"Where's the Mendelssohn?" My mild joke, ventured while talking to Toby Saks, cellist and mastermind of the Seattle Chamber Music Society's Winter Festival (Thurs–Sun Jan 22–25, Recital Hall at Benaroya, 283-8808, $42–$160, $10 for those 25 and younger), yields a friendly though revealing reply: "We don't really do thematic programming."

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Forget the can't-miss, cash-in allure of the Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) bicentennial this year: Only two of the festival's 18 pieces are by the elegant German composer. Instead, a bevy of Brahms (the Sextet for Strings, op. 36 and duos for violin and piano) complements Ravel's solo piano landmark Gaspard de la nuit and works by Beethoven, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky (the minor yet charming Suite Italienne), and Lutoslawski.

Saks segues into a detailed discussion about assembling programs for a chamber-music concert. "I always have in mind what comes before and what comes after in a concert program," Saks muses about balancing Mozart with Messiaen, heeding suggestions from performers, and how to match the right musicians to specific compositions. Where else have I heard such a fascination with sequencing, correlation, and order?

Afterward, I make the connection: I've been talking to a DJ. Instead of matching beats and textures, Saks fixates on the lingering emotional and intellectual echo of each composition, treating the preconcert tension, intervening silences, and the intermission as a segue to be calibrated and honed. I look forward to the opening night buildup to the Brahms sextet, which caps off Beethoven's early though meaty Trio op.1 no. 2 and the short, folk-flavored, Bartók-ish Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano by Lutoslawski. Each night of the festival mixes well-chosen hits with obscure gems; peruse the complete program at www.scmf.org.

Though I wish the Winter Festival would program more new and new-ish chamber music, the Seattle Chamber Players do so steadfastly in a pair of concerts this weekend that champion living composers from Russia and Central Asia (Sat Jan 24 at 8 pm, Sun Jan 25 at 7 pm, Town Hall, 286-5052, $15–$20). The first night showcases the "avant-folk" style of Vladimir Martynov, whose Night in Galicia sounds like Stravinsky's hieratic Les Noces filtered through Philip Glass, and two more Russian composers: Alexander Raskatov and Vladimir Nikolayev. A veritable sonic travelogue, the second night features music by living composers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, and Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the Southern state), notably Giya Kancheli's luminous Ninna Nanna

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Also, Eric Glick Rieman treks up from San Diego to collaborate with trumpeter Lesli Dalaba and all-around sonic treasure Stuart Dempster (Sat Jan 24, Chapel Performance Space, 8 pm, $5–$15 suggested donation). Playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano with rods, a double-bass bow, and other unexpected implements, Rieman transforms the anchor of '70s jazz and pop into a miniature percussion ensemble.

Finally, don't miss the final night of the festival Is That Jazz? with New York guitarist, composer, and sound-shredder Elliott Sharp (Thurs Jan 22, Chapel Performance Space, 8 pm, $15 suggested donation). recommended

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