Bridge Ensemble performance skillful, moving

Philippa Kiraly
Special to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Bridge Ensemble. Music of Bridge, Kernis and Schumann.
Sunday afternoon at Green Lake United Methodist church.

The Bridge Ensemble’s performances are always of more than  ordinary interest because of their quality and ability to move the listener. Its performance Sunday was no exception.

With its new violist, England’s Helen Callus, making her debut with the group at Green Lake United Methodist Church, it gave a typically unusual program of “Miniatures” for piano trio by 20th-century English composer Frank Bridge, the Seattle premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Still Movement with Hymn” and Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.

With Callus, artist in residence at the University of Washington, the group expands the bridge between continents for which it is named. Its other members are Russian violin Mikhail Schmidt, Russian cellist David Tonkonogui (both members of the Seattle Symphony) and American pianist Karen Sigers.

The central work on the program was Kernis’ half hour piece, from 1993, written in memory of the composer Stephan Albert (at one time a Seattle Symphony composer in residence), who was killed in a car crash. But the concentrated, grieving piece also owes much to the endless news of horrors seeping out of Croatia and Bosnia, and to the composer’s sense that today there is no feasible resolution of world problems, the we must just gather our fortitude and go on.

Although these thoughts are mentioned in the excellent program notes, they are also inherent in the music. There is anguish here and disconnectedness, concordance and dischordance, cacophony, disorder and hope disintegrating. At the same time, melodies above or alongside the crumbling dissolution portrayed, carry reminders of early Christian chant and the Jewish cantorial tradition.

Though perhaps five minutes too long, the piece is superbly wrought. It is also appallingly difficult to perform, let alone convey the powerful messages contained in the music. The Bridge did a remarkable job. I cannot imagine a more definitive performance than this. I was left shaken and awed.

No hint of this attended the opening work, four of Bridge’s nine miniatures . Elegant trifles, they were, as is always the case with this ensemble, honed to a perfection of shape and tone.

The same care attended the fine performance of the Schumann that ended the concert. Alive with energy, brilliant and expansive without ever being over loud, it was a fitting conclusion, a resolution, if you will, after the Kernis.

Callus has a different style of playing from the group’s original violist Susan Gulkis of the Seattle Symphony, and Tonkonogui and Schmidt. Where those three have a small, defined edge to their playing, Callus does not. Where they sit on the edge of their seats, she seems more relaxed. But the notes appear with the same attention to phrasing, and she brings an unusual depth of sound to her instrument, almost the resonance of a cello at a higher register.

When her viola had the melody, one could hear her large, easy, gorgeous tone. However, when she was part of the inner harmony, she was often difficult to hear from my seat at the center back of the church. This may have been a result of the church’s acoustics, but Callus was sitting with her back against a fully opened grand piano, and possibly her lovely sound would have been more easily distinguishable if the seating configuration had been different.