SEATTLE — Emerald City Music (ECM) has made huge strides since it first embraced 415 Westlake in downtown Seattle as its “casual classical” alternate music venue. During its joyful Oboe / Oboe concert of Feb. 9, the space’s large, open, acoustically inviting concert area impressed as far more accommodating than it was in prior seasons. Thankfully silenced is the cooler-compressor that began to roar with full-throated arrogance in the middle of a concert two years ago. White-cushioned folding chairs that surround, on three sides, musicians who are seated on the same level as the audience, a few nice couches, excellent lighting, an open bar in the rear, and free sandwiches in the lobby are just some of the features that, combined with the near breathless enthusiasm that characterizes introductions, transform an Emerald City concert at 415 Westlake into a magnified version of the not-to-be-missed house concert down the block.
All this comfort and lack of formality allows the most important aspects of Emerald City Music’s concert series — the music — to come to the fore. Oboe / Oboe’s program, which spanned almost three centuries, began with Albinoni’s Concerto for Two Oboes in C Major, Op. 9, No. 9 (1722), and ended with a rare two-oboe world premiere/ECM commission, Concertino for Two Solo Oboes and String Quintet (A Tale of the Fisherfolks) (2024), by Fred Onovwerosuoke (aka Fred O.); the work was so fresh that its title and movements were unlisted in the program. In between came music by Marina Dranishnikova, Mark O’Connor, and some dude named Mozart.
Artistry and camaraderie were supreme. Emerald City Music is a series arranged by young-younger top-flight artists who hold as paramount the need to break open the province of classical music to younger and more diverse audiences and artists. Violinist Kristin Lee, the series music director-co-curator, is the 2012 Naumburg Competition winner and a member of the Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center. For this concert, she and executive director Andrew Goldstein spotlighted two superb oboists, Titus Underwood (principal oboe of the Nashville Symphony) and James Austin Smith (CMS, International Contemporary Ensemble, Decoda, co-principal oboe of the Orpheus Chamber Music Society, and executive director of the Tertulia Chamber Music series that takes place in restaurants in New York and San Francisco). Behind the soloists, ECM assembled an equally racially diverse set of players — violinist Lee, violinist Ling Ling Huang, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir, bassist Rachel Calin, and pianist Oksana Ejokina. Visually as well as musically, they were a breath of fresh air.
Onovwerosuoke was born in Ghana to Nigerian parents and now resides in America. A multiple award winner whose two-volume set of piano etudes Twenty-four Stu0dies in African Rhythms is widely known, he is blessed with a gift for storytelling and an outsized capacity to charm and delight. In his introduction to the premiere, complete with droll political commentary, he explained that throughout his visits to and residence in numerous countries and cities, he has been close to and fascinated by fishermen and their families. Hence a work whose eight sections, played without pause, begins with “Libations and Hollerchants,” describes “Joyful Voyages” and “Stormy Weather and Turbulent Seas,” and ends with “Libations for the Homestead.”
The work’s opening bars set a mellow, contemplative mood. Even while sounding a bit too much like the soundtrack for a travelogue, some sections were quite touching and contemplative, others engaging and catchy. Trying to record the names of all the movements as frequently changing slides projected their names onto a screen behind the musicians militated against my ability to sink deeply into music that didn’t seem very deep to begin with.
This is not to suggest that depth was requisite in a program centered upon making unto the audience a joyful noise. The Albinoni opener served as a cheerful showcase for the two virtuoso oboists, each with different and distinct gifts, and an ensemble whose highlight was the warmth of its prominent cello-bass foundation. Lyricism predominated, and oboes blended warmly as they occasionally chirped away joyfully with seeming abandon.
St. Petersburg-born Dranishnikova wrote her eight-minute Poem (Poeme) for Oboe and Piano (1953) in her early twenties. Rather than root itself in the musical foment of her time, it eschews serialism, academic modernism, political drama, and more to cast its eye backwards to Russian Romanticism. Smith played marvelously, his musicianship highlighted by his ability to tie phrases together and maintain momentum as he crossed bar lines, varied dynamics, and tastefully applied portamenti. Nonetheless, it was hard to take the work’s final shallow dip into the dramatic seriously. As Oscar Wilde might have said, the only way to be a drama queen is to cast all reticence aside and indulge fully, totally, and completely.
Like the Albinoni, the first “Fast and cheerful” movement from O’Connor’s String Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass (2019) is a light-hearted excursion into joy. The authenticity of Calin’s bass playing — she has performed with O’Connor — and her perfectly-in-tune, warm blend with Thorsteinsdóttir’s cello may not have been equaled by Lee, who lacked the last iota of country-bluegrass tang in a virtuosic part that O’Connor wrote expressly for his own fiddling. But in the context of a program that made no pretense of profundity, it worked as fine as Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370 (1781). Here, Underwood showed himself every bit the artist by lightening his substantial tone appropriately. The performance may not have captured every bit of the charm that some can bring out in this music, but it reinforced the high spirits that made the evening such a welcome balm.