Chamber Fest: Viola Takes The Biggest Bow

Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times Music Critic

Music review Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Shorecrest Performing Arts Center, Wednesday night; concerts conclude tonight (7 p.m. pre-concert recital, 8 p.m. main concert; 206-328-1425).

The viola seldom gets center stage as a solo instrument, but Wednesday night's Seattle Chamber Music Festival recital by Helen Callus demonstrated just how ably a well-played viola can command the spotlight. Callus, who arrived this past year on the University of Washington faculty, chose the relatively neglected Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata for a noteworthy recital with pianist Craig Sheppard.

Rich and resonant, Callus' tone represents the viola sound at its finest, and she knows how to craft that tone in beautifully shaped phrases. Her technique is outstanding, with quick fingerwork and an agile, controlled bow; her intonation is accurate. Together with Sheppard, Callus dusted off the Clarke sonata, a neo-romantic work with echoes of both French and British contemporary styles, and burnished it to a fine polish.

Callus, who is said to be favoring a recurring wrist injury, opted out of the big work on the main-concert program - the Dvorak Piano Quartet in E-Flat - because the rehearsal and performance schedule, added to the recital, would have overtaxed the injury. Instead of the Dvorak, artistic director Toby Saks substituted the often-heard Mendelssohn D Minor Trio, with the other three musicians who had been scheduled for the quartet: violinist James Ehnes, cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio and pianist Arthur Rowe.

The Mendelssohn was energetic and generally effective, though Rowe's approach to the music seemed considerably drier and more detached than that of the more impassioned string players.

The young cellist Bion Tsang, who has emerged as one of the most interesting artists of the festival, gave a powerful, focused account of Beethoven's D Major Cello Sonata (Op. 102, No. 2) with Sheppard. The two players are a good match, with Sheppard holding back nothing at the keyboard, and Tsang articulating the phrases with verve and precision.

A program this serious needs some comic relief, which was supplied last night by Francaix's jazzy, buoyant Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. The subtle, mercurial clarinetist was Frank Kowalsky, who achieves a wonderfully smoky sound in the soft passages, but can get downright raucous where the score calls for it. The clarinet may be the star of Francaix's show, but the rest of the quintet, led by first violinist Scott Yoo, was right up there with Kowalsky in terms of wit and style (the other players were violinist Maria Larionoff, violist Aloysia Friedmann and cellist Toby Saks).

At curtain time on Wednesday, a few seats still were available for tonight's swan song of the 16th festival. If those should disappear, there's always the outdoor seating on the lawn - you can't see the musicians, but you can hear the music.