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Chamber Music Northwest: Exploring new territories

By Brett Campbell
July 14, 2013
Featured, Music
Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Anyone checking out the audiences (and occasionally ambulances) at Chamber Music Northwest has reason to worry about its enthusiastic but aging audience – and its sometimes-faltering veteran performers. Too often in recent years, performances by CMNW’s regulars have seemed rough and under-rehearsed, with the regular stable of New York-based classical musicians perhaps riding too much on their long relationship with Portland fans and their starry names that seem to garner ritual standing Os, no matter how occasionally shaky the playing. As accomplished as these performers are, they still need to rehearse to achieve more than superficial competence and chemistry.

Note: some of the material here appeared in an earlier News & Notes post, which we’ve updated to include new reviews and provocations, and separated for easier reading.

To be fair, the touring ensembles CMNW brings in during the festival and in its non-summer series are usually much sharper. Clarinetist and artistic director David Shifrin’s incisive playing seems as sturdy as ever. And in the first weekend’s concerts, CMNW regulars showed that they’re capable of gripping performances, in duos by Kodaly and Ravel, especially in the latter, which featured that ever-genial ambassador of new (and often not-so-genial) music, the great cellist Fred Sherry and the exuberant young violinist Yura Lee, whose striking orange dress and flopping bangs made her resemble an aquatic anemone, swaying in the current while persuasively surging through Ravel’s sonata.

But even though the festival still offers occasional-to-frequent delights, as some recent concerts have demonstrated,  CMNW has clearly recognized the need for revitalization. Can those efforts succeed in helping the festival reach the new audiences it will need when its current one is gone?

Cultivating contemporary sounds

In its opening weekend, CMNW continued and combined two smart audience-broadening strategies: incorporating dance with Portland’s wonderful BodyVox company, and bringing back Imani Winds, whose ability to connect with listeners is legendary. Although last weekend I found the New York-based wind quintet’s fragments of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” just too thin (it may be impossible for a winds-only arrangement to capture anything near the original’s vitality), it was hard to resist their committed playing. And the preceding weekend’s thrilling performance of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” made famous in John Coltrane’s classic recording, at the BodyVox concert (sans dancers) might have been the festival’s most exciting moment so far, with the Imanis commencing the piece arrayed in different corners of the hall and finally gathering onstage for the finale.

Another refreshing development: contemporary music. As ArtsWatch reported this week, on July 4, the festival varied the usual formula by programming music written by living American composers, in a welcome showcase to some of American music’s lions in winter. One of the works on that program, by the prototypical thorny modernist Charles Wuorinen, was a CMNW commission, as was this weekend’s West Coast premiere by the fine contemporary American composer, Christopher Theofanidis. On July 20 and 21, the festival will also present the world premiere of a newly commissioned work by the popular youngish American composer Lowell Liebermann, “Four Seasons for Mezzo-Soprano, Clarinet and Piano Quartet,” setting poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Two other concerts will include music by indie classical/pop composer Gabriel Kahane.

Presenting new music is nothing new for CMNW: it’s brought more than 100 commissions and premieres of new works in its 40-plus year history. Sprinkling one or two new or at least contemporary works in among the classics each year keeps the festival interesting for its core audience and maybe attracts a few others. This year’s festival lineup appears to be continuing CMNW’s gradual freshening of its repertoire, although the overall balance is still heavily weighted toward music by dead people.

Composer Christopher Theofanidis introduces his “Quasi una Fantasia” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Yet while it’s welcome and important for the festival to include music of our time as well as classics, such occasional infusions of contemporary sound don’t really change the relatively formal (musicians attired in 1920s-style white dinner jackets and bow ties), relatively expensive, old-music dominated atmosphere enough to encourage many younger listeners to check them out. Different as they are from each other, occasional doses of the music of composers like John Harbison and Wuorinen is unlikely to entice new audiences coming to classical music from the global sounds and pop music that dominate contemporary culture – the way composers like Bach, Mozart and the rest incorporated elements of the popular or exotic music of their day, before the 20th century museum mentality started suffocating classical music.

Younger than Yesterday

Since 2010, CMNW has tried to address the formality/fossil factor with its Protege Project, which has brought in young performers (usually students of the CMNW regulars at Juilliard and other conservatories) to do community outreach and perform in non-standard settings, from rock clubs to libraries and senior centers. Their performances have provided some of the most exciting moments in recent festivals. However, it’s mostly been old wine in new bottles: ancient classics played by young people in pop-music-oriented venues normally frequented by the 20- and 30-somethings.

That, too, is changing somewhat this year, as CMNW has also looked to the future by bringing in another young composer, New Yorker Andy Akiho, whose music, along with Kahane’s, will be featured alongside old masters, with this year’s CMNW Proteges, the Philadelphia-based Dover Quartet, the next two Wednesday nights at Portland indie rock hot spots in the festival’s Club Concerts series.

The Dover Quartet performed Monday at the Oregon Historical Society.

The Dover Quartet performed Monday at the Oregon Historical Society.

At last Wednesday’s Protege Project concert at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge, the young performers connected easily with listeners in both their performances and their remarks from the stage, thanks to the venue’s intimacy and their own genuine enthusiasm for their music. Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo and violinist Benjamim Beilman’s flashy, ebullient performance captured the youthful spirit of the young Olivier Messiaen’s 1933 Fantasy for Violin and Piano, but couldn’t quite do the same for a Schubert duo that’s admittedly not one of the strongest he wrote for that combo.

The Dovers excelled in the Shostakovich’s 1946 String Quartet No. 3, evoking (and, in remarks before the performance, alerting the audience to) the sound of sirens and and other effects, and nearly igniting the stage in the ferocious third movement. They also exulted in the rapid fire effects in Akiho’s dazzling 2010 composition, “In/Exchange for String Quartet and Steel Pan,” and, as a friend noted, they might be able to perform it as a stand-alone string quartet even without the composer’s gripping solo part. Sometimes playing his fully chromatic instrument with chopsticks and often at dizzying tempos, Akiho made bright, original, and engaging music, some of it inspired, he said, by his synesthesia, which gave the title to a solo suite he performed as well. He’s providing a welcome jolt of contemporary creativity to this year’s festival.

The Protege Project is a welcome and valuable step, but so far, my impression is that it’s not drawing substantial new young audiences to old music, instead bringing CMNW’s admirably adventurous old audience out to the hipster-snappers’ haunts. But how many of them will be attending concerts in a decade? And will a significant new coterie of new listeners really fork over $20 (too much, in my opinion) to hear a few minutes of contemporary music surrounded mostly by centuries-old sounds? When this year’s festival is over, it’ll be interesting to learn to what extent the demographic of these club concerts differs from its usual audience profile.

CMNW Proteges Yekown Sunwoo and Benjamin Beilman at Doug Fir.

Changing the ways (and wheres) classical music is presented is one necessary means of assuring its continued vitality. Refreshing who plays it is another. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of calling for constant refreshing in a post that actually consists partly of recycled material!) A big reason those venues attract young audiences isn’t simply that they serve beer; listeners go there because that’s where they can expect to hear new, if non classical, music by Oregonians – not a museum tour, but because they want to hear music of our time and place. As the first Akiho concert showed, why shouldn’t it work the same way with classical music, which, just like pop, continues to be composed today, and in ever-fascinating new ways, by people who live here and now?

New territories

In fact, that’s how CMNW made its biggest splash of the summer: presenting the world premiere of a new piece by one of Oregon music’s all-time good guys, jazz pianist, composer, and professor (at Portland State University) Darrell Grant. Chamber Music America commissioned Grant’s new suite inspired by Oregon history, and happily, “The Territory” proved worth every shekel. With a septet including two of my favorite jazzers (vibraphonist Joe Locke and maybe jazz’s most valuable drummer, Brian Blade), Grant’s PSU colleague cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, singer Marilyn Keller (whose vocals were miked so low I could only sporadically make out the lyrics) and other stalwarts, Grant created a near-masterpiece that embraces both jazz and classical music elements.

Any concept so ambitious is going to need some refining, and a few movements did succumb to the smooth-jazz stasis that’s occasionally stalled Grant’s otherwise ebullient music, but like Oregon itself, most of this abundantly rich Territory is well worth exploring again in depth. It’s a triumph for both a great Oregon musician and CMNW  and of course ultimately for Oregon listeners.

I wish I could say the same about the other two works on the program, a pair of fizzy Jazz Age classics that are among my very favorites. But Anna Polonsky (whose recessive playing, compounded by an acoustic that sporadically made her inaudible, earlier weighed down the Imani Winds’ performance of Poulenc’s usually buoyant Sextet) and fellow pianist Orion Weiss crept through the squarest, un-swingingest performance of George Gershwin’s breezy “An American in Paris” I’ve ever heard. Weiss and violinist Ida Kavafian’s stolid performance of Maurice Ravel’s bluesy Violin Sonata was a little better, but missed the composer’s sly, playful sexiness. Just because the players are young doesn’t guarantee that their performances will be vital.

As much as I cherish those classics, this was one overlong concert that would have worked better with only “The Territory” and no intermission, though who knows how many of CMNW’s classically inclined regulars would have turned up for that. As it was, both performances filled St. Mary’s Academy’s concert hall, and (the day I attended at least) with audiences that seemed more diverse than usual. I hope such commissions become an annual (at least) event at the festival, and both CMNW and Oregon would benefit if Oregon music appeared on festival stages every week.

CMNW’s impressive list of commissions also includes other Oregonians, such Reed College professor David Schiff and PSU profs Tomas Svoboda and Bryan Johanson. Like our other classical music institutions, the festival would do its future (and that of Oregon arts) a favor by investing more than occasionally in the creation of new Oregon sounds that might actually connect to Oregon listeners, as happened in “The Territory,” and by cultivating the work of more young Oregon composers like last year’s Protege composer, Oregon’s Katerina Kramarchuk.

CMNW deserves credit for gradually recharging the festival with more new music, new venues, young performers and even composers. But we’re talking about new music (mostly not even Oregon music) comprising parts of four or five concerts out of dozens, not nearly enough to give CMNW the new identity that would really secure it a new audience. And those ticket prices still discourage younger listeners who might want to give it a try. (Lowering them might cost the participation of some of the expensive Big Names that draw the old crowd, though.)

Adding more new (and especially Oregon) music to the mix might give the festival a better chance to reach those new audiences. For example, perhaps the festival could require each set of Proteges to learn at least one new CMNW-commissioned piece by an Oregon composer for each concert, which it could then add to its repertoire, taking new Oregon music beyond Portland and out into the larger world. It’s something for the organization to consider as it searches for a new director to replace the venerated and retired Linda Magee. If CMNW were to infuse as much freshness in the music that’s played in its concerts as it does in the venues it’s played in, and the young performers who play it, the festival might help rejuvenate Oregon music for more than just a few weeks every summer.

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