THE CHAMBER MUSIC scene in both America and Europe can be likened to a traveling carnival or summer camp. Musicians jet among however many festivals their schedules can accommodate (sometimes as many as four or five) and are greeted with familiar faces at every stop. And while making music together provides a great excuse to gather, the main perk of the festival circuit remains the opportunity to rekindle friendships that have endured, as in the case of Seattle Chamber Music Festival players, for nearly two decades— as many years as the Festival itself has existed. For many SCMF regulars, it's what brings them back to this corner of the country each year.
Seattle Chamber Music Festival
July 3-29 at Lakeside School
Cellist Ronald Thomas refers to Seattle's summer chamber music ritual as "a big, extended chamber music family." Thomas' summer agenda exemplifies what a musician devoted to the cause will gladly put himself through. This year he arrives in Seattle following a concerto performance in Hong Kong and will stay for all but the final week of the Festival. Then it's a week in Portland, the Boston Chamber Music Society (of which he's the year-round artistic director), Santa Fe's chamber music fest, New York City's Bargemusic series, and, finally, Connecticut's Chestnut Hill Concerts.
Thomas' wife, Cynthia Phelps, is a violist with the New York Philharmonic, but also makes as much time for chamber music as she can. Festivals like the SCMF allow Phelps and Thomas to coordinate their schedules and take advantage of being a two-musician couple. From May 20 to July 3, when Phelps joins Thomas in Seattle, the two will have seen each other all of one day—in Amsterdam, by sheer coincidence, when one of his chamber music gigs overlapped with the Philharmonic's stop on its recent European tour. (They'll meet up again in Santa Fe in August.)
BUT THOMAS HAS "always made as much time as possible for Seattle," he says. "It's my first priority, festival-wise." The atmosphere keeps him coming back— sophisticated audiences, enthusiastic volunteers, a motivated board of directors, and "a lot of electricity in the hall when you're playing." This year, the Festival's 19th season, marks his 16th appearance as a performer.
The only participant with more seniority at SCMF, having made an appearance each and every summer since its inaugural season in 1981, is Boston-based violist Marcus Thompson. He and SCMF director Toby Saks met as students at Juilliard. Later, at a festival in Alaska, she mentioned her plans for a Seattle festival and invited him to get in on the ground floor. Thompson and Thomas performed together in the Netherlands earlier this year, and will again in Boston. (Then Thompson takes three welcome weeks off in August to rejuvenate before the academic year resumes—he teaches at MIT and the New England Conservatory.) These lasting relationships make festivals different, Thompson points out, from regular-season subscription series. He welcomes the opportunity to "mak[e] music with the same friends, and the heightened performances that can result from this intimacy over time."
See our complete schedule of concerts at the 19th season of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival.