2016 Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival preview

It doesn’t happen until July 5 – so why are single tickets now available, and why should music lovers bother to think now about the 35th Summer Festival of the Seattle Chamber Music Society?

Because the good stuff will sell out early, following this week’s announcement about the single ticket sales. And because July 5 will be here before you know it. Seriously: Memorial Day is only about a month away, and then school’s out and shortly thereafter it’s the Fourth of July weekend … and then the festival starts on July 5.

This year, there are lots of changes in the lineup that includes artists festivalgoers love (like Ehnes and fellow violinist Augustin Hadelich, to mention only a few), and some newcomers – like cellist Raphael Bell (principal of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic) and violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley (concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic). You’ll also hear the festival debuts of such prizewinners as pianist George Li, a Tchaikovsky Competition silver medalist, and Alessio Bax, winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

One of the most interesting debuts: the arrival of mandolinist Chris Thile, a Grammy winner who will join artistic director/violinist James Ehnes (another Grammy winner) in the world premiere of a new duo work by Jeremy Turner. Turner, who also is a cellist, was chosen by the SCMS Commissioning Club to create this new piece, whose title apparently hasn’t been announced yet; it’s just called “New Work” in the promotional materials.

Artistic director and violinist James Ehnes has stuck to the familiar format of 12 chamber concerts preceded by free, 30-minute pre-concert recitals, in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. What a boon those free recitals are, particularly for students! You can just show up, go in, and listen, even if you can’t afford tickets to the main-event concert or are uncertain whether it’s for you. You can sample the programming, see which artists you like, and experience some new works. Because seats are unassigned, you can also discover where you like (or don’t like) to sit in the Nordstrom recital hall, whose so-called “continental seating” means you approach the seats from the side aisles only (there are no center aisles).

Another terrific free opportunity: three “Classical Conversations” on July 13, 20, and 29 in Soundbridge (the education center at Benaroya Hall, accessed from the downhill side on the corner of Second Avenue at Union Street), where Classical KING FM host Dave Beck – who also is a fine cellist – will record informal discussions with Festival musicians Karen Gomyo, Bion Tsang, and Julie Albers, respectively. Each of these Conversations will be followed by one of the free open rehearsals in the main hall, which start at 1:15 p.m. (You also can subscribe to the Classical Conversation Podcast on the festival’s website, www.seattlechambermusic.org, or via iTunes.)

The focus on new and seldom-heard works – including William Walton’s “Façade” and an evening of Viennese waltzes in transcriptions by “Second Viennese School” composers – doesn’t mean that the festival is bypassing traditional repertoire for 2016. Far from it: all “Three Bs” are well represented. Ehnes is following up last year’s Beethoven-heavy programming with more Beethoven works for 2016. There’ll be early and late string quartets; some early and rarely heard works for mandolin and piano; the familiar “Ghost” Piano Trio, the Op. 16 Piano Quartet, the Op. 29 String Quintet, and the Op. 9 No. 1 String Trio.

If you love Beethoven string quartets, the night to be in the house is opening night, July 5th, when Ehnes’ string quartet (he is joined by Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, and Robert deMaine) plays not only the opening recital but also the last piece on the main program.

Every year, I go through the festival lineup and see which pieces I really want to hear. High up on this year’s list are Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” (July 6), the new Jeremy Turner piece (July 11), anything with violinist Augustin Hadelich (July 18, 20, 22), what looks like a spectacular pre-concert recital by George Li (July 18), a solo Bach Partita by Ehnes (July 25), the rarely presented Walton/Sitwell “Façade” (July 8), the exuberant Mendelssohn Octet (in the free outdoor “Chamber Music in the Park” event at Volunteer Park, July 27), and the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet that wraps up the festival on July 30.

But, of course, there’s lots more. Happy listening!

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