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Originally published Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Chamber-music concert: Looking is optional

Seattle Chamber Music Society's Summer Festival gets off to a celestial start — and violinist Stefan Jackiw was one of the stars.

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Additional performances

Seattle Chamber Music Society

Summer Festival at Lakeside School, 7 p.m. free recitals, 8 p.m. concerts, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, through Aug. 1, plus a 7 p.m. Emerging Artist Concert July 24 and a 7 p.m. Family Concert July 29, 14050 First Ave. N.E., Seattle; $31-$42 single tickets, $16 students with ID or 25 and younger; subscription discount; Emerging Artist Concert $10 general; Family Concert $8 general (206-283-8808 or www.seattlechambermusic.org).

Summer Festival at Overlake School, 7 p.m. free recitals; 8 p.m. concerts, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Aug. 6-15, plus a 7 p.m. Family Concert Aug. 12, 20301 N.E. 108th St., Redmond; $38-$42 single tickets, $16 students with ID or 25 and younger; subscription discount; Family Concert $8 general (206-283-8808 or www.seattlechambermusic.org).

Live broadcasts on KING-FM (98.1) at 8 p.m.

Live chamber music isn't for perfectionists who find facial contortions, trancelike swaying and the sound of musicians breathing annoying. Me, I like a little reality salting the music — sweat and tears, sighs and even coughs can remind you how far you've been transported.

Sometimes, though, you do need to close your eyes to the distractions onstage. I found myself doing this several times Monday night at Lakeside School during the sparkling opening-night performance of the Seattle Chamber Music Society's 27th Summer Festival.

The first time was during Ravel's "Ma mère l'oye," a delicate, water-colored fairy tale told in five parts and the perfect piece to launch summer: as sweet and airy as cotton candy. I'd never heard the original score for four hands and one piano — it's far more common to hear the orchestral version — and was charmed by pianists Andrew Armstrong and Adam Neiman's adept portrayal of the fantastical sequence.

Let me backtrack a bit: It was all very charming once I shut my eyes to the novelty of two grown men sharing a crowded piano bench and keyboard. They managed quite well, but I think the two children Ravel originally wrote the piece for would have looked more comfortable up there.

Then there was the Arensky Quartet in A minor, a tall, dark, handsome stranger of a piece I was meeting for the first time. Written for the unusual combination of violin, viola and two celli, the piece was brooding, sensuous and utterly distracting. Or maybe it seemed that way because of where I was sitting, on the far right side of the stage, with a perfect view of 20-something violinist Stefan Jackiw, one of the best reasons I have encountered for teenage girls to listen to live classical music.

Jackiw possesses supernova star quality, something that cannot be easily dimmed for a chamber-music setting. Even with my eyes closed, the sound of his violin stood out. He was utterly inside the music, on a different plane than most of us mere mortals. I just wish he could have invited the rest of the quartet to join him there a little more often. As a group, their playing didn't always spiritually coalesce, but all the players, including violist Richard O'Neill and cellists Ronald Thomas and Robert deMaine, contributed streaks of inspiration.

The Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor ended this wonderfully entertaining evening with a bravura flourish. Violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist David Harding, cellist Bion Tsang and pianist Jeremy Denk created a model chamber performance, beautifully muscular and controlled like one sinuous beast (Denk was perfection). A big, often loud piece that goes full-throttle for an hour, the Quintet is quite a marathon for both players and audience, but the group was so interpretively well-meshed that they managed to lift the entire audience to that other dimension where time ceases to matter. When I closed my eyes, I found myself wishing for a recording to take home.

Sumi Hahn: sumi@bewodo.org

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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