Music News & Reviews

Emerald City Music presents opera-inspired concert, but without the words

Pianist Michael Brown is one of the musicians from across the country who will perform Saturday at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
Pianist Michael Brown is one of the musicians from across the country who will perform Saturday at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Courtesy

Emerald City Music isn’t just playing the same old tunes. For its opera-inspired, vocalist-free “Without Words,” set for Saturday in Olympia, the chamber series freshens up things with a program of music from a quirky contemporary opera, a little-known Verdi string quartet and other surprising selections.

There’s also a high note ahead for the program’s second season. In September, the series will host the world premiere of a composition by John Luther Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for 2013’s “Become Ocean.” The Seattle Symphony played the piece’s world premiere, and the symphony’s recording won a Grammy.

Innovation in concert themes and programs is a key to the vision of artistic director Kristin Lee, a noted violinist who performs in many of the concerts.

While “Without Words” is the series’ fifth concert, Lee dreamed up the theme first.

“My mother was an opera singer, so I grew up with a lot of voice and a lot of operatic influences,” she said. “It played a role in the taking off of my music career and my inspiration.

“The voice is something that as musicians, as instrumentalists, we’re always trying to mimic. We’re always being told to sing these instruments.”

The program she put together will begin with Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, written in 1786, the year the composer’s groundbreaking “The Marriage of Figaro” opera premiered. It will be followed by Isolde’s Liebestod for Solo Piano, transcribed by Franz Liszt from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” and String Quartet in G Minor, composed by Giuseppe Verdi, best known for his operas.

The blend of classic and innovative continues with Divertimento from “Gimpel the Fool,” a 1985 opera composed by David Schiff and based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and “ ‘Porgy and Bess’ Fantasy for Two Pianos,” arranged in 1935 by Percy Aldridge Grainger.

Lee and Andrew Goldstein of Olympia, Emerald City’s executive director, assemble different ensembles for each concert. Saturday, Lee — who has a master’s degree from Juilliard and has won competitions, including the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant — will be joined by musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The program features an Avery Fisher Career Grant winner, pianist Michael Brown, and Julio Elizalde, artistic director of the Olympic Music Festival in Port Townsend.

The Adams world premiere, titled “… there is no one, not even the wind,” has a tie to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — as do Lee, a former member of the society, and Goldstein, who worked there before starting Emerald City. The piece is a joint commission by the society, Emerald City Music, the Portland-based Chamber Music Northwest, Camerata Pacifica of Santa Barbara, California, and the Redlands (California) Symphony.

The opportunity to be part of the commission and host the premiere was a delightful surprise for the directors of the series, which will wrap up its first season in May.

“For us to be alongside these really established chamber organizations is such an honor itself, and to be given the world premiere is something we didn’t expect,” Lee said. “It’s a big deal for us as such a baby of an organization to be able to offer that.”

The Lincoln Center society has helped to mentor the two as they launched Emerald City, Goldstein said.

“They are really keen on seeing us succeed in bringing more chamber music to the Northwest,” he said. “The premiere was an incredible gift.”

The musicians have received music for the new commission, which will be about 15 minutes long.

“We know it’s going to be amazing,” Lee said.

“Become Ocean,” 42 minutes long, has been widely praised for its complex palindromic structure and its sonic ebbs and flows. “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history,” wrote Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker.

That piece certainly was a gift for the Seattle Symphony. The world premiere drew hundreds of younger listeners, Ross wrote in his review.

“Become Ocean attracted global attention to Seattle Symphony,” Goldstein said.

Without Words

What: Emerald City Music presents an instrumental concert inspired by opera and performed by noted chamber musicians from across the country.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.

Tickets: $25-$40, $7 for students.

Information: 360-753-8586,,