New Piano Quintet Reveals A Magical World All Its Own

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Violinists Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki were among soloists rehearsing the world premiere of ‘Voyage Out’ under the eye of its composer, Sebastian Currier, for the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival. (Performer photos by Philip Newton)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – As much as the world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s Voyage Out deserved its standing ovation at the July 15 installment of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival in Benaroya Hall, the real standout was the quality of ensemble playing. The sense of oneness in the concert’s closing work, Dvořák’s gorgeous Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat, Op. 87, could serve as an object lesson for how to present chamber music in the finest light.

Violinist (and festival artistic director) James Ehnes, violist Aloysia Friedmann, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist Jon Kimura Parker are universally lauded musicians, with countless glowing reviews and prestigious awards to their credit. But from the first note of Dvořák’s opening Allegro con fuoco, all played as if they had no ego of their own. The tone and feel were echt old world, aged in wood, with seasoned warmth predominating. Even in the rollicking finale, filled as it was with exuberant folkish thrills, the players created such a sense of unanimity that it extended the half circle that began on stage to include the entire audience.

James Ehnes, Bion Tsang, Aloysia Friedmann, and Jon Kimura Parker played Dvořák.

When Ehnes laid into his strings in the finale, his glorious tone never sang out at the expense of ensemble. Friedmann, in turn, ended her viola solos by opening her vibrato with a unique but self-effacing beauty that warmed the heart. What thrilled most about the ending was not the sheer virtuosity of the players, which was breathtaking, but the ability to maintain unity at full throttle.

Tsang’s cello exuded warmth throughout, but never stood out unless given the dominant line by Dvořák. At the start of the sublime second movement Lento, the blend of cello, violin, and viola was perfection itself, and the mix of sorrow, regret, and resignation deeply touching. Parker was a true partner, gauging every note to match the volume of the three string players in front of him. The charm of the third movement Allegro moderato grazioso was without bounds. It rarely gets better than what this sterling ensemble produced.

Currier preceded the world premiere of Voyage Out, which was commissioned by Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club, with a pre-concert lecture/demonstration in which his five soloists (violinists Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki, violist Jonathan Vinocour, cellist Raphael Bell, and pianist Jeewon Park) gave short excerpts from the work. He explained that after some failed attempts at playing violin, he and his brother spent their teenage years devoted to rock.

Composer Sebastian Currier spent his teenage years devoted to rock.

What impressed him most about his subsequent discovery of classical music is that, while the rock he knew basically centered on one idea, classical music took him on a journey that ended up somewhere else from where he began. That inspired him to write the two movements of Voyage Out. In the program notes, Currier explained that the first movement is interrupted by themes from the second, and, “the second in turn [is] interrupted by a continuation of the first. After that, the second movement continues, but with the material increasingly deconstructed and distanced.”

While it was possible to trace some aspects of that development in a single hearing of Voyage Out, what impressed most was the piece’s unique energy. As themes emerged and evolved with considerable discord and unrest, I felt as though I was finding my way through a dark cave that was punctuated by large stalagmites and stalactites. Though the light was dim, the way forward was illumined by fleeting sparks of light.

At one point, Lee held a single, high vibrato-less note for a very long time, after which themes previously encountered reappeared, albeit at a slower pace. The musical landscape grew murky, as though it was not clear where to go next. Slowly, exquisitely soft microtonal intervals began to emerge, some intentionally voiced in high, extremely delicate squeaks. With one new sound at a time, Currier created a strange mystical landscape that led me out from the cave into a magical world all its own. The feeling was unique, and left me hungering for another listen.

Violinists Tessa Lark and Erin Keefe playing Fanny Mendelssohn.

The concert began when a very different ensemble (violinists Tessa Lark and Erin Keefe, violist Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Yegor Dyachkov) made an emotionally convincing case for Fanny Mendelssohn’s sole string quartet, in E-flat. Written when she was 29, its opening Adagio ma non troppo is filled with tender yearning. Those impassioned outpourings found consummate expression in Lark’s tearful playing, which made its mark despite a church bell ringer on someone’s phone that ended the movement in a conflicting key.

Remaining in a minor key, the second movement’s dominant expression was one of exquisite tenderness. Lark again played superbly. When, at quartet’s end, the music finally sang with happiness and little exclamations of delight, its parlor-like lightness and urbanity seemed a thing apart from all that had preceded it. Taken on its own terms, however, it was a joy.

This ensemble left a different impression than the one at concert’s end. Lark was very much in the lead, bringing to the ensemble a bright sound so different from Ehnes’ mellower tone that it almost seemed as if the players were performing in a different acoustic. While Dyachkov’s admirably warm tone frequently stood out, his strong-bowed attempts to be heard over the others seemed at odds with the notion of ensemble at the root of great chamber musicianship. Regardless, the performance left me rejoicing that so much neglected repertoire by women composers is finally being heard.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications.