Chamber Music Northwest review: “River” flows

Composer Kernis's new quartet highlights festival concert of older works in new guises.


Chamber Music Northwest thoroughly mixed old and new in its Monday and Tuesday concerts this week. I caught the Tuesday performance, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Even the old was presented in new guises, and the new could hardly be newer.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ third string quartet, River, was first heard in public only two nights earlier. And yet there was a bit of the old about it, as in a fine vintage whiskey. Kernis, one of America’s foremost living composers, seems to have matured at a fortunate and pivotal time – too long ago to feel compelled to include pop influences and too recently to be overly impressed by the esthetic polemics of the mid-20th century. The style of River is bracing, but full of entertaining variety and sweet, if complex, harmony. It doesn’t sound as if its composer is interested in proving points, shocking an audience, or creating paths others must follow if they want to be part of the in crowd.

While the five movements all have subtitles that suggest aquatic imagery, the quartet is not primarily an exercise in tone-painting. The first movement, “Source,” opens with a short solo cello aria, and eventually builds through many twists and turns into a dramatic climax, much as Beethoven might have created. The even weightier middle movement, “Mirrored Surface – Flux – Reflections,” is not particularly placid or limpid as might be expected. Instead, I was reminded of the way ripples on water’s surface can break up a reflected image into something distorted and phantasmagorical. But the musical bits and pieces that Kernis built the quartet from tend to be fluid and even melodious, and, like the titular river, they tend to flow into each other rather than break up into sharp contrasts.

Kernis String Quartet No. 3_Jasper Quartet - photo by Jonathan Lange

The Jasper Quartet gave the Northwest premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s String Quartet No. 3 at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The two shorter movements flowed the most smoothly. Trills and other rustling effects gave an impressionistic cast to the second movement, “Flow / Surge,” the quartet’s most obvious tone-painting. In the fourth movement, “Cavatina,” a continuous melody wove through mysteriously shifting close harmonies like a salmon wending its way ever upstream. In the substantial finale, “Estuary / Mouth,” the opening cello aria returned, and seemed to spread out, here concentrated, there diluted, into the other instruments. Though buffeted by musical turbulence, one delicate remnant survived the journey to drift off at the end, seeming to ask, where to now?

The music suggests the flow of water on another level as well. Trying to fit it into the old categories of tonal or atonal is delightfully pointless. If there is tonality, it is tonality that wriggles this way and that, like the distorted view of a streambed through lenses of roiling water. If there is atonality, it is smoothed into attractive curves, as if worn down from the midcentury moderns’ craggy monuments.

The Jasper Quartet, for whom the work was written, seemed in total control, yet lively and expressive at all times. One might even say they surfed its manifold challenges, and with élan. Visiting from his New York home, Kernis gave a brief introductory overview of the work, and seemed thrilled with the performance.

For folks who don’t make a habit of attending organ recitals, Johannes Brahms’ last work, a set of chorale preludes along the line of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” may be obscure. Renowned pianist Peter Serkin has made piano duet arrangements of them, and he and Julia Hsu – one of two CMNW Protégé Project pianists this summer – respectfully presented five, ending with the last work Brahms completed, which stood out for its particularly lovely conclusion. Brahms was an agnostic, and it’s not hard to hear a certain humility in these short, sober homages, to Bach and perhaps to the unknown. Some years earlier, contemplating a retirement that ultimately didn’t last, his “last” work was an homage to Schubert: a choral arrangement of the haunting and poignant final song in the cycle Winter’s Journey.  

Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley, and Steven Tenenbom played Bach at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley, and Steven Tenenbom played Bach at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Bach himself got the whole second half of the program, in a string trio arrangement (by Dmitry Sitkovetsky) of his well-known harpsichord Goldberg Variations. I was skeptical it would have the presence such a work deserves, but the forceful and vivacious performance by Ida Kavafian on violin, Steven Tenenbom on viola, and Peter Wiley on cello convinced me. In fact, I was left wanting more. To repeat or not repeat each variation is the perennial question. They chose not to, which was probably wise considering the time at hand, though the best of both alternatives might have been to repeat just the nine fugal variations, which are especially rich with variety. The fireworks of the 29th and the zany mashup of old tunes in the 30th were particularly delightful, but my favorite was lucky 13. Many variations whirled by at a pace that would be problematic for most harpsichord players, but for this one’s sensuous lines and delicate colors, the musicians slowed down and gave it their most expressive treatment.

More new music from CMNW can be heard this Friday, July 3, at the inaugural concert of a new three-concert series, New@Noon, in the Lincoln Recital Hall (Room  75, downstairs). It’s just one hour long and ticket prices are modest, in line with most Portland new music offerings. Featured composers this week include festival protégé composer Chris Rogerson and Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda. Later in the festival a brand-new work by Reed College composer and professor David Schiff will be heard here as well as on the regular series. I hope in the future CMNW will look harder beyond these two composers, who admittedly are among our best but who have appeared on their programs multiple times, for local compositional talent. Kenji Bunch, whose Ralph’s Old Records gets its world premiere on the regular series in less than a week, represents a great first step.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. Tomas Svoboda is a founding member of the group.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    A fine review here, Jeff, thanx very much.

    Yes, would be good to broaden the repertoire @ CMNW in many respects. Certain composers keep appearing more or less every year to the point of long ago being overly predictable.

    For example, more Busoni, Boulez & Birtwistle would
    spank my jaded ears bbback into the full upright position. But, yeah, I know, billions & billions of standard issue 3-Bs will continue to be served . . .

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