Onyx Chamber Players

Tom Keogh, preview of the Onyx Town Hall concert, June 24, 2012.
The Seattle Times

    Perennially hailed for performances full of intensity, joy and a fresh perspective on chamber repertoire, Seattle's Onyx Chamber Players will be capping its current season on Sunday at Town Hall.

    The group's transatlantic program, "Music from America and the British Isles," focuses on two 20th-century iconoclasts and a world premiere by one of Onyx's founding members.

    Benjamin Britten's 1933 Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings, written at age 19 by the English modernist, shares a bill with Connecticut-born Charles Ives' 1904-1915 work, Piano Trio. Pianist David White will introduce his own Piano Trio, a new composition, with Onyx partners Meg Brennand on cello and James Garlick on violin.

    Typically, Brennand, White and Garlick — all current or past ubiquitous figures in the Seattle music scene — are overcoming geographic hurdles for the show and its demanding preparations.

    "We prefer an intensive approach, an almost festival-style rehearsal schedule," Garlick says. "We live in different cities but come together to work hard toward a unified. vision."..


Bernard Jacobson,
A Delectable Schubert Programme in Seattle. June 3, 2011, for Seen and Heard International:

    This was a delectable program, consisting of Schubert’s E-flat-major Piano Trio and his "Trout" Quintet...


Gigi Yellen
review of the Onyx All Beethoven Concert, March 15, 2011.
for The Gathering Note:

    A piano trio plays an all-Beethoven concert. So? So pianist David White’s sparkling standup delivery of script-free program notes, his hammy interpretations at the keyboard, and his jazz-combo-like connections with cellist Meg Brennand and violinist James Garlick combine to make an Onyx concert memorable. The program was smartly constructed, opening with Beethoven’s first published work—his first piano trio—and concluding with his majestic “Archduke.” In between, and especially well served by White’s intro, Beethoven’s much revised and strangely dramatic elaboration on a lightweight theme, the “Kakadu” variations.

    Onyx has found its just-right performance venue in the intimacy of Town Hall Seattle’s downstairs space. White’s expressive gestures, his seasoned wit and enthusiastic keyboard approach, combine with Brennan’s openhearted precision to support young Garlick’s developing technique and increasingly lyrical lines. The three took great care with Beethoven’s signature dynamic shifts and tricky rhythms. You might have called this concert “Fun with Beethoven,” except that the serious stuff received its due, too.

    Hats off to the trio for dedicating this concert, in the spirit of “all one human family,” to those in Japan struggling with the effects of last week’s earthquake/tsunami.

    Not to put program note writers out of business, but the effect of notes spoken before a performance by a live player with a sense of humor and history is much punchier than scrambling to absorb paragraphs of tiny print before the lights go down. Watching David White confirmed what I felt after a recent, similar experience at a Simple Measures concert: as an audience member, I retain more and engage more with the information about the music when it comes this way.

    White is also a composer, and Onyx will premiere his new Piano Trio on an all-American concert June 17 at St. Mark’s. The final concert of this season’s Onyx series downstairs at Town Hall will be an all-Schubert evening on May 29.

Will Rose
Armchair chamber-music fan: A living-room rehearsal can get pointed at times
for Crosscut:
May 28, 2011

    On a sunny May morning — one of the few spring-like days in a season of incomparable gloom — I lock my bike to a tree in an upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood; pulse quickening to allegro ma non troppo, I mount to the front door of an imposing house. I pause to savor the moment, wishing I had perhaps worn a better shirt. From deep inside, familiar voices of piano and strings faintly hum. Per instructions, rather than knock, I squeeze down the latch and heave the door gently inward. I am at the home of Jan Condit, a local arts benefactor and music lover, to attend a rehearsal of the Onyx Chamber Players.

    I am not the only guest. Sitting at the end of the hall facing the living room, Jean Johnson and David Lowe, longtime friends of the group, are also listening; David straddles a chair with the score for Schubert's Trio in E-flat propped open on an ottoman, Johnson is settled in an armchair, chin resting reflectively on the palm of her hand. I take a spot in another armchair and fall under Schubert's spell...


Zach Carstensen
review of the Onyx October 17, 2010 concert,
for The Gathering Note:

    To hear pianist David White tell the story of one of the most famous love triangles in the history of music, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann’s music wouldn’t exist as we know it without the presence of Clara Schumann — friend to Johannes, wife of Robert, accomplished pianist, and gifted composer. it is hard to disagree with this sentiment. Robert tended to be at his best with Clara as his muse, and the durability of Brahms music today — especially his piano music — depends to some degree on Clara’s advocacy.

    In honor of the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth, the Onyx Chamber Players presented a two night mini-festival of music by these three 19th Century icons. I was only able to make it to Sunday evening’s performance of C. Schumann’s Piano Trio, Brahm’s Op. 101 Piano Trio, and R. Schumann’s Piano Quintet...

    ...Sunday’s performance will stand as one of the fall’s best. James Garlick, who is splitting his time between music gigs in Seattle and violin studies at Juilliard, has improved dramatically since the last time I heard him play. His sound is more even and playing more controlled, which was especially an asset in the Clara Schumann’s trio which opened the concert. Its four movements are beautifully languid. I wish cellist Meg Brennand were more present. In the opening trio, she blended nicely with Garlick and White. For Brahms’ trio and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, however, her playing faded in and out of focus. The result was slightly underpowered Brahms. Tempestuous yes; stormy no. David White was superb on keyboard. He gave the other musicians room to make their own statements, convey minor key pathos, while amplifying the effect of each and every piece on the program. Constance Gee (viola) and Michael Lim (violin) joined the three core Onyx Players for the quintet. Their contributions were as fine, but the stars of the night were truly Garlick, White, and Brennand.

Dana Wen
review of the Onyx June 23, 2010 concert,
for The Gathering Note:

The Onyx Chamber Players end their season with Haydn and Mendelssohn at Town Hall

    One of the great joys of chamber music is the conversation that unfolds between the musicians on stage. Each performer is given a chance to contribute to the musical dialogue in a very prominent way. In such an intimate environment, the personality of each musician inevitably emerges. Sometimes the going gets rough, and personalities will clash. But other times, especially with a group of musicians who have been playing together for a while, watching a performance can feel like sitting in on a lively conversation between old friends. When this happens, it’s a treat for the performers and the audience alike.

    The atmosphere at Town Hall on Sunday night definitely felt like a gathering of old friends. The Onyx Chamber Players – James Garlick on violin, Meg Brennand on cello, and David White on piano – hosted their last performance of the 2009-10 season. These three Seattle musicians have been performing as an ensemble for years. Their program on Sunday featured the works of Franz Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn, an unlikely duo. However, the pieces on the program – two vivacious, sparkling Haydn trios, an early Mendelssohn piano quartet, and the great Mendelssohn trio in D minor – offered an excellent balance of light-hearted energy and intense drama. Pianist White gave a brief introduction to the program at the start of the performance, pointing out that the two composers are chronologically adjacent – Mendelssohn was born the very year of Haydn’s death. Well-spoken and animated, White offered the audience a few other interesting facts about the pieces on the program. The Mendelssohn piano quartet, one of the composer’s first published works, was written when he was only 15. It was interesting to compare this to the D Minor Piano Trio, which was written when Mendelssohn was thirty. White also encouraged the audience to listen for string pizzicatos and interplay between strings & piano in the Haydn trios.

    Onyx began the evening with Haydn’s lively Piano Trio in A Major (Hob. XV:18), a late work, written when the composer was in his 60’s. Haydn’s later works for piano are full of keyboard gymnastics and pianistic excitement, and this trio was no exception. The work did an excellent job of showcasing White’s energetic playing style. However, at times I hoped to hear a fuller tone from the strings. The pizzicato tones from the cello in the slow second movement added a texture that complimented the sparkling piano perfectly.

    The full tones of the strings emerged in the next piece, Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in F Minor (Op. 2). Here Onyx was joined by violist J. Melvin Butler. Together with Garlick and Brennand, the trio of strings balanced White’s exuberant energy well. The quartet certainly wasn’t afraid to turn up the dramatic effects from the very first note. After winding its way through beautiful sections that showcased the low strings, the first movement ended with all four players joining in a daring, seat-of-your-pants accelerando to the final note. A show-stopping moment for sure!

    The cello was featured prominently in the second movement of the next work, Haydn’s Piano Trio in D Major (Hob. XV:24). The jovial first movement, full of Haydn’s signature dramatic pauses, was followed by a creeping minor-key second movement. I loved the moments where the strident piano subsided and the rich sound of Brennand’s cello sang through.

    Jokingly dubbed "the other Mendelssohn piano concerto" by White, the D Minor Trio (Op. 49) features one of the busiest keyboard parts in the piano trio repertoire. White tackled the challenge with his usual enthusiasm and flair. However, the energy level of the piano occasionally overpowered the strings. Despite this, there were many beautiful moments that showcased the violin and cello. Most notable were the flowing cello and piano duet in the opening bars and a lovely violin solo with pizzicato cello accompaniment in the second movement. Onyx’s interpretation of this chamber music warhorse was fresh, colorful, fun, and wonderfully unpretentious.

    As an ensemble, Garlick, Brennand, and White are truly a model piano trio. Like all good chamber ensembles, they keep in constant communication while they’re playing together through eye contact, gestures, or nods. But among this trio, these simple musical cues are joyful and wonderfully natural. It’s fun to watch them interact. These are three performers who thoroughly enjoy making music together. I have never seen a group of musicians smile more during a performance! This genuine joy, accompanied by their intelligent, exciting interpretations of the trio repertoire, makes Onyx a very fun trio to watch. We’re very fortunate to have them as a resident piano trio in Seattle.

    Onyx has another season of fantastic concerts planned for next year, this time featuring works by Robert Schumann (this year marks the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth). Also, keep an eye out for their performances of a few chamber music favorites: Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.

Gigi Yellen
review of the Onyx February 28, 2010 concert,
for The Gathering Note:

    David White is a great performer! At the keyboard, he is a crisp, athletic artist, defining an energetic musical rapport among his fellow players that, in turn, keeps an audience on the edge of its seat.

    But he’s more than that: he’s a gifted and entertaining speaker, whose pre-concert energy added great value to the experience of the small crowd of cognoscenti gathered at Town Hall for this Sunday afternoon concert of Haydn and Mendelssohn chamber music. Onyx continues its 2009-10 season commemorating the dual bicentennials of Joseph Haydn (died in 1809) and Felix Mendelssohn (born in 1809). The newly-reconstituted Onyx is White, violinist James Garlick, and cellist Meg Brennand.

    Rather than talking before each piece, White collected a variety of gems into a single pre-concert talk, pacing and tossing off examples at the keyboard. Poking fun at himself for doing a Bernstein (by invoking not just Leonard Bernstein but the comedian Allan Sherman’s joke about Bernstein), and thus transforming the didactic into the charming, he proceeded to enthuse about both Haydn and Mendelssohn as pioneers.

    Musical examples flew by; biographical details added color. (But David, do check on that Mendelssohn thing: as I understand it, Felix was baptized as a Lutheran at age 7, and his father was never a cantor.) It was great to hear Haydn called “the Harry James or Benny Goodman of his day.” To tell you the truth, White himself has something of the jazzman’s air at the keyboard, stomping on Haydn’s downbeats, and keeping his bandmates in tight eye contact.

    This was clearly an audience of friends, one that deeply appreciated the return of Seattle cellist Brennand to the concert stage – and she returned the appreciation with a muscular, joyous performance. From the program notes: “Meg is proud to be a stage III cancer survivor, and she is overjoyed to be back with Onyx this season.” Her sound is robust, and she is a joy to watch as a chamber player, precise and collegial.

    In the Haydn A-flat Piano Trio (H. XV:14), Brennand and violinist James Garlick shared an exquisite ensemble moment, re-entering the Adagio. In his first season as a member of Onyx (previous violinist: Cecilia Archuleta), Garlick’s gentle touch on the fiddle was at its best in the lacy Andante of the Haydn Piano Trio in D (H. XV:7). Busy all over town as both chamber and orchestral player, the hardworking Garlick has found himself two great mentors in his Onyx colleagues.

    The musical star of the day was a piano quartet in d minor by the 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Joining Onyx as guest violist was a familiar companion, the multitalented J. Melvin Butler, longtime organist/choirmaster at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Billed as a "student piece," this work received its first complete North American performance at this concert, according to White. Of course, the 12-year-old Mendelssohn was already making mature art, so this "student piece," with its breathless rhythms, hinted at the Midsummer Night’s Dream music that would emerge just four years later. Garlick had a chance to shine in cantorial-style violin solo in the third movement.

    When Brennand’s cello finally got its chance to sing full out (in a program characterized by a great deal of background work for the cello), it was in the last work on the program (during which, alas, I had to leave after the first two movements), Mendelssohn’s C Minor Piano Trio Op. 66. She is a confident, muscular player, equal in weight to White’s powerful keyboard presence.

    Onyx will play two more concerts this season, both at Town Hall. They deserve an audience greater than the 100 or so who turned out on Feb. 28. On May 16, they’re doing music by both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and on June 20 they’ll conclude the Haydn/Mendelssohn bicentennial season with another concert of works by Papa Haydn and Felix.

Gigi Yellen
review of the Onyx May 19, 2010 concert,
for The Gathering Note:

Onyx chamber players build a bridge to the Romantic era

    Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Piano Trio in D Minor Op. 11 added interest and drama to the Onyx Chamber Players’ season-long commemoration of her brother Felix’s birth-bicentennial, and the death-bicentennial of their musical grandpapa, Franz Josef Haydn. Rolling in like ominous thunder, the piano part in this mature (1846) work of Ms. Mendelssohn Hensel underlines a lyrical theme, a big open melody for the cello, in the manner of the piano figure in Schubert’s famous song Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.

    "A bridge to the Romantic era," is how pianist David White described Fanny Mendelssohn’s music, in his spirited remarks before the concert on Sunday afternoon May 16. He also described Fanny’s considerable contributions to her younger brother’s works.

    Happily, there’s more about that contribution in a new biography, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn by R. Larry Todd, (© 2010, Oxford University Press) with extensive documentation of this powerful relationship between equally talented, but unequally privileged musical siblings. The book is filled with detailed musical analyses of Fanny’s work, including the intriguing trio Onyx played. During intermission, I showed it to pianist Judith Cohen, who was in the audience, and her eyes lit up.

    Onyx gave Fanny’s Op. 11 a loving reading, especially in the open-hearted cello playing of Meg Brennand. Her singing tone marked with notable intelligence the difference between this lyrical, dramatic work and the crisp good humor of the 1793 Haydn trio (in G minor/major Hob. XV: 19) that opened the concert. A smart programming choice, this transition, from the Presto finale of the Haydn to the opening Allegro molto vivace of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s work.

    An extended violin/piano duet in the Fanny Mendelssohn trio gave violinist James Garlick one of his moments in the sun. Garlick’s singing tone kept wonderful company with David White’s thrilling cadenzas in the second of the two Haydn Piano Trios on the program (both written as entertainments for his fans in London in the 1790s). There was some nice ensemble playing, led by the violin, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in b minor, Op. 3, a mature work by a 15-year-old. Not only does the work reflect the deep influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on Felix (which Todd traces back two generations in his and Fanny’s family, by the way), but, as White so astutely pointed out in his opening remarks, it looks forward to the mature work of Brahms. Joining Onyx for the Op. 3 was their longtime collaborator, the violist J. Melvin Butler. The quartet’s rollicking finale—did Felix Mendelssohn ever catch his breath?—delighted both them and the audience.

    An attractive and joyous player, Garlick, as the junior member of Onyx, could learn a lot from pianist White’s precision and focus. A suggestion: look more at your fellow musicians, and less at the audience.

    Speaking of the audience, Town Hall seats over 800 people, and this concert, like the earlier ones in Onyx’s season, drew just over 100. Of course, it was a sunny Sunday afternoon. It would be great if Onyx could perform in a hall half this size, and better share the intimacy of its performances. Meanwhile, there’s one more concert left in this season of Haydn/Mendelssohn celebrations by Onyx. It’s June 20, at Town Hall, and I’m glad to report it’s an evening performance. And congratulations to Town Hall on winning that big grant for renovation!

    Bernard Friedlander, for Concert Review Online:

    "We are fortunate to live in a time when there are many good performers who can help us admire our favorite works by the great composers. But Onyx stands out above talent, above craft. They take Beethoven to a higher level - beyond superb skills, beyond exquisite beauty - with their inspired playing of his intensely personal piano, violin and 'cello trios. David White, Cecilia Archuleta and Meg Brennand penetrate into the heart and soul of the maturing Beethoven as his art expanded into the immense territories of daring musicianship and transcendent humanity that his succeeding works would explore with larger forces.

    "These gifted artists and their rich display of these jewel-like works lift us into that glowing world of special illumination which music lovers dream of and only seldom find."

Philippa Kiraly for The Seattle Post Intelligencer:

A Mozart-based season ends for theOnyx Chamber Players

    This is the seventh season for the flourishing Onyx Chamber Players (though this name emerged only three years ago). The group began in Seattle, but pianist David White moved to Chicago in 2002, while violinist Cecilia Archuleta and cellist Meg Brennand remain here, which makes for concentrated rehearsal schedules.

    The Onyx now performs in both cities and elsewhere, including an annual series at Town Hall.

    The group prefers exploring one composer in depth for these series. This season, the three Seattle concerts, the last of which is Sunday afternoon at Town Hall, have focused on Mozart's trios and quartets, including rarely played chamber music fragments from his sketchbook.

    Sunday's fragment is an early "Menuetto" in G Major. "You never hear these, so they're of special interest," says White. "This one is probably the earliest. Mozart left it unfinished, and it was rather extravagantly completed by his friend Maximilian Stadler."

    The Onyx aims at re-creating performances as they would have been in the composer's day. The musicians do diligent research to find performing editions true to the composer, and play as though they were coming forward from an earlier time, rather than looking back at the music from today's perspective.

    They use historical performing techniques, though theirs are not period instruments. "We try to sweep away 20th-century heaviness and stuffiness, so the experience is more like sitting in a salon in Vienna with Mozart at the piano," says White.

    "We play all the embellishments and cadenzas that Mozart used, but we almost never rehearse these," he goes on, commenting that spontaneous additions were typical of the day and keep a performance fresh. "For instance, maybe Cecilia ornaments a phrase and I pick up on it and repeat it."

    Most of Onyx's performances include interaction with the audience, talking about the music, the performance practices the composer would have taken for granted, and trying to give a heightened awareness of how the music fit into the composer's life and times.

    Besides the "Menuetto," Sunday's program includes the Piano Trios in B Flat and G, and the E Flat Piano Quartet, with guest violist J. Melvin Butler.

    Darden Burns, classical pianist, folk guitarist and director of the First Sunday at the Commons concert series. For more information about the series go to   www.firstsundaysconcerts.org

    "I’ve been listening to music with keen interest all my life. But last Sunday afternoon my musical experience reached a memorable highpoint as I sat in the Bainbridge Commons listening to the music of Shostakovich."

    "A year ago I attended a rehearsal of the Onyx Chamber Players, a trio comprised of Cecilia Archuleta on violin, Meg Brennand on cello, and David White on piano. I was particularly impressed with David, the pianist, and thought the group played well together. And so I invited the trio to perform on my series First Sundays at the Commons. I started this concert series in January of 200 after acquiring a grand piano for the space with the goal of presenting outstanding classical and jazz programs featuring the most talented musicians of our region I could engage. Although it has been a challenge to bring in a good sized audience to each concert, the programs have been great and well appreciated. I’m losing money but loving the project and hope that eventually it will catch on with more people on the island."

    "On their program last Sunday, the Onyx Chamber Players opened with a trio by Mozart, which was beautifully played with all the grace and charm of the classical style. The pianist’s playing was impeccable and the movements flowed by. The second piece on the program was Shostakovich’s Trio in e minor, which I had never heard before. Shostakovich, whose life and works are being celebrated this year since it is the centennial of his birth in 1906, is one of the giants on twentieth century composition. I have to admit that personally my experience and appreciation of his music is somewhat limited. There is a very likable piano concerto that I learned in high school, and then a set of piano preludes that I explored but never really liked enough to learn. About ten years ago, when I was running a home concert series on the island, the Seattle Chamber Players performed Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, which is written for two violins, viola, cello, and piano. I vaguely remember that the music was intense and powerful, and slightly overwhelming for the audience all closely stuffed in my living room. I’ve also heard a few symphonies by Shostakovich, but I wasn’t anticipating the effect that the trio would have on me last Sunday."

    "The Shostakovich Trio begins with the cello playing very high in harmonics, joined then by the violin and finally the piano in a folk-like melody. The music was completely engaging and easy to follow thematically. The three instruments were distinctive in their voices, the string players employing some unusual tone qualities and the balance and interplay between the three instruments was perfect. This was some of the most compelling chamber music I have ever heard performed – intensely emotional and perfectly constructed. I was from the start completely riveted by the haunting themes, the rhythm, and the musical story, which was filled with tension and despair, but finally reached a place of profound peacefulness. At the end of the performance it was entirely still for several moments. Then instinctively everyone stood up with great applause and shouts of "Bravo!" I felt tears in my eyes and I knew I wasn’t alone. All of us in that room had experienced something special."

    "After intermission, the trio played a trio by Brahms with much confidence and warmth and then treated us with a short encore in the style of a Spanish dance. I enjoyed the entire program, but it is the performance of the Shostakovich Trio that I will always remember. I’ve spent a lot of my life passionately involved with music-making, teaching and listening to music, and it’s all been wonderful, but every once in a while the wonderful transcends beyond the normal experience into the realm of the sublime. It happens from time to time when I’m playing music alone, and it happens when playing with others where the communication becomes effortless, and sometimes it happens just sitting there in the audience as I was last Sunday afternoon."


Onyx Chamber Players


Piano Trio in G major K564
Movement #3