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Friday, April 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Preview

Beethoven concerts introduce NWCO audiences to new music director, wife

Seattle Times music critic

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It's an important weekend for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, whose music-director designate, conductor/pianist Ralf Gothóni, is in town for two all-Beethoven concerts that also introduce his violinist wife, Elina Vähälä, to Seattle audiences.

The NWCO wasn't looking for a music director when Gothóni flew in a season ago as part of a lineup of guest maestros, following the departure of previous director Adam Stern. So excited were the musicians — and audiences — after Gothóni's concerts, however, that he was spontaneously invited to head the organization.

The Finnish-born musician (whose name is approximately pronounced "Rolf Go-TOON-ee") will open the two concerts (at 8 p.m. tomorrow and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya) with Beethoven's dark, lovely Piano Concerto No. 3. After that comes two shorter Romances for Violin and Orchestra, with Vähälä as soloist; the finale is Beethoven's spirited Symphony No. 1 in C Major.

Gothóni began his musical life as a violinist (at 3), switching to the piano two years later and appearing as piano soloist with orchestras at 15. In the following 30 years, he has built a career as a highly individualistic musician. His 1994 Gilmore Prize was a particular milestone: For this impressive award, competitors don't realize they have entered, because a secret international jury covertly follows the careers of promising pianists whose artistry and individuality make them special. The prize carries considerable cachet in the music community.

In addition to his keyboard successes and his discography of 80-plus CDs, Gothóni has held two conducting posts with Finnish orchestras (he's now principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra) and has directed not only the well-known Savonlinna Opera Festival in his home country but also the Forbidden City Music Festival of Beijing (since 1996). He also teaches at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and is visiting professor at London's Royal College of Music.

Vähälä, who made her New York debut three seasons ago after winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, has won two other major prizes (one of them for historical performance) and has performed extensively throughout Scandinavia.

For tickets to the weekend concerts, call 206-343-0445, where you'll also get info about tonight's 18th annual fund-raising gala/wine auction, the "Bachanalia," at the Elliott Grand Hyatt Hotel.

World premiere of 'Camp Songs'

Fans of new music are eagerly awaiting Sunday's premiere of Paul Schoenfield's "Camp Songs," the centerpiece of the 7:30 p.m. Music of Remembrance concert in Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya. Schoenfield, whose chamber music has been heard extensively in Seattle, has composed his new work to five poems created in the concentration camps of World War II.

Performers include singers Erich Parce and Julie Mirel, with instrumentalists Laura DeLuca, Mikhail Schmidt, David Tonkonogui, Jonathan Green and Mina Miller.

The new work commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day; a pre-concert lecture at 6:45 p.m. will introduce the texts with Bret Werb, musicologist of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Also on the program: a Herman Berlinski flute sonata (with flutist Jody Schwarz) and other works by Hans Krasa and Erwin Schulhoff. For tickets, call 206-365-7770 or visit www.musicofremembrance.org.

For families

The delightful children's entertainer Charlotte Diamond has two concerts tomorrow (11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) at Burien's Highline Performing Arts Center — just the ticket for youngsters 1 to 7.

Diamond, a Vancouver, B.C.-based singer-songwriter, has won numerous awards for her warm-hearted, funny, multicultural songs; her recordings were a huge hit in our family when the kids were small. Proceeds will benefit a scholarship fund for South Seattle Community College Cooperative Preschool; call 206-937-9847 or 206-550-8727. Tickets are $7 for anyone over 1 year (parents will like this one, too).

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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