Under the smart and tastefully reliable artistic direction of the distinguished violinist James Ehnes, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has basically hewed to a longstanding programming formula: an overlooked work by a familiar composer, a piece featuring instrumentation unusual for the chamber format, and a blockbuster or two, typically from the 19th century. 

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Once a year, during its month-long Summer Festival at the 536-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall in downtown Seattle, the Society presents a newly commissioned work. The honour for 2019 fell to the American composer Sebastian Currier, a winner of the Grawemeyer Award whose fans include Anne Sophie-Mutter. 

Monday evening's concert included the world premiere of Currier's piano quintet Voyage Out, with the composer in attendance. Governed by a dramaturgy that is immediately gripping and also thought-provoking, the piece begins in a state of high dudgeon, using idioms completely familiar from the 19th-century repertoire. An angular, vehemently stated unison theme serves as a call to attention -- just as it would in the European masterworks the audience usually awaits at these events. But Currier subverts the expected pattern of a straightforward development of the initial ideas that inevitably leads to their return, reinvigorated and enriched by the course they've traversed.

Currier's notion updates the travel metaphor into something more aligned with a contemporary sense of instability. In his note to the piece, he recalls growing up in a musical household (his mother a composer, his father a professional violist) and being attracted by the different kind of experience of a "mind journey" that he got from classical music in contrast to his enthusiasm for rock: "What struck me, back then, was how wide the emotional, sonic landscape was of this music."

Voyage Out dramatises this idea of "a journey in sound", but as a journey that "starts in one place and ends in another". The 15-minute quintet shifts into a much stranger soundscape of isolated notes, the unison purpose of the five players now fragmented in various ways. The original, extroverted material intrudes into this space but is even more dramatically dissipated, its increasingly fragmentary state akin, in the composer's words, to how "one might see a massive city dissolve into a speck as one takes a boat further out to sea".

Sebastian Currier rehearsing his new piece with Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki © Philip Newton
Sebastian Currier rehearsing his new piece with Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki
© Philip Newton

In the extended final section – music of remarkably forlorn beauty – fragile, icy harmonics and wide-spaced silences conjured for me something more like an astral voyage, or the universe in the end stages of entropy. Or you might think of Voyage Out as mapping out a kind of epistemological Doppler effect, where the clear-cut identity of the initial material falls apart after a certain point. Currier says he had no particular program in mind but points out that one of the images from Virginia Woolf's debut novel (Voyage Out) has continued to haunt him: "that of the main character, Rachel, playing Beethoven's piano sonata, Op. 111, while on a boat sailing out to sea".

If the transitions between its polar ideas were less convincing, Currier's score offers an imaginative, fresh way of thinking about the potential of the piano quintet medium. He couldn't have wished for more eloquent advocates, with Yura Lee and Jun Iwasaki (violins), Jonathan Vinocour (viola), Raphael Bell (cello) and Jeewon Park (piano).

Framing the world premiere were works in a very familiar idiom, but by composers who started out from positions of marginalisation. The evening opened with an account of the wonderfully original String Quartet in E flat major from 1834 by Fanny Mendelssohn, a work replete with considerable harmonic daring, above all in its third "Romanze" movement. 

Violinists Tessa Lark and Erin Keefe, violist Cynthia Phelps, and Yegor Dyachkov on cello allowed space for Mendelssohn's passionate phrasing in the Adagio opening but were also fleet and fluid for the virtuoso ensemble challenges of her rapidfire writing. Indeed, the finale raced ahead at an exciting, sustained gallop (though the overall sound picture lacked balance at moments, the bass line only weakly present).

The aforementioned formula, with its blockbuster culmination, would be ineffective without the kind of engaged, never-routine playing that was lavished on Dvořák's Piano Quartet in E flat major. This offered another chance to hear Ehnes in action – he actively takes part in a number of the festival's concerts – joined by Aloysia Friedmann on viola, Bion Tsang on cello, and Jon Kimura Parker on piano. With the musicians closely listening and responding to their colleagues' micro-gestures of inflection and accent, each contributing a distinctive personality, the sense of pacing within and across movements was masterful.

****1