also chimed out in the second movement (more quickly stifled this time).

The annual world premiere, funded by the festival’s commissioning club, is always an eagerly awaited event, as music lovers consider each potential addition to the chamber music repertoire: Will this new piece be the next great classic? Sebastian Currier’s new “Voyage Out,” for piano and string quartet, got an impassioned reading from violinists Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki, violist Jonathan Vinocour, cellist Raphael Bell, and pianist Jeewon Park. Densely scored and rhythmically challenging, this performance often sounded like a work for chamber orchestra, not just a quintet.

The opening vigorous statement, which reappears later in a more frenetic form, gives way to slow drooping string chords that slide gracefully downward. The piano plays an angular melody as the quartet offers a wistful tonal accompaniment, as if regretting the decline of harmony. Spooky tremolos and gently slumping figures suggest the sagging clocks in Dali’s famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory.” Finally, amid eerie twitterings and harmonics from the strings, the piano plays a simple line that dwindles off, like the emanations of a distant planet.

It’s a voyage that takes a long time to get underway, unlike the final work on Monday’s program, the tuneful Dvořák Piano Quartet. A repertoire staple, this quartet is jam-packed with expressive possibilities. These were seized upon with great gusto (and remarkable subtlety) by violinist/festival director Ehnes, violist Friedmann, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist Parker. This was a performance that had everything: beautifully expressive phrasing, close partnership, and lots of lovely details (little changes in phrasing, attack, and character of each melodic line). The grandiosity of the ending made an exciting conclusion to a remarkable concert.

Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times
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