Top Picks for the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival in 2023

Byvu lita

Jun 28, 2023

Seattle Chamber Music Society Artistic Director and violinist James Ehnes (left) with colleagues. SCMS’ Summer Festival runs July 3-28. (Jenna Poppe)

Seattle Chamber Music Society Artistic Director and violinist James Ehnes (left) with colleagues. SCMS’ Summer Festival runs July 3-28. (Jenna Poppe)

Changes have been afoot since the Seattle Chamber Music Society returned to a full live season — from a roving concert truck to a new center located downtown — but what remains a constant is the embarrassment of riches that its Summer Festival offers throughout the month of July.

Die-hard fans who take in as many of the dozen concerts at Benaroya Hall as possible benefit from the cross-connections that violinist James Ehnes, SCMS’ artistic director, weaves into his thoughtfully curated programming.

“If you’ve ever wondered why there’s such a fuss about Brahms, this is your summer to find out,” he said during a break from one of his recent concert engagements in Minneapolis. Chamber music by Brahms appears in more than half the programs, ranging from works for a pair of musicians (the First Violin Sonata) to six (the Second String Sextet).

But for those who want to attend just one concert, here’s a list of best bets that take account of the variety of composers and styles. These recommendations also sample widely from the bounty of top-tier musicians — more than 40 — who converge to make Seattle a destination for chamber music lovers.

(Before the festival proper begins on July 3, try one of the free concerts on wheels presented between through July 2 in the Concert Truck series across the region. The programs feature a smorgasbord of music-making well-suited to the mostly open-air settings, from Astor Piazzolla’s tango-fueled musings to Debussy’s late-period Cello Sonata — both featuring Seattle Symphony’s eloquent principal cellist, Efe Baltacıgil — to rediscovered pieces by Florence Price.)

Week 1: 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 3 (opening night concert)

Dohnányi: Serenade in C major, Op. 10 (Erin Keefe, Arnaud Sussmann, Mark Kosower)


Bartók: “Contrasts” (Alessio Bax, Benjamin Beilman, Jean Johnson)

Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor (Steven Osborne, Ehnes, Alisa Weilerstein)

Variations on the trio theme: Ravel’s 1914 Piano Trio, according to Ehnes, “is simply one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written.” It’s hard not to agree. Though written on the eve of a cataclysmic war, the piece is dreamy, sensuous, mesmeric — and deliciously detailed as only Ravel can be. The Hungarian Dohnányi’s early Serenade sounds the summer’s Brahms theme (the older German was a key influence) while also striking out on an independent path. His younger compatriot Bartók tailored his mesmerizing “Contrasts” as a clarinet trio for the “king of swing” Benny Goodman.

Week 2: 3 p.m. Sunday, July 9

Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448 (Marc-André Hamelin, Boris Giltburg)

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 (Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Che-Yen Chen, Edward Arron)

Brahms: String Quintet No. 1 in F major, Op. 88 (Alexander Kerr, Beilman, Paul Neubauer, Arnaud Sussmann, Kosower)

Ehnes’ own string quartet performs one of the most engaging early Romantic examples of the genre by Mendelssohn, the “Mozart of the 19th century” — with Mozart’s own dazzling two-piano piece to start the program. The program culminates in an example of the full flower of Brahms’ mature style with his first quintet for strings.


Week 3: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 18

Kian Ravaei: “The Little Things”

Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119 (Paul Watkins, Joyce Yang)

Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8 (Charles Richard-Hamelin, Andrew Wan, Bion Tsang)

One of the summer’s two new SCMS commissions opens this concert: Los Angeles-based Ravaei, a member of the expatriate Iranian community there, composed “The Little Things” as a response to Emily Dickinson’s poems about “nature’s easily overlooked wonders.” Prokofiev composed his 1949 Cello Sonata — praised by a contemporary as “a miraculous piece of music” — in very difficult times, after being denounced by the Soviet cultural police for writing in an unapproved style. In contrast, the B major Piano Trio began as young man’s music: It’s the first chamber composition Brahms deemed worthy to publish. But he revised it substantially late in his career, so that it brackets his chamber music works in a fascinating way. The Trio’s tragic undertow is thought to encode reflections on the troubled life of Brahms’s mentor and friend Robert Schumann.

Week 4: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 28

Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, K. 414 (Orion Weiss, Timothy Chooi, Elena Urioste, Joan DerHovsepian, Julie Albers)

Gabriel Kahane: “Mozart Songs” (Kahane, Ehnes, Jens Lindemann)

Antonín Dvořák: Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (Jon Kimura Parker, Stefan Jackiw, Beth Guterman Chu, Baltacıgil)


The festival finale concert combines a chamber reduction of one of the piano concertos from Mozart’s golden years in Vienna with a work directly inspired by it. “Mozart Songs,” the other new commission of the summer, is by Kahane, an eagerly boundary-crossing phenomenon whose father, Jeffrey Kahane, is an acclaimed pianist who has made the Mozart concerto an important part of his repertoire.

“So it’s also a piece about fathers and sons, written for an intriguing combination of violin, piano and trumpet,” explains Ehnes — and voice, since Gabriel Kahane will also sing from the keyboard. The joyous give-and-take Dvořák’s chamber music tends to inspire among players makes his Second Piano Quartet an ideal choice as a closer.

A couple more tips: Each concert at Benaroya Hall is prefaced an hour before it starts by a brief — and free — recital featuring one or more of the artists performing in the larger program. For example, before the opening night concert on July 3, pianist Alessio Bax will play his own arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse” and Bartók’s “Tanz Suite.” And the Summer Festival includes three free concerts in the park: on July 15 (Pier 62: Waterfront Park), July 22 (Bellevue Downtown Park) and July 29 (Volunteer Park), concluding with Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet, one of the most satisfying works in the entire chamber music repertoire for performers and audiences alike.

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival

Running July 3-28, the festival will present a total of 12 concerts: three concerts per week, with different start times (7:30 p.m. weekdays, 3 p.m. Sundays); each is preceded an hour before the concert starts by a free recital. Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; single tickets $25-$60 or $30 for online concerts via SCMS Virtual Concert Hall; 206-283-8710,

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