Spectacular Shostakovich Lights Up Summer Chamber Music Fest

Violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine (Photo: SCMS)

Violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine (Photo: SCMS)

The temperature rose as a buzzing crowd filled Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall on July 24. The muggy atmosphere in the typically-breezy auditorium was deliberate for the penultimate evening of the Seattle Chamber Music Society‘s Summer Festival. The whirring air conditioning system was shut off for part of the performance, which included a live recording session of two of Shostakovich’s most celebrated string quartets. The audience in the packed hall didn’t seem to mind the heat. Instead, a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation filled the room in the minutes before the start of the show.

Each SCMS concert is preceded by a 30-minute recital presented by artists on the evening’s main program. The recitals are always free and open to the public, making these pint-sized performances a fantastic deal. The July 24 pre-concert event featured the live recording of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 — an especially sweet bargain that turned out to be the highlight of the entire evening.

One of the composer’s most frequently performed works, the String Quartet No. 8 is full of visceral energy and raw emotions. It’s not always pretty-sounding music, but it’s incredibly affecting and haunting. With SCMS Artistic Director James Ehnes leading on first violin, the ensemble delivered a riveting performance of the work that brought out the distinct character of each movement. Though the tangle of microphones and cables onstage seemed to encourage the musicians to keep their performance on the cautious side, the ensemble still hit all the piece’s emotional peaks and valleys with full force.

A fuzzy static seemed to crackle in the air as tension mounted over the course of the creeping first movement. Occasional solo passages included a rich melody played by second violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti. The first movement immediately launched into the rapid, violent bow strokes of the famous second movement. During key solo moments, violist Richard O’Neill’s bold tone rose above the swirling sound, contrasting sharply with the deliberately scratchy sounds of the other three musicians.

The third movement, a diabolical waltz, lurched to and fro with a halting stagger. Guided by Ehnes and cellist Robert deMaine, the slight changes in tempo gave the movement a deliciously whimsical, creepy character. The mood darkened in the final two movements, which were filled with ominous imagery, from aggressive knocking on a door to muted wailing.

Though nearly every seat in the auditorium was filled for the pre-concert recital, an even larger crowd packed the hall for the concert proper. Ehnes and his colleagues took the stage again for Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, the second part of the evening’s recording session. Unlike the sprawling No. 8, Shostakovich’s seventh string quartet comes in a compact package full of recurring themes that evolve over the course of the piece.

The key to the performance was contrast, both in texture and tone. Rich melodies wound their way through sharp pizzicato plucks and short, scratchy bow strokes. In the piece’s final movement, a buzzing fugue-like theme is passed between the four instruments and eventually pits the cello against the violins and viola. Here, cellist deMaine held his own, providing a solid counterbalance for the higher instruments as the piece whirled to its conclusion.

Two gems from the Romantic era rounded out the program. Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major was the first of the pair. Violinist Erin Keefe and pianist Anna Polonsky brought sparkling virtuosity to the work. A well-matched duo, the two musicians fed off each other’s musical energies, especially during transitional sections. Back-and-forth exchanges between violin and piano rose to a literal crescendo during the final movement, which is full of rapid-fire scales and shimmering technique reminiscent of passages from Mendelssohn’s famed Violin Concerto. Polonsky buoyed Keefe’s lightning-fast melodies with supporting chords before stepping into the spotlight, matching Keefe’s playing with equally-energetic solo passages of her own.

For the evening’s final performance, a new group of musicians brought the house down with Brahms’ Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Major. The four performers wasted no time getting down to business — the quartet pushed the pedal to the metal in the piece’s opening phrases and rarely looked back, keeping excitement levels dialed up high for much of the performance.

Ebullient pianist Orion Weiss effectively controlled the ebb and flow of energy with his confident playing, while violinist Alexander Velinzon, violist David Harding, and cellist Amit Peled made the most of Brahms’ grand, soaring melodic statements. Velinzon, who just completed his first season as Concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony, seemed equally at ease in a string quartet setting. His full tone suited the epic scale of Brahms’ work well, especially when balanced by Peled’s lush cello sound.

The live recordings of the two Shostakovich string quartets will be released later this year on the Onyx Classics label, along with a recording of Ehnes performing Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. Another disc of live recordings from this year’s festival is also in the works. It’ll focus on music by American composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, and Elliott Carter.

Originally posted in The SunBreak on July 26, 2013.

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