Bridge And Benaroya: It's A Delightful Connection

Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times Music Critic

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The BridgeEnsemble, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall, Seattle, last night.

The BridgeEnsemble built some spectacular bridges last night, with its first concert in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya. The best was the musical and emotional connection between the players and their rapt audience, which seemed genuinely moved by the four musicians.

And well they should be. Where can you find piano-quartet playing to better the BridgeEnsemble? Nowhere else in town, on any series; I'd venture to say nowhere else on disc. In terms of musicianship, taste, intonation, innovation, accuracy and sheer command of detail, the BridgeEnsemble ranks in the top echelon of today's chamber groups.

This is the first time I've heard the Bridge in its new configuration, with violist Helen Callus joining the three founding members violinist Mikhail Schmidt, cellist David Tonkonogui and pianist Karen Sigers. The results are better than ever. Callus is a first-rate player, responsive to every move of the other three. Each of the performers has a distinctive musical voice, but they listen to each other with almost uncanny care, and they are clearly attuned to each other. Schmidt is perhaps the natural leader, with his true, sweet tone and his expressive style, but his first-violin lead does more suggesting than dominating.

The Bridge is the kind of ensemble that really shines in the 540-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall; last night's performance was enough to make one completely rethink any previous response to the acoustics (which seemed a little rough and strident when 40 players were cramming the stage last month).

Clarity, balance and warmth were the outstanding characteristics of the sound last night. Generally, a piano can easily overwhelm three string instruments on the same stage, but early concerns that Sigers' piano (with the lid wide open) might do so vanished in the opening moments of the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in F Minor (Op. 2), which began the program. In fact, there wasn't quite enough piano, in a work that asks for a particularly commanding keyboard.

The big work was the world premiere of Giya Kancheli's "Piano Quartet in L'istesso Tempo," commissioned by Seattle's David and Amy Fulton for the Bridge.

Kancheli was on hand for the first performance of this extended one-movement piece. It's vintage Kancheli, in his distinctive style: spare, meditative, ascetic, with sudden loud surprises peppering the music. Several of its sub-sections began with short declarations by the piano, to which the strings respond, often in repeated notes that give the feeling of a pulse.

There are polytonal sequences, with the piano playing tone clusters in one key and the strings playing in another. There are attenuated, repetitious segments, and bursts of beautiful, nostalgic, waltz-like sequences that offer moments of eerie beauty.

The finale, Dvorak's Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, was like a dollop of whipped cream after a straight-shot espresso. Arch-romantic, full of brilliant details (like the string tremolos at the end of the first movement), this performance was first-class in overall conception and in every aspect of the irresistibly characterized music-making.