Chamber Music Northwest: American Portraits

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin


Last Thursday’s Chamber Music Northwest concert wasn’t billed as a “new music” concert, even though most of the works performed were written in the last 20 years by living American composers. Maybe it was because all five of the programmed composers are getting up there, celebrating their 75th birthdays this year. They’re all still very active though, and to prove it, two – Joan Tower and William Bolcom – came to the show from distant parts, and Bolcom even performed in his own works. Listening to the wide variety of styles presented, and considering some which were missing, I was mindful throughout the evening how classical music is shaping up in the early 21st century, and how old and new aren’t necessarily what they used to be.

One could hardly find a better exemplar than a five year old piece written by a (then) 99-year-old composer. Thanks to a donation by local Elliott Carter enthusiast Bruce Cronin, the concert opened with a special performance of the third of Carter’s “Tre Duetti.” Long-time CMNW participant Fred Sherry, the cellist the piece was written for, and violinist Yura Lee, who partnered with him wonderfully tightly in Maurice Ravel’s Violin and Cello Sonata earlier in the week, gave an utterly committed performance. A couple of passages of rhythmically regular musical ping-pong between them were surprisingly square, and I wasn’t particularly convinced by the ending. But for the most part we were treated to a rich variety of arresting details in delightfully intricate counterpoint, hallmarks of Carter’s style for the last 65 years of his very long and productive life.

Fred Sherry.

Cellist Fred Sherry

In somewhat the same way, Charles Wuorinen’s string sextet “Zoe,” completed just this year in memory of a beloved cat, cast a backward look to a dense, complex, continuously dissonant sound once considered cutting edge but which fewer and fewer young composers are making a splash with these days, at least not in this unadulterated form. That backward look was the only sense of memorial that one could discern in the undistinguished array of motives, rhythms, and harmonies which passed by seemingly heedless of any world beyond themselves. I was reminded of the paean to the composer in the program notes, which at the same time unintentionally gives an impression of someone totally absorbed in his own mental landscape, with little desire to connect with living and breathing people around him. That he and the six performers are all masters of their craft was evident when the music coalesced in the last half-minute or so and ended on exactly the right pitch in the right rhythm. But it took far too long to get there.

John Harbison has made a name for himself putting a more human face on the mid-20th century avant-garde, and I expected great things from “Six American Painters” for flute plus string trio, inspired by George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, and Richard Diebenkorn. And indeed, I rarely got the feeling, as in the previous work, that the composer didn’t care to provide pure sensory pleasure. As someone who responds strongly to extramusical imagery, though, I was mostly puzzled by these understated portraits. Only one – Winslow Homer – stood out from the pack, yet how it stood out! It sizzled, it skittered, it flowered into an invigorating evocation of salt air and seascape, with nary a cliche, just inspired composition. Several folks I talked with afterwards, some schooled, some not, were especially taken with it.

It was time to hear from another, very different stream of American music – not necessarily dissonance-shy, but straightforward and melodic – once derided as old-fashioned, but which has survived to see its detractors begin to wear the same look. John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Piano” is a concentrated version of the music he wrote for the moody 1997 film. Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo gave a strongly etched performance, passionate without histrionics. The only problem with the material in such a short piece was that the many recurrences of the chaconne theme got to be a bit much. The stark minor thirds and jagged rhythms it opens with are more spread out in the film, where they land with shattering effect. Nonetheless the piece went straight to my heart and hung over my mood all the next day.

Joan Tower

Composer Joan Tower

Just prior to the performance of Joan Tower’s fascinating “Turning Points,” she came out and gave a short, entertainingly self-deprecating talk, but there was nothing self-deprecating in the work, a clarinet quintet featuring a virtuosic solo part. It was written for CMNW artistic director David Shifrin and he owned it, even powering flawlessly through a register-skipping section which Tower seems to have designed expressly to torture clarinetists into letting out a squawk or two. True to its title, the piece motored to life immediately with tight circulating lines in all instruments, but just as absorbing if not more so was the subplot that developed in the ever-changing pattern of instrumentation. About two-thirds of the way through I found my interest flagging a little, and I realized that narrative was on hold while the strings engaged in some kind of tussle between different camps of (melodic) intervals. But soon they got over it and moved on, and the piece drew me back in again as it built to a big finish.

The program ended on a lighter, but no less intelligent note as composer-pianist William Bolcom and his lifelong partner in crime Joan Morris came on and entertained the hell out of us with a generous selection of American cabaret and popular songs, many written by Bolcom himself. He may be one of the grand old men of American music – and locals remember the Portland Opera production of his serious opera “A View from the Bridge” a few years ago – but he can whip up a mean ditty as well.

William Bolcom performed American music at Chamber Music Northwest.

Composer/pianist William Bolcom

Nor did they neglect the classics, giving us Gershwin and Vernon Duke and Richard Rodgers. Portland native Morris engaged us from the first with her lively manner, perfect understandability and smoky low range. It was a perfect ending to an American concert on the Fourth of July.

It was also a nod to a movement within classical music that is gathering strength, though only among much younger composers so it didn’t fit into the theme of 75th birthdays. More and more we hear attempts by classically trained composers to give popular idioms the genre-shattering multifariousness and many-leveled structure which is classical music at its best, or conversely, give pride of place in their work to a surface attractiveness and immediacy worthy of those same idioms. For the most part, they haven’t been terribly successful as yet, but who knows what is coming.

A more curious omission from the program permitted by the accident of birth years was minimalism and its descendants. LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass are all OLDER than 75 – think of that! And yet their music is at least as important for the generations of composers and musicians maturing today than many of the composers presented, especially on the first half.

Still, a 75th birthday is a milestone, and all these composers deserve their place in the sun. Kudos to CMNW’s Shifrin for realizing that in composers all born in the same year, and who are still living – indeed, at the height of their powers – there is so much variety, and arranging for Portlanders to hear such a highly satisfying two hours of their music.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and is on the board of directors of Cascadia Composers.

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