Passion Fires The Heart Of Summer Concerts In Chamber Music Festival

James Ehnes, Gabriel Kahane, and Jens Lindemann performed the premiere of Kahane’s ‘Mozart Songs.’ (Photos by Jenna Poppe)

SEATTLE — There’s nothing quite like the gentle euphoria triggered by a heavy intake of live chamber music. In the heart of summer, the Emerald City becomes a magnet for chamber-music enthusiasts, lured by the quality and variety of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s month-long Summer Festival. This bonanza of concerts and related programs fills up the month of July — yet always seems to end too soon.

The 2023 edition followed that expected pattern and at the same time stood out for the especially inspired chemistry and generosity of the musicians, the interesting mix of familiar repertoire and discovery, the pleasure of the new commission by Gabriel Kahane — one of two new works overseen this year by the chamber society’s Commissioning Club, which was premiered on closing night — and the overall spirit of exhilarated involvement on the part of the audience.

News of the struggles arts institutions are undergoing continues to mount nationally (see Michael Paulson’s much-discussed New York Times story on the national crisis in theaters) and within Seattle’s artistic ecosystem. The Seattle Symphony is entering its second full season with no music director in sight following Thomas Dausgaard’s abrupt departure in early 2022. In late June came the sudden announcement that Seattle Opera’s general director Christina Scheppelmann, who shepherded the company through the pandemic with boldly reimagined formats, will take over at La Monnaie in Brussels after her contract expires at the end of the coming season.

Against the grim backdrop of the music world hemorrhaging audiences and uncertainty, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has emerged since the pandemic as a beacon for what smart leadership can accomplish. Indeed, the organization was able to present an entire summer festival through virtual live performances during the first year of the coronavirus shutdown in 2020. For 2023, unofficial preliminary sales figures were reported to be up 10% from the 2022 Summer Festival, with eight of the 12 ticketed concerts filling more than 80% of the venue — the 536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall (part of the downtown Benaroya Hall complex) — and an average attendance per concert of 70%.

A free festival concert at Seattle’s Volunteer Park

I attended concerts during three of the four festival weeks; the electric excitement of the audience was consistently palpable across that span. Artistic director James Ehnes and his colleagues mapped out an engaging series of programs that, for concertgoers attending multiple events in the festival, suggested cross-connections while at the same time working well as individual concerts for one-time guests.

Someone who attended only the opening night program (July 3) thus encountered three 20th-century variants on the idea of a trio ensemble (Ernő Dohnányi’s youthful Serenade in C, Bartók’s Contrasts, and Ravel’s Piano Trio). But those investing more time in the festival got a hint of the focus on Brahms (a key influence on Dohnányi’s early work) that was a leitmotif for 2023 and that began in earnest on the second night: More than half of the programs contained music from across Brahms’ career, juxtaposed with compositions by well-known or nearly forgotten contemporaries.

Much of the enjoyment of attending multiple concerts also comes from seeing favorite performers in changing contexts and combinations. Seattle Symphony followers have a chance to experience leading players as passionate chamber musicians. This summer included three concerts in which concertmaster Noah Geller participated (during the week I could not attend) and three with principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil, among them a delectably engaged ensemble for Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 (with Orion Weiss, Timothy Chooi, and Joan DerHovsepian). Baltacigil’s cello solos in the Lento of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet, Op. 87, along with the setting created for them by his partners (Jon Kimura Parker, Stefan Jackiw, and Beth Guterman Chu), were the quintessence of what draws us to chamber music.

Though Ehnes pursues a busy career as a solo violinist on the international circuit, that persona coexists comfortably with Ehnes as the consummate chamber musician committed to animated conversation with other soloists. He attracts a widely varied lineup of fellow players — a total of 44 this summer, including Ehnes — many of whom appear year after year. So the experience isn’t just of hearing Ehnes perform core repertoire he finds especially meaningful, such as the Ravel Trio one night and Brahms’ Sonata in G major in a later week: It’s of Ehnes interacting with different partners each time and taking in the intriguing shift in chemistry and resulting interpretive approach. The shared construction of a single sound world with Alisa Weilerstein’s cello and Steven Osborne on piano verged on the sublime in the Passacaille movement from Ravel’s Trio; and in the Brahms, with pianist Jon Kimura Parker as his partner, the two musicians pressed each other to illuminate the composer’s shifting shades of persistent, lyrical melancholy.

Seattle Symphony concertmaster Noah Geller joined Orion Weiss, Timothy Choi, and Joan DerHovsepian in a performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478.

One secret behind the SCMS success story is Ehnes’ own longstanding chemistry with Seattle audiences. He assumed artistic leadership in 2011, but his roots go even further back, to the mid-1990s, when the native Canadian was 18. Ehnes found a formative mentor in the cellist and educator Toby Saks, who repeatedly invited him to come back to play in the Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival. Fondly remembered as the guiding force who established the Chamber Music Society in 1982, Saks died in 2013, having already hand-picked Ehnes as her successor.

Since he took over, Ehnes has kept in place the core structure of two annual festivals: the four-week Summer Festival every July and a briefer Winter Festival at the end of January (now over two weekends). But the Chamber Music Society has been recentering its energy in recent years, notwithstanding the pandemic — and, in some ways, as a result of its strictures — through the acquisition of a genuine home of its own, a  3,800-square-foot center space handily located a few blocks from Benaroya Hall, where musicians can congregate and rehearse (having previously relied on host family stays in neighborhoods spread around the city). This Center for Chamber Music also boasts an intimate concert salon for recitals, public read-throughs, master classes, and other presentations.

Increasingly, as part of a vision shared between Ehnes and executive director John Holloway (who came on board in 2021), the Chamber Music Society is using such endeavors to expand its community engagement throughout the year. In the current fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2022-Sept. 30, 2023), for example, the Summer Festival accounts for 46% of the organization’s total budget of $2.3 million.

The Summer Festival itself began expanding beyond its traditional July framework in 2022, when, as a prelude in later June, the Chamber Music Society introduced a new series of free performances across the region from a roving “concert truck.” These in turn are an elaboration of the longstanding free music in the park series, an open-air, open-access complement to the Summer Festival’s concert hall setting. It should be noted, though, that each of the 12 indoor concerts is prefaced by a half-hour prelude recital featuring artists of the evening that is free to the public.

James Ehnes and Jon Kimura Parker played Brahms’ Sonata in G major.

Over the years, the Commissioning Club has introduced an impressive body of new pieces by such composers as Steven Stucky, Lisa Bielawa, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Stewart Goodyear. This year was the first to introduce two newly commissioned works. I was unfortunately not able to attend the premiere of the first of these — string quartet miniatures titled The Little Things by the Iranian American composer Kian Ravaei — but I can report that Gabriel Kahane’s contribution, Mozart Songs, cast a spell on the near-capacity audience.

Kahane’s work was threaded in fascinating ways with the Mozart that opened the program — an arrangement of his Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414, for keyboard and string quartet that shed interesting light on Mozart’s conception of the ensemble in these contexts. But this wasn’t a typical “commentary” or satellite piece by a contemporary composer on a familiar bit of repertoire. Kahane addressed the Mozart by crafting a song cycle in his quirky, determinedly unclassifiable, attractively hybrid manner.

To begin, the instrumentation was unusual: violin, trumpet, and piano, plus baritone voice. Kahane also wrote the lyrics for (and sang) the cycle’s six interlocking songs. They weave memories of his pianist-father Jeffrey Kahane (including giving a performance of K. 414) and of his grandfather and his own daughter with references to the connection between Mozart and J.C. Bach, “this surrogate father” who is memorialized in the Andante of K. 414 by a direct quotation from the latter’s Overture to La calamita de cuori. Kahane in turn incorporates this hymnal music, along with themes from the outer movements. But he does so in such an off-handed way that the sincerity of the gesture becomes trenchant. The seeming casualness of the lyrics and musical material, often playful or atmospheric, can suddenly ambush you with a depth of pathos.

All the more so with the dedicated collaboration of Kahane’s colleagues. Ehnes showed new facets with the wiry, Morse code-like violin playing of the opening prelude, while Jens Lindemann worked his way through D trumpet, flugelhorn, and B-flat trumpet, filtered by varying mutes and improvisational gestures to suggest an orchestral breadth of colors and tints. “Fathers and Sons,” one of Kahane’s working titles, seemed right on target — the intergenerational conversation and connection a touching emblem of the work of continuity and reassessment that the Summer Festival explored so passionately.