SEATTLE — “Can we all give a big scream that we’re back to live music?” asked violinist Kristin Lee, 35, at the start of Emerald City Music’s actual (as opposed to virtual) sixth season Oct. 22 and 23 in Seattle and Olympia. While the mixed-age audience — purposely kept small and seated in widelyspaced pods in the ECM’s “chic contemporary venue with an open bar” at 415 Westlake in Seattle’s South Lake Union district — may not have screamed back, the glow of gratitude and relief that accompanied its applause was felt throughout the space.
Lee, artistic director of the innovative chamber music series that also tours to Bellingham, Wash., and New York City, is no small-town fiddler. A member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Camerata Pacifica and a faculty member at Music@Menlo and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient has nurtured a network of top-flight chamber musician friends who sign on to the goal of creating a welcoming and inclusive concert environment in a “big, beautiful and open room where people curve around and hug the artists.”
The Seattle premiere of Patrick Castillo’s Winter Light (2020) for two violins, cello, and piano, an ECM co-commission about climate change, highlighted a postponed-from-last-season concert entitled “What You Are to Me.” The title held multiple meanings. On the most intimate level, it described the decade-long friendship and resilience of musicians who have played and taught together at Music@Menlo, as well as at festivals they’ve founded in Reno, Nev., and Chattanooga, Tenn. It also referred to the audience itself, which Emerald City Music has nurtured and sustained during the pandemic via weekly Wine Down Mondays Zoom presentations that continue virtually and in person this season.
On another level, “What You Are to Me” pointed to the cooperation we must achieve to survive the climate change that inspired Castillo’s premiere. Finally, on the purely musical level, it derived from the song at the heart of the program’s final piece, Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Left Hand Piano (1930).
As the concert began with the wife-husband team of pianist Hyeyeon Park and cellist Dmitri Atapine performing Martinů’s circus-like Variations on a Theme of Rossini, multiple aspects of the venue came to the fore. As is often the case with alternative concert spaces, noise from air conditioning, generators, and more was part of the experience. Who knows what caused the high-pitched squeak that emanated from ducts or lights above part of the audience in the concert’s first half, but it was nothing compared to the wrong-key rumble from the bar area that disturbed much of the Korngold. The noise of the subway beneath Carnegie Hall would have remained undetectable under the din. It would be charitable to describe the noise as “extraneous,” but as I discovered, my concert companion equally distracted by the racket, it became difficult to focus on the music. Thoughts turn to my one visit to Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, when the Takacs String Quartet or another ensemble on their order of excellence was all but drowned out by a compressor. Is this the price we must pay for hipness?
Nonetheless, there the music was. Recorded for broadcast on KING-FM in Seattle and on video for Emerald TV, Martinů’s variations found Park and Atapine going a mile a minute in music composed for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Just as one began to wonder if the ultimate meaning of Martinů’s nonsensical Rossini mash-up was fun at the possible expense of tendonitis, the music slowed to reveal a truly tender, heartfelt longing. (It was the perfect section for the squeaking above us to assert its own miserable voice.) It didn’t take long for the instrumental absurdity to start up once again. As thoughts turned to the insane notion of a czárdás on steroids, the exhilarating romp ended, just like that. If the masked audience needed any excuse to let loose with applause and cheers, this was it.
Although there were no printed program notes, the press release included comments about the premiere from Castillo, who is now vice president of artistic planning of the New York Philharmonic. Winter Light takes its title from Bergman’s 1963 film, Nattvardsgästerna. The opening hymn was inspired, in part, by Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet, while the parlando section referred to Bergman’s “remarkable letter scene,” the “prevailing existential dread over an inevitable [environmental or spiritual] crisis,” and the COVID-19 pandemic. The concluding elegy, in which Atapine’s cello was accompanied by the soft sounds of bowed piano, harked back to the opening hymn.
With Lee joined by violinist and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient Sean Lee, Atapine, and Park, the work began with a solemnity that threatened to lose its tonal center, as if nature were out of balance. Before long, a number of sudden and startling interruptions that included bows striking strings and scratchy cello sounded an unmistakable alarm. A long, slow, and disturbingly cacophonous section for piano led to haunting concluding passages where Park and the two Lees used what appeared to be fishing line to emit soft droning sounds from the piano under Atapine’s cello.
Korngold’s masterpiece was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose loss of his right arm in World War I led to numerous left-hand commissions from Ravel, Korngold, Prokofiev and others. Vast in scope, and championed by the late Leon Fleisher, it punctuates Korngold’s signature effusive late–Romantic decadence with tender passages filled with sadness and longing and others intentionally bizarre and grotesque.
The performance showcased the breathtakingly powerful musicianship of pianist Gloria Chien, co-artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest and founder of the chamber music series String Theory at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga. If anyone could wrestle an upstart compressor to the ground and emerge triumphant, it was the marvelous Chien. Her fellow musicians fared less successfully in the most vigorous passages, alas, as the combination of extraneous noise and resonance-inhibited acoustics reduced massed strings to saws. Nonetheless, when either Kristin Lee or Sean Lee had the opportunity to sing solo, the beauty of their musicianship transcended all. At its unbreakable heart, the playing of this emerald circle of friends was sublime.