Good music is abundant in Seattle, but new chamber music is a rare treat, and the wet, distinctly autumnal night of September 28 was perfect for the meditative musical collaboration of Hanna Benn and Kelly Wyse. Singer-songwriter Benn may have come to the attention of most through her part in local Indie Pop group Pollens, but her roots are in composition and she has been focusing intently on that in the last year, performing her pieces with other local musical cynosures, such as Evan Flory Barnes. Wyse is a virtuoso pianist who also performs with Pollens and is no stranger to avant-garde collaboration. Together, Benn and Wyse created a luminous program to usher in the darker days of autumn.
The site of the event was the Chapel Performance space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford—an austere and apt venue for the night’s performance. The night began with a procession of the chorus accompanied by flute, performing a Benn composition inspired by 15th century Sufi poet and mystic Kabir. The work alludes to liminal states befitting the time of year and was a perfect opener to a night that balanced solemnity and joy. The sequencing was, indeed, well chosen by both performers. Wyse followed Benn’s choral work with “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” by Claude Debussy. Debussy’s whole tone scales were then echoed in Wyse’s second selection, John Cage’s dulcet “In a landscape.” Both titles evoke a scene, and together they are specifically evocative of a nocturnal, autumnal view between peace and desolation.
Three more short, lush pieces from Benn punctuated the calm of Debussy and Cage with voices and a string quartet, whose center highlight “Being Beauteous” was a choral setting of poetry by Rimbaud. These pieces served as a bridge toward the more abstracted second half of the program. Wyse again took the stage to perform Part 1 of “Glassworks”—Philip Glass at his most Glassian. It’s a challenging work, and Wyse was spectacular. He followed with “Prelude” by local composer Jarrad Powell. Like Benn’s centerpieces, the work is not on its own a grand gesture, but it was a beautiful denouement for Wyse’s performance, leading into Benn’s last four pieces for voice, piano and strings.
These final works felt personal and more philosophical than one might expect from chamber music, which tends toward the poetic and sacred. Though the middle sections felt like they meandered a bit too much, the bookends were so precise and purposeful that in retrospect the center was a space for the audience—and the performers—to breathe. For myself, I regret to say that I was sitting on the wrong side of the space (stage right), as the voices were somewhat eaten up in the rafters through no fault of the singers. In the gentle spirit of the performance and the time of year—and the sense of liminality established in the opening—this attenuation might almost be embraced…almost.
Leaving the Good Shepherd Center, the rain had begun again, spurred by a bitter wind. That this, too, felt like something to embrace rather than to brace against speaks to the success of the performance, I think.