A Light-Hearted World Premiere at Seattle’s Summer Chamber Music Festival

As he tells it, Lawrence Dillon began his career as a composer at the tender age of seven, when he fell in love with his piano teacher and began to write songs to bring to his weekly lessons. Though a childhood struggle with severe chicken pox cost Dillon 50 percent of his hearing, his love affair with music and composition continued. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to receive a doctorate from the Juilliard School.

Composer Lawrence Dillon (Photo: Lawrence Dillon)

Composer Lawrence Dillon (Photo: Lawrence Dillon)

On July 8, the Seattle Chamber Music Society gave the debut of Dillon’s newest work, Sanctuary, as part of the 2013 Summer Chamber Music Festival at Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. Composed for French horn, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano, Sanctuary‘s unique instrumentation is unprecedented in the classical chamber music canon. The four-movement work explores universal notions of shelter, comfort, and respite. Sanctuary joins a growing collection of pieces commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club, which funds the creation of a new chamber work each year.

An uplifting work that complements the summer season, Sanctuary is full of energetic rhythms and buoyant timbres that would be perfect for an outdoor concert on a warm evening. Dillon’s composition treats the septet as a miniature chamber orchestra, dividing the ensemble into different instrumental sections to achieve specific timbral effects. Brassy tones from the French horn and brilliant passages on the piano float above classic string section accompaniment provided by violins and viola. The rhythmic power of the double bass adds punch to jazzy sections, particularly during the fourth movement, titled “A Reliable Pulse.”

Dillon’s interest in contrasting timbres come into play in Sanctuary‘s dramatic first movement, “Domed and Steepled Solitude.” The movement’s title originates from a quote by Mark Twain, who marveled at the sense of anonymity he felt during his first visit to bustling New York City. Dillon, who is Composer-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, evokes one man’s loneliness among the hubbub busy city streets by pitting a tender string melody (barely audible due to the use of practice mutes) against aggressive chords and erratically-bouncing notes in the piano, horn, and double bass. Playing in unison, pianist Andrew Russo and Seattle Symphony Principal Horn Jeffrey Fair conjured up the image of a rubber bouncy ball with sharp staccato pokes that ricocheted around the auditorium.

Fair’s horn solo was the highlight of Sanctuary‘s second movement, “Winged Sandals,” which celebrates notions of speed and flight. Outstanding solo moments also abounded in the third movement, “Scents and Recollection.” Violist Rebecca Albers brought a gorgeous velvety tone to a sentimental solo section. At the movement’s end, a weeping violin cadenza by Nurit Bar-Josef ushered in the work’s energetic fourth movement.

The other two works on the program continued the trend towards lighter, summery fare. The evening began with Beethoven’s Ten Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” (“I am the Tailor Cockatoo”), written for violin, cello, and piano. For a piece with such a comical name, the work began on a rather slow and serious note before delving into the joviality and humor one would expect. The work’s high opus number suggests that it was composed late in Beethoven’s life, but scholars believe that it was drafted earlier in the composer’s career and published at a later date.

Though the so-called “Kakadu Variations” follow a fairly standard classical style, the trio effectively emphasized the occasional strange harmonies and idiosyncratic Beethoven moments that pop up throughout the piece. Violinist Andrew Wan and cellist Bion Tsang anchored the ensemble with a unified string sound, while pianist Anton Nel provided contrast with a light and sensitive touch on the keyboard.

An audience favorite, Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio in E-Flat Major concluded the program. The work explores a wide range of classical forms and moods, from sprightly minuets to stormy Allegros. With violinist Augustin Hadelich at the helm, the trio powered through the Divertimento’s six movements, which are full of sizzling runs and scales.

A natural soloist with a powerful tone, Hadelich’s playing captivates the ear, sometimes drawing attention away from violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Ronald Thomas, whose sound was more subdued. Still, the trio brought an infectious energy to the performance. This all came to a head in the lively final movement, during which Hadelich’s music fell off his stand at a particularly speedy moment. The trio handled the gaffe with grace, aplomb, and smiles. Hadelich quickly fixed the errant sheets and the group brought the work to its rousing conclusion.

Originally posted in The SunBreak on July 12, 2013.

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