Bright Debut for Emerald City Music

New concert series, new venue, new format, new music, musicians new to Seattle: all came together on Sept. 16 in the first concert mounted by Emerald City Music, and it was a wild success.

The brainchild of young violinist and 2015 Avery Fisher grantee Kristin Lee and young but experienced arts administrator Andrew Goldstein, Emerald City Music has been two years in the creating. Their idea was a chamber music series using top-ranked young musicians in widely varied programs, plenty of new music as well as more familiar classics, performed in a casual atmosphere and a casual venue (a coffee house in South Lake Union). Drinks and conversation with the musicians precede the main event.

Every element of the series, from website to fundraising, has been handled with care, skill and high quality results. The venue, Kakao, has a large back room with a high arched wood ceiling and cement floor, making it acoustically both live and warm, enhancing the sound of each instrument. Although street noise was negligible, the ventilation system was quietly audible throughout.

Lee designed all seven themed programs and travel inspired Friday’s works, among them Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Balinese-inflected “Birdsong” (written for Lee), Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (composed when he was still in Hungary) and Tchaikovsky’s string sextet “Souvenir de Florence.” Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs,” a suite for piano four hands, was originally a ballet score evoking America’s Art Nouveau era, and French composer Guillaume Connesson’s “Techno Parade” is a fine and amusing example of the composer’s eclectic interests.

But none of all this careful preparation would have come to anything special had it not been for the caliber of the performances. The quality of the playing was outstanding from all the musicians, as was the innate communication embedded in each performance of these technically difficult works.

The lively and tricky Ligeti stood out for the excitement generated and the extraordinary synchronization between the five members of prize-winning, Houston-based ensemble WindSync: flutist Garrett Hudson, oboist Emily Tsai, clarinetist Julian Hernandez, hornist Anni Hochhalter and bassoonist Kara LaMoure. Tone quality was notable for each, particularly LaMoure, who came through as Ligeti’s important anchor for the work.

Hudson, Hernandez and pianist John Novacek brought unsettling energy to the jazzy, vibrant and fun, “Techno Parade.”

Lee herself played “Birdsong” with pianist Gloria Chien, an atmospheric work which ranged all over both instruments, Lee sometimes sliding up to the stratosphere while Chien growled in the piano’s basement, earthquake-like. At times liquid, tender and peaceful, at others loud or with lightning-fast runs, the only quibble about the concert’s performance was that Chien sometimes drowned out Lee, although that may have been hard to avoid, given the score.

The Barber Suite which opened the program with Novacek and Chien is full of startling crashes but with an overall lushness and romantic sense. So often music for four hands or two pianos together can sound clunky, but these two avoided that completely. If eyes were shut, most of the time only the sheer number of notes told you it was two people playing.

Last came dessert in the form of the well-known Tchaikovsky sextet. Here, the listener could revel in the beauty of each player’s sound. The tone of both the violas, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Dimitri Murrath, was something one could sink into with joy, as was that of cellist Colin Carr. This is not to dismiss as lesser the other cellist, Ben Hong, or the two violins, Lee and Philip Setzer (of the Emerson Quartet, the only member of the senior generation on this program). The musical conversation between Carr and Setzer in the slow movement was sheer bliss. And as with all the other works, the ensemble work was impeccable. The audience was thrilled.

Next in the Emerald City Music series, the in-demand Dover Quartet plays an all-Beethoven program on Oct. 7 in Seattle and Oct. 8 in Olympia.