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Saturday, August 18, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.
Violist taking classical music out of the concert hall
By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times
Take a look at Seattle violist Heather Bentley's personal Web page (about.me/heather.bentley), and her position on musical segregation couldn't be clearer.
"I'm tired of the old divisions," she writes. "There's just great music and banal music."
Many people feel that way, of course. But Bentley is one of the classical instrumentalists in this city determinedly breaking down divisions and pushing the envelope on musical exploration. In doing so, she's helping stoke an exciting local scene.
As principal viola for Northwest Sinfonietta, Bentley will participate in that orchestra's history-making season opener Oct. 5 at Benaroya Hall. The ensemble and conductor Christophe Chagnard will be joined by Cuban musicians from Orquesta de Cámara Concierto Sur — a rare instance of Cubans and Americans playing together on U.S. soil.
Before that, Bentley can be found with her chamber group Trio Pardalote at one of the group's roving "Club Shostakovich" programs on Wednesday at the Q Café.
On Labor Day in Volunteer Park, Bentley will be part of composer-musician Jovino Santos Neto's 20-piece All-Nations Cup Orchestra, performing a new piece that Neto, Bentley's Cornish College of the Arts colleague, wrote around his hand-picked players.
There's more: as concertmaster for avant-garde chamber ensemble Scrape, Bentley (who plays violin for the sonically daring collective) is preparing for a Sept. 9 season premiere at the Royal Room in Columbia City.
Each of these endeavors speaks both to her resourcefulness and support for versatility in the classical scene.
"This is my own love affair with music," Bentley says. "I grew up playing chamber music. But after a while I felt I was neglecting interest in my own ideas. I improvise in daily practice and in Scrape, for instance, and I feel like that taps a different part of my musical existence.
"A musician doesn't have to be in one little category. A lot of early-music people here also have modern instruments and play new music or improvise. There is specialization, but there is also freedom to explore."
At a fascinating performance of Scrape last April, featuring guest Bill Frisell, it was clear the group is all about discovering sound.
"There's an element of romanticism, focusing on beauty and lushness of tone; chamber music using vibrato," she says. "This is countered by the leanness of the unadorned, non-vibrato line.
"Because we don't have a conductor, our focus is on breathing together, reading each other's cues and blending."
Trio Pardalote envisioned "Club Shostakovich" programs as chamber music played in a non-pristine space with kitchen noise and even conversation among Bentley, cellist Rowena Hammill and violinist Victoria Parker. Spontaneity is key.
"Trio Pardalote is about being in the moment," says Bentley. "About the joy, fun and excitement we experience, and bringing that to the stage. We extend musical community so we can bring the sense of a chamber-music house party."
Raised in Palo Alto, Calif., Bentley, 47, received a master's degree in chamber music at San Francisco Conservatory. After years of working in her hometown and New York City, she and her husband, biotech professional Kurt Haag, adopted Seattle.
Bentley was a founder of the late odeonquartet, a member of Pacific Northwest Ballet's orchestra, and frequently played with Seattle Symphony and for shows at the 5th Avenue Theatre. She teaches violin and viola at Lakeside School.
"I'm really devoted to cultivating uniqueness," says Bentley. "A lot of musicians have moved to Seattle or come back to Seattle because they love what has happened here."
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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