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Chamber Music Northwest review: New music showcase

By Brett Campbell
August 22, 2015

Is chamber music only for old people? Anyone who attends chamber music concerts in Oregon and takes a look at the audience’s relatively advanced age must be filled with both admiration and worry. Admiration for so many senior Oregonians who continue to pursue the pleasure of live music making, which at its best offers thrills no recording can match. And concern about the question: when a good portion of that audience is no longer able to make it to shows in a few years, who will support live chamber music in Oregon? Pollyannas postulate that the chamber music audience is always old, and that today’s youngsters will repopulate the seats when they’ve attained sufficient income and leisure time to do so, but informed observers like Greg Sandow say the data don’t back that claim, that the classical music audience is demonstrably older than it was three or four generations ago. And the fact that so many classical music presenters are trying all sorts of gimmicks to lure younger audiences suggests that they recognize the looming demographic disaster.

To its credit, Chamber Music Northwest has been trying hard to avoid it. A few years ago, the venerable Portland presenting series started its Protege Project, which brought younger performers to town — twenty and thirty-somethings who represent some of the cream of the rising crop of younger classical musicians, many of them students of CMNW’s veteran core — and set them loose in the festival’s informal Club Concerts in indie rock clubs and in the festival’s other shows.

But while the age demographic onstage grew younger, for the first years at least, the heads in the seats remained stubbornly gray and white. While it was gratifying to see CMNW’s surprisingly adventurous older audience members gamely venturing out to new venues, the early results (and my own anecdotal observations) didn’t show a dramatic drop in the age of attendees. Last year, the festival moved some shows from a ritzy private school far from Portland’s urban action to Portland State University’s splendid Lincoln Hall downtown, a venue easier for urban hipsters to reach.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson's String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson’s String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

And CMNW continues to rise to the challenge. In introducing several of this summer’s concerts — and not just those devoted primarily to recent music — executive director Peter Bilotta made a point of emphasizing the festival’s commitment to new music, including this summer’s seven premieres. CMNW puts its money where his mouth is too, since it commissioned — that is, paid composers to write — several of them.

This summer’s 45th annual festival, which concluded at the end of last month, introduced yet another attempt at rejuvenation: longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin conceived the New@Noon series, which, along with sounding all 21st century hip with that twitterific @ symbol, presented three concerts of music by living composers at noon on Fridays at Lincoln Hall. How did it work? We’ll take a look at the shows in this story, and draw some conclusions in part two.

In his concise, sincere and well delivered introduction (I don’t know if CMNW is training its musicians in presentation these days, but most of those I heard this summer were tight and clear), Protege Project composer Chris Rogerson explained that his 2009 Lullaby originated in a childhood routine his parents created to help their insomniac kid get to sleep. Performed by violinist Ida Kavafian and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, the music pretty literally traced the course of the affliction, from attempted nodding off to agitation, eventually giving way to the high-pitched relief of dreamland. It sounded like Rogerson had stayed up late listening to a lot of pre- WWII American music by composers like Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson. 

Performed with aplomb by the Jasper Quartet, Rogerson’s first string quartet from the same year opened with a dramatic flourish straight out of a pulse-pounding Hollywood chase scene, and the excitement resumed after a grave second movement, with quick repeated patterns surrounding a lyrical middle section and finishing with a flourish that drew some enthusiastic “oh yeahs” from the audience.

Played in its world premiere by Sunwoo, violist Steven Tenenbom, and Shifrin, Rogerson’s concise CMNW commission Constellations opened with a reflective tune inspired by Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, followed with a brief, pastoral Mozartian minuet and quoted a Haydn sonata in the warm third movement — a combo generously aimed to please the classical fans who make up the bulk of the commissioning festival’s audience.

Still under 30, Rogerson (a grad student at Princeton) has already scored commissions from orchestras including the Atlanta Symphony and ensembles including Oregon’s own Third Angle, collected a passel of prizes, and shows promise as maker of well crafted, consonant music of considerable appeal to mainstream classical music fans that’s as respectful and polite as he seems — no small achievement. But judging by what I heard at CMNW, he still needs to assimilate his influences to develop an original 21st century voice that sounds like it comes from our own time.

Yontov and Shifrin played music by Schoenfield at Chamber Music Northwest.

Yontov and Shifrin played music by Schoenfield at Chamber Music Northwest.

Still, Rogerson’s entertaining quartet was one of the highlights of this first New@Noon concert, along with another new work, by Paul Schoenfeld, who used to pound a mean piano himself at CMNW back in the day. The Michigan composer’s idiosyncratic music, often inspired by folk traditions, sometimes runs a little wild yet usually appeals to listeners beyond the classical insiders club. The West Coast premiere of his 2014 Sonatina #2 for Klezmer Clarinet and Piano, commissioned by a consortium of four dozen clarinetists (including Shifrin), succeeds primarily as a showcase for the instrument, which Shifrin gleefully indulged. After warming up with a high clarinet line over low piano notes, it gathered pace, danced, wailed, quoted (“Tico Tico,” I think), shifting gears often and abruptly, like a teenager taking his first stick shift car out on a lonely highway with no cops in sight. A fun piece that fell short of Schoenfeld’s top level, it was nonetheless the most distinctive music of the day and earned hearty applause.

The concert also included an early work by former PSU prof Tomas Svoboda, as a celebration of the 75th birthday of the dean of Oregon composers. Tenenbom recalled that he’d heard a recording and enjoyed it so much that on one of his many trips to Portland for CMNW appearances, he asked to play it with Svoboda at his house. His devoted performance here (in Lincoln’s viola-friendly recital hall) with pianist Julia Hsu was clearly heartfelt, from the yearning, ardent first movement to the placid second (with its surprisingly brusque ending) to the jaunty, even jocular closer. Svoboda would go on to write a lot more compelling music than this 1961 student composition, but it was a joy to see the composer, evidently well on the way to recovery from the devastating stroke he suffered a few years ago, grinning his approval from his wheelchair in the back row.

New Voices

CMNW’s next New@Noon concert on July 10 drew another surprisingly strong turnout (I’d guess 80 percent of the seats at Lincoln Recital Hall were occupied) for a show at noon on a summer Friday afternoon — a time slot that probably cost it some listeners who couldn’t take off work in the middle of the day, or were on vacation. The attendance was especially heartening given the concert’s double burden: not only was it new music by mostly unfamiliar composers, but much of it was so-called “art song” (a term I detest, since it implicitly defines music that a lot of people actually like as not artful), a notoriously tough sell after decades of sophisticated pop music accustomed many listeners to catchier rhythms and melodies born of American rather than European romantic sources.

Tara Helen O'Connor and Daniel Phillips performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Tara Helen O’Connor and Daniel Phillips performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The concert started out with instrumental works, beginning with O’Connor and her husband, Orion Quartet violinist Daniel Phillips playing another brief Coplandish (his Red Pony film music) original by Rogerson, Quiet Song

The story of the next song, another family affair, turned out to be a lot more engaging than the music itself. Phillips’s 92 year-old father, a Pittsburgh symphony musician, wrote Fantasy Etude as a solo showcase for his son. But like much of the other purportedly “new” music at these shows, this 12-tone piece felt dated — specifically to the bad old days of atonal midcentury modernism, before once-verboten treasures like tonal harmony and discernible pulse were rehabilitated. Its composer couldn’t have asked for a better performance; Daniel Phillips poured his heart and soul and considerable chops into this ultimately empty vessel. But to 21st century ears it came off at best aimless, often pedantic, at worst excruciating, a case of putting a nice story and family connections above the audience’s legitimate expectation of fresh, robust new music.

Just when I was ready to cry “My kingdom for a pulse,” flutist Tara Helen O’Connor provided one, courtesy of contemporary composer Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube, which used all sorts of extended techniques (some right out of Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull arsenal, an admitted influence on the composer). Both times I’ve seen it performed live, Clarke’s brief, virtuoso showpiece has elicited “Yow!”s from the audience, and O’Connor’s dynamite performance produced them here.

CMNW veteran Fred Sherry and his student Jay Campbell next turned in a pair of appropriately conversational two-cello improvisations. In the second, each alternated between providing vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding drones while the other plucked, swooped, or slashed out dramatic, sometimes percussive flourishes, culminating with rapid fire exchanges reminiscent of classical Hindustani music. Their commendably concise set lasted only as long as their inspiration allowed.

After those appetizers came the main course: mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew, who along with the Akropolis Reed Quintet turned out to be the biggest new star of this summer’s festival, at least judging by the fraction of concerts I saw. The CMNW Protege sang settings of texts by Pennsylvania chamber music impresaria and author Lucy Miller Murray, whose series Shifrin has performed in — another insider connection that made me worry whether this show was more for the performers and their buddies than the audience.

David Shifrin, Yevgeny Yontov and Evanna Chiew performed in CMNW's New@Noon series.

David Shifrin, Yevgeny Yontov and Evanna Chiew performed in CMNW’s New@Noon series.

Fortunately, her poems generally made worthy vehicles for music five different composers (none Oregonians), originally set for piano (here, Yevgeny Yontov) and voice but here with clarinet parts added for Shifrin, which really only became more than (quite fetching) filigree in Paul Moravec’s “Oh, Poor Words” and Michael Brown’s setting of “Ambiguous Angel.” Like Wilson’s “On the Death of Juan Gelman” and Gill’s dramatic, assertive “Words,” the latter hewed pretty closely to the 20th century art song tradition. Only the last two, by Moravec and Jake Heggie, two of today’s most accomplished composers, really seemed memorable. But Chiew sure was. With a rich, powerful instrument and theatrical flair that matched the lyrics’ content, she’s the real thing — the latest star in the making that CMNW has brought us with its Protege Project.

Like the other two New@Noon concerts, this one ran half an hour over the announced hour-long running time — generous portions that might seem good value for money, but might have inconvenienced anyone who was there on lunch break. Omitting Phillips’s tedious exercise and one of the lesser songs would have made an ideal set.

Coming Home

CMNW’s third and final New@Noon concert featured music by one of Oregon’s most familiar names (Reed College professor David Schiff) and one I’m guessing was entirely unfamiliar — Ke Wu, an under-30 year-old Mongolian composer who wrote his violin and piano sonata Echo in the Sky for his friend and schoolmate Angelo Xiang Yu, whose pre-performance remarks included the unlikely but delightful tale of how a kid from the Mongolian grasslands got a name like Angelo. With his slight frame belying his big sound and wide dynamic range, Yu’s playing, ably supported by Yontov, proved as engaging as his introduction. From the Faure-like late romanticism of the opening movement to the quiet, inside-the-piano intrigues and imitations of Mongolian throat singing of the second, to the fiery third movement’s propulsive rhythms, Ke’s Northwest premiere was a crowd-cheering triumph.

The audience did more than applaud in the world premiere of California composer John Steinmetz’s Sorrow and Celebration, which called upon listeners to sing brief motives, whisper “Listen” en masse, clap in rhythm, and otherwise join the action, deftly cued by Akropolis Reed Quintet’s Matt Landry, while he was busy also playing his saxophone. With all that work, we could almost have charged union scale. Steinmetz explained that the audience participation was more than a gimmick: inspired by the outrageous killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, he wanted to “simulate a familiar tradition — a ritual as comfortable as singing together,” to “honor any grief, whether individual or shared.” The musicians began playing the appropriately somber opening from the aisles, moving gradually down to the stage as they played a succession of melodies that sounded more evocative than classically developed. As the title suggests, the second part changed mood. “Making music together is one time-honored way,” Steinmetz’s program note explains, of celebrating the wholeness and interconnection that can follow when people come together to grieve. The bubbling rhythms certainly picked up our spirits, but I must confess that I was so focused on singing, clapping, and whispering at the right time, and observing the rest of the audience participating, that the music itself got away from me. I’d have to hear it again to really assess it, but despite the distractions, for me at least, the composition seemed to work as an audience experience, and that’s really what matters.

The Akropolis Reed Quintet performed music by John Steinmetz at Chamber Music Northwest.

The Akropolis Reed Quintet performed music by John Steinmetz at Chamber Music Northwest.

The concert and series concluded with another world premiere, David Schiff’s fifteenth at CMNW, which celebrates the distinguished composer’s upcoming 70th birthday. With his usual clarity and concision, Schiff explained that the “Floating” movement of his new, new Nonet No. 2 was initially inspired by his “city boy’s” experience of rafting the Deschutes River, but also by a Titian painting, not to mention Bartok and Beethoven barcarolles. Yet in this sparkling performance by the Akropolis quintet and Dover Quartet (all musicians except the cellist, who sometimes plucked a jazzy bass line, standing), it wore all those influences lightly, buoyantly bouncing from opening splash through a placid passage, wild rapids and finally calm. The lyrical second movement, pairing another odd combo (almost as strange as the bisectional intercourse ‘twixt reed quintet and string quartet) of a big fugue and mambo (a tribute to Cuban master Mario Bauza) also sounded completely organic, Bach quotes and all, though it left the strings little to do. The bubbly third movement, “Coming Home,” masterfully pitted members of the paired groups in intricate musical dialogues, making the seemingly ungainly ensemble feel utterly natural. It’s a fun, flavorful piece that, because of its unusual instrumentation, will probably get fewer performances than it deserves, but the committed performances by these two superb young groups made this one worth the commission all by itself. Schiff may have reached his eighth decade, but his music just keeps sounding younger and fresher.

With its focus on new music by living composers, no-intermission policy, quick setups, mostly succinct and informative comments from the stage, the New@Noon series is a valuable addition to Portland’s music scene and an admirable attempt to invigorate the repertoire with new sounds. But as we’ll see in the second and final installment of this series, it’s not, by itself, the answer to classical music’s age (old) problem.

What did you think about new@noon and other new music at CMNW? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Next: Getting new music out of the ghetto.

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