Chamber Music Northwest review: Varieties of Festival Experience

Four recent Chamber Music Northwest shows epitomized festivals' various ups and downs.


Ah, the chamber music festival! Nationally renowned and emerging musicians come to town from all over, and top locals get pulled into the mix too. Some have worked together before; some work together day in and day out; some have never even met. The music is likewise all over the map: canonized classics, obscure masterworks, crowd pleasers, even a few sometimes-challenging works from recent years. Duets, quartets, octets and more, with every instrument in the orchestra represented and some that aren’t. Four recent Chamber Music Northwest shows epitomized the various ups and downs of the festival experience.

David Shifrin joined the Emerson Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

David Shifrin joined the Emerson Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

In a sea of chamber groups busy with “outreach” and “reinvention,” the Emerson Quartet sails serenely on. They’ve got a new cellist now, Paul Watkins, but there’s little difference aside from the kinds of facial expressions emanating from that quarter. Their watchwords are polish, lyricism, subtlety, and restraint. The opening work they chose for a stormy Sunday afternoon (July 13 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall) fit them well: Mozart’s late Clarinet Quintet, written for his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, who was said to make his instrument sing like a human voice. CMNW artistic director David Shifrin is such a clarinetist par excellence, and he and the Quartet beautifully projected the amiability and tenderness suffusing the first half of the work. If the livelier, dancing strains of the latter half were a bit on the sleepy side, few in the long sold-out hall likely complained.

The Emerson Quartet played Beethoven and more at CMNW. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Emerson Quartet played Beethoven and more at CMNW. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Similarly, in Beethoven’s late, complex masterpiece, the C# minor Quartet op. 131, what was pensive, introspective, or lyrical was sensitively shaped and given full due. But what burst out of Beethoven’s rough side, fits of temper or boisterous humor, was glossed over, and we had to be content with occasional rumbles of nature’s thunder breaching the soundproofing – his wandering spirit, perhaps. But if so, again, few others likely complained. Overheard comments at intermission corroborated my developing intuition, that people pack the house for the Emerson because they feel comfortable there. And I saw barely a handful of twenty-somethings. The advanced age of classical audiences is proverbial these days, but I was awash in a sea of retirement.

A Motley Company of Instruments

It was all quite lovely, but I was left craving adventure, and on the following Tuesday evening I got it. “Heroic Chamber Symphonies,” the concert was called, and it was certainly at least valiant if not actually heroic to fill the stage with a motley crowd of instruments – over a dozen including piano, accordion, and a small percussion battery – peopling them with admittedly master musicians flown in from all over, and trusting that all would close ranks to create compelling music when the time came.

And they largely carried the day. Richard Wagner’s intimate Siegfried Idyll, written in 1870 as he was finally finishing his famous opera cycle Ring of the Niebelungs and full of references to it, yet toned down and mellowed into a Christmas present for his wife Cosima, was expertly performed even without a conductor. Paul Hindemith’s first Chamber Music (Kammermusik op. 24 #1) from the first years of the Jazz Age was a much wilder ride, full of an irrepressible energy not yet devolved into something more like the perseverance of his later years. Accordion and siren added to a glorious noise. For contrast, the slow movement, where just a few solo instruments wove seemingly endless melodies together delicately supported here and there only by a tiny bell, was ravishing despite its simplicity.

A relatively big band played chamber symphonies at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

A relatively big band played chamber symphonies at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The big finish was, appropriately, the most heroic of all: Arnold Schoenberg’s relentless, super-Romantic Chamber Symphony (op. 9), finished just seven years before World War I broke out. Like a German general avidly wargaming plans for the invasion of France, Schoenberg ruthlessly commandeered Claude Debussy’s experiments in harmonies built on the whole-tone scale and stacked intervals of a fourth, forcing them to toil mightily shoring up an E major key center seemingly in constant danger of collapse. In fairness, his highly personal way with these elements created many arresting and even beautiful passages. The final climax rode into battle on a thrusting theme that would not be out of place in a John Williams blockbuster score, as the good guys are driving the enemy from the field. A happy thought for Schoenberg in 1907, no doubt.

In the Hindemith and Schoenberg especially, Portlanders heard welcome live performances of works rarely performed here, not only because they’re hard to play and assemble, but because the required instrumental forces fall between the sizes of those most commonly found in resident and touring ensembles, which typically are either much smaller or full orchestras. The variety of top instrumentalists available at Chamber Music Northwest provides an ideal opportunity, but there’s a problem: the schedule is hectic and there’s never enough time for adequate rehearsals. Shifrin himself commented from the stage about vastly increasing preparation difficulties as the number of players ramps up.

Groups such as the Emerson Quartet achieve their artistry through long association and countless rehearsals. Both chamber symphonies were ably conducted, but it was just not enough to bring out their full complement of color and, yes, beauty. Based on these performances, few people in the audience who didn’t know the works would guess the sparkle and slyness of the Hindemith, so far from the stereotype of German heaviness, or despite military metaphors, the warmth and lyricism of great swaths of the Schoenberg, which depend on precise and sensitive blending of all the various instruments’ volume levels.

Bella Hristova and Steven Copes played Prokofiev at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Bella Hristova and Steven Copes played Prokofiev at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I’m not a fan of Sergei Prokofiev’s music, but his 1932 Sonata for only – count them – two violins was a delightful contrast to all this compositional testosterone. Bella Hristova and Steven Copes gave an involving, passionate performance of what turned out to be a surprisingly meaty work, largely because Prokofiev’s writing for each violin looked wisely back to the room- and range-filling techniques of that master of the solo violin repertory, Johann Sebastian Bach. In their own way, Prokofiev’s piece and this performance were every bit as heroic as the much more densely populated works.

A Motley Slew of Sonatas

The theme of dual (and dueling) forces continued on Thursday evening at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, with six keyboard plus soloist sonatas from three centuries. Only the late 18th century Classic period (the original classical music) of Haydn through Beethoven, when sonata form reached its height of development as dramatic narrative balanced within a strict formal model, was missing. Without this center, the evening had a sense of always coming or going: a different kind of adventure, exploratory rather than heroic.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s E minor Trio Sonata for flute, oboe, and continuo, published in 1733 when Haydn was barely a toddler, showed that a sense of balance was already well established in the sonata form even if drama was somewhat lacking. To compensate, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and oboist Allan Vogel wove flawless counterpoint together, especially in the slow movement, which seemed to break through to deeper emotions.

Heinrich Biber’s third Sonata for Violin and Continuo was a product of a much earlier Baroque. Biber was a famous virtuoso, and violinist Daniel Phillips spun out his repetitive riffs in a fine frenzy. But to modern ears it seemed a bit pointless, like a hamster running an exercise wheel, and there were sporadic faint titters from the audience. In the peculiar finale, the harmony bounced regularly back and forth between two chords, like a ticking clock, under the violin scampering like the mouse in the nursery rhyme, and it seemed to end on the wrong chord. It seems balance wasn’t a big issue in those days.

In the early Romantic afterglow following the Classic period, the young Johannes Brahms was recruited by his mentor Robert Schumann to help write a violin and piano sonata for the virtuoso Joseph Joachim. Brahms responded exuberantly, showing off his early command of relentless drive in the scherzo movement, which like his early piano scherzo (op. 4) and the scherzo movement of his first piano trio (op. 8) was no doubt inspired by the driving Scherzo of Beethoven’s ninth Symphony.

The afterglow of the entire 19th century warmed the work of 20th century American Samuel Barber throughout his career. When he wrote and premiered a violin sonata while still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, two groundbreaking modernist works, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, were over a decade old, but barely an echo of them can be heard in the one movement which still survives complete. Yet it’s far from being a hash of dated styles; not only is Barber’s uniquely impassioned voice already well and consistently developed, there are harmonic experiments worthy of the most adventurous of his 19th century models. Violinist Ani Kavafian dove into both Barber and Brahms with gusto, as did Protégé Project pianist Daniel Schlosberg, though there was a whiff of constraint in the dense Barber accompaniment. If the piano lid had been less open – “on short stick” – he wouldn’t have had to work so hard at balance along with everything else.

Schlosberg & Sherry played Carter at CMNW. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Schlosberg & Sherry played Carter at CMNW. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Schlosberg did yeoman duty, appearing in five of the six sonatas including twice on harpsichord. It seemed just to whet his appetite for his final outing, a full out performance (on short stick) of the rhythmically tricky and complex piano part in American composer Elliott Carter’s seminal Cello Sonata of 1948. Of course, the star of the show was cellist Fred Sherry, Chamber Music NW stalwart (who also played the continuo’s bass part in the Baroque works). A heroic yet affable champion of new music, he has played the work so many times — including for the composer himself — that it seems a natural part of him. For me Carter has tended to be a composer to respect rather than love, but Sherry’s performance of this piece here a few years back broke through and warmed me to the point of admitting it was a Carter work I could indeed love. Sherry’s ease and expressiveness were just as much a joy in this performance. And further, there was something warming about this alliance of master and protégé, of veteran and recruit, on one stage to put across one of the great modernist works. The crowd loved it.

And if there were any who didn’t, surely they were charmed by the evening’s finale, Francis Poulenc’s 1962 Clarinet Sonata performed by Shifrin and distinguished pianist André Watts. If they found Carter unsettling, they were unlikely to be further disturbed by the pair’s smooth interpretation, which emphasized Poulenc’s elegance and amiability, downplaying contradictions and darker moods such as presentiments of mortality (this was one of the last two works he completed). Myself, I wasn’t entirely convinced – I sensed more than a few unanswered questions in such a mercurial work, so rich with asides of one sort or another – but with two such consummate pros in total command, resistance seemed churlish and most definitely futile.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The fourth concert, last Tuesday’s at Lincoln Performance Hall, offered much less variety than the others, and suffered for it. Though Franz Schubert’s 1824 Octet employs an assortment of instruments, it unfolds in a leisurely and easygoing manner more suited to garden parties than concert halls. True, there are a few dramatic vignettes in the finale, useful maybe for persuading guests who have overindulged to stir their stumps for home. But wherever it’s played, it needs to dance more, and surely in front of a captive and (at least at first) attentive audience there’s no need to take every indicated section repeat.

CMNW musicians gave the Northwest premiere of "Bullycide." Photo: Tom Emerson.

CMNW musicians gave the Northwest premiere of “Bullycide.” Photo: Tom Emerson.

The opening work, recently completed piano sextet Bullycide by David del Tredici – who attended and shared in well-deserved applause – was a much happier choice considered purely as music. The half-hour work displays the composer’s mastery of common practice (particularly 19th century) musical discourse throughout. The harmony and counterpoint are rich without cloying, and the form is highly inventive. One might imagine it to be the work of an ace follower of Johannes Brahms who had his head turned by Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier and French Impressionist arabesques. The various themes were worked out a tad obsessively – I would have appreciated a few more surprises – but this is maybe to be expected in a “reformed” 12-tone composer. In any case, it held my attention better than any number of attempts to revive forgotten 19th century works, or even, not least due to the passion of the performance, the evening’s Schubert.

Davids Del Tredici & Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Davids Del Tredici & Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson.

As a piece of program music, though, it left me scratching my head. The inspiration for the work, children driven to suicide by bullying (in this instance, five gay teens), is tragic, and seems to call for an edgy if not searing musical polemic. Among common practice models, Brahms, though hardly as repressed as his enemies made out, seems a curiously balanced and refined choice compared to Wagner, the Strauss of the operas  Salome or Elektra, or in a wider field, Mussorgsky. One section promised “lament and rage,” but it didn’t particularly stand out. The malformed term “bullycide” is another, if smaller disappointment. Anybody would think it means killing bullies, and indeed as pretty much a classic nerd during my long-ago school days, I felt a twinge of wicked glee when I first saw the title. Del Tredici didn’t invent the near-malapropism but he’s giving it legs. With these mixed messages nagging at me, the music left me largely unmoved despite my admiration for the man’s compositional prowess.

Call me a jaded connoisseur who has spent too many decades exploring too much music. Sneer at the crowd’s appetite for titillation. Wax ecstatic that if only the programs were larded liberally with your favorite composer-prophet in the wilderness, the crowds would follow into the promised land, at least of grant-free classical music production. But people like variety. If they didn’t, none of us would be around to argue the point. And to the degree Chamber Music Northwest artists take variety to heart, in programming and especially during performance, they’ll continue to pack the halls.

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

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3 Responses.

  1. Kathy Keating says:

    Jeff, it is we the Grays, who sustain chamber music in Portland. Finally we have disposable funds that allow subscriptions to FoCM and CMNW. Finally we have funds enough to donate substantially to the arts organizations we participate in. So please don’t disparage us for the joy we derive from the concerts at Kaul and Lincoln Hall.

    While the younger generations are still busy with daycare, camp, braces, athletic fees, child care, not to mention alimony and mortgages, we, those retirement people you mention in the article, are freed of almost all obligations that prevent our finding our bliss and sometimes that bliss is found in sitting in the front row at Kaul and having Fred Sherry wink and wave at us (read me).


    • Thanks for your comment, Kathy. As fellow Grays (actually, Whites), neither Jeff nor I would disparage anyone of distinguished age and accomplishment for attending a classical music concert. I read it to say that he doesn’t want that music limited to ONLY Grays and Whites. I can’t speak for Jeff, but I do think his concern that the audience is almost entirely Gray or White is quite valid, and shared by CMNW and most other classical music organizations. How many of us will be around to sustain the music we love in a few years? And how many current non-Grays will follow us? Fewer than in the past, the evidence suggests. Also, despite their daycare, child care, alimony, and other time- and money constraints, millions of non-Grays still find the time and money to attend other music concerts (some quite pricy) that don’t focus overwhelmingly on repeated performance of the same old music by the same old long dead composers. Maybe if classical music organizations played more music by non-Grays (and non-Deads, which is not to say Undeads, or Grateful Deads), they might also attract some of those younger music lovers, and their dollars.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      No disrespect intended. After all, Kathy, as you know I have plenty of gray hair myself.

      But music, late Beethoven in particular, is about more than comfort and joy. (Or, to pick on another age group, angst and lust.) The commentary wasn’t really about the audience, it was about the performance.

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