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Chamber Music Northwest review: winds of change

By Matthew Neil Andrews
August 4, 2017
Featured, Music

Strings tend to dominate chamber music concerts, so it was nice to hear so many wind instruments at this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. It helps that artistic director David Shifrin is himself a master clarinetist, frequently appearing on concerts both with other wind players and with the customary strings.

Tara Helen O’Connor performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

My first taste of this year’s windiness came with CMNW’s July 21 New@Noon concert in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall. Tara Helen O’Connor started us out with Allison Loggins-Hull’s Pray for flute solo and electronics, the flute part mostly straightforward modal melodies evolving into fancy, violinish arpeggios and creepy, cinematic dissonances, the backing track full of jazz organs, Björk-y electronic beats, watery reverb, and poppy chord changes like something from an ’80s Laurie Anderson tune. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Loggins-Hull’s “Urban Art Pop Duo” Flutronix has performed at the Brooklyn Museum and covered The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

Hsin-Yun Huang performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We did get a bit of strings that day, with Hsin-Yun Huang’s solo viola performance of Joan Tower’s Wild Purple, a merry crescendo of energetic virtuosity packed with Tower’s usual post-serial melodicism, dissonant glissandi against open strings giving way to Bartóky suggestions of folky pentatonicism and jolly bouncing tritones.

Then, Imani Winds breezed onto the stage. Bassoonist Monica Ellis introduced the group: “me and my winds are so happy to be back in Portland. We think it’s our fourth time…we’ll have to fact check that. It’s also a pleasure to be ensemble in residence.”

The quintet performed Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe’s On Seven-Star-Shoes, a 1985 composition which happens to be the earliest one Wolfe will admit to. It’s not a long piece, but it’s easy to hear why it’s become standard in the wind quintet repertoire: it’s whimsical like the Nielsen, darkly impish like the Crawford, even a little pompous like the Schoenberg.

I love the perennial audacity of bringing a hunting horn—even one with valves—into a concert hall, and Jeff Scott’s playing was just right: bold and brassy when needed, vigorously rhythmic as horns in wind quintets usually need to be, and often astonishingly elegant. Clarinetist Mark Dover popped gracefully back and forth between bass and “standard” clarinet, somehow managing to keep a rich, delicate tone on both instruments, while flutist Valerie Coleman kept her piccolo within reach on an adjacent piano bench. Oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz kept an attentive eye on the rest of the group, spinning out melodies and countermelodies with warm grace. The whole ensemble was crisp and joyful as a coastal breeze.

Imani Winds performed in Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon series at Portland State University. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Only three Imanis—Coleman, Dover, and Ellis— returned for the concert’s centerpiece, Coleman’s Rubispheres, the first in a series of suites depicting “urban life and landscapes of the world.” The outer movements are impressions of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, including the bar from which the first movement, “DROM,” takes its title (and in which the piece had its premiere). The bassoon opening was instantly super New Yorky, like George Gershwin trying to catch a cab while Carla Bley eats donuts with Venkman in a downtown coffee shop. The second movement, “Serenade,” moves to a quiet apartment upstairs from a busy street, with chorale-like moments that sounded as much like Mingus as Milhaud. Coleman composed it as a lullaby for her newborn daughter Lisa Naomi Page during a stretch of writer’s block and deadline stress. “While comforting her in one arm, the tenderness I felt for her in that moment suddenly created a headspace of unexpected serenity that allowed me to finish the movement—in one sitting with my free hand.”

The third movement, “Revival,” brought us right back to the bustling Times Square crosswalk, although according to Coleman the movement “draws a parallel between the discovery of creative energy with the fervor of old southern baptisms held down by the river.” I suppose that if you told me Copland’s Rodeo was a portrait of city life, I’d probably hear it; if you told me Rhapsody in Blue was about life on a farm, I’d probably hear that too. It’s not the place that matters,, but energy and feeling: “I felt motivated to reshape and mold the often negative narrative of woodwind chamber music into one that is relevant to today,” she wrote, “a sound that is non-traditional, substantial, virtuosic and ALIVE!”

Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott at Chamber Music Northwest’s Coffee with the Composer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At the post-concert “coffee with the composers” discussion, my fellow Oregon ArtsWatch writer Jeff Winslow asked Coleman what she meant by that phrase “often negative narrative of woodwind chamber music,” sparking a lively exchange.

“You’ve heard wind quintet music that’s enh,” Scott said. “it’s not the easiest ensemble to score.”

Coleman: “It is and it isn’t.”

Scott: “Most ensembles are homogenous, but when you talk about oboe, horn, bassoon, attack, sustain, resonance…they’re all different. If you approach it like a string quartet, it’s not gonna work.”

Coleman: “But when you celebrate the differences, you realize you have five voices and use all those colors.”

The negative narrative, Coleman said, comes from lack of repertoire. “There’s a certain passion and inherent movement that comes with strings,” she said. “It’s not at all sexy to watch wind players.”

Spellman-Diaz chimed in from the audience: “Speak for yourself, girl!”

Coleman continued: “You just gotta write traditions, sometimes, and create your own. There’s a perception of limited colors and possibilities, and in school you’re not supposed to go outside that, or you get a bad grade!” Coleman concluded with praise for the wnd ensemble’s superpower:  “Air is this living breathing thing that spins and gives life.”

CMNW Executive Director Peter Bilotta commented that David Shifrin is a wind player himself.

“We’re spoiled!” Scott criend out, adding that at “some chamber fests, we’re the only winds.” Coleman agreed: “if not for David we would not be here.” One older audience member cried out “please keep spoiling us!”

Rite Stuff

The following Tuesday, I got to hear Imani Winds twice. At noon, down in the Portland Art Museum’s lovely little Whitsell Auditorium, the group performed a trio of short pieces and a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

When Coleman and Dover started up Scott’s Titilayo, the horn player made that face that all composers recognize, the one that says “that’s my music!” The jaunty, Yoruba-inspired piece alternated between the two staples of wind quintet writing: crispy ensemble tuttis and vigorous call-and-response rhythmic polyphony. Scott’s playing sounded especially great on his own work, from his breathy faux-snare drum cadence to his balance of exuberant brashness and sweet lyricism.

The group played their friend Paquito D’Rivera’s A Farewell Mambo, which started somber before hints of syncopation evolved into complicated rhythmic unisons, executed flawlessly with barely a sideways glance to coordinate, Ellis cueing and conducting with her shoulders.

Spellman-Diaz gave a brief description of The Rite of Spring’s inception and plot: “written for one of the most famous ballet companies in the world, with the most famous dancer in the world, it’s about a wizard or ancient shaman guy who chooses one girl to dance til she drops—anyone here ever danced til they dropped?” She talked about the challenge of playing the orchestral work in a chamber group: “this is normally done by 100 people, at least—there’s a lot of things we have to do—pretend to be timpani, trumpet.”

I thought again about audacity. There are chords in The Rite that have more notes than Imani Winds has players (that famous “augurs chord” has seven, not counting the doubled F-flat), and most of the music is a vast primordial jungle of clashing melodies and dense polychords. In a way, The Bad Plus had a leg-up since they have at their disposal that rippin drummer and a pianist with eighty-eight keys (plus all the electronics, but that’s another matter), while Fireworks Ensemble has the benefit of guitarists; Hubert Laws and Burnt Sugar contented themselves to doing “impressions of” arrangements. Another elegant solution: skip some sections (it worked for Disney, after all).

Imani Winds’ Monica Ellis addresses audience at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

At bottom, though, most of The Rite is (in Lou Harrison’s phrase) “a song and a dance.” The only problem is that the songs all happen at once in different keys and the dance keeps changing meter.

Ellis discussed the arrangement after they played it, joking, “I’m just gonna talk for about 35 minutes, get some blood back in our faces.” Composer and clarinetist Jonathan Russell had been working on a much shorter arrangement for a group in San Francisco; when Imani Winds saw it they “geeked out” and contacted him to ask him to continue. Knowing only that they would “need the beginning and the end, and more intimate parts in between,” the ensemble helped coordinate and choose which parts Russell should arrange—leaving out, for instance, all the “super percussion stuff, sections with great slabs of steel.” Ellis described the result as “the essence of The Rite of Spring… it’s nice to have it in our rep so we can bring it around.” I love the idea of a portable version of this magnificent, foundational piece of music.

As for the arrangement itself…pretty damn good. They glossed quickly over the omitted bits, and if I didn’t have the thing memorized I probably wouldn’t have noticed. It looked outrageously difficult, each player covering several parts at once by jumping octaves. I couldn’t figure out when they were breathing; Ellis in particular didn’t seem to take a single breath after the big gulp of air she took before jumping into that legendary opening. I know wind players figure out how to sneak breaths, and there had to be circular breathing going on, but I was still amazed. Russell knew exactly which notes he could leave out of which chords, and used grace notes to cover the rest.

The “song and dance” aspect of Imani’s performance was the best. All those lovely Lithuanian folk songs Stravinsky borrowed sang out beautifully in this sparse context, and it’s probably a lot easier to pull off all those crazy rhythms when there are only five players. If I were hearing it for the first time, I could have believed it was written just for this group. In fact, if they’d told me it was an original composition about James Baldwin hanging out in Paris with Josephine Baker I’d be talking about how jazzy and cosmopolitan it sounded.

Imani closed out the show with Simon Shaheen’s Dance Mediterranea, arranged by Jeff Scott specifically to be a concert closer. The wind instruments cleverly evoke the sounds of Middle Eastern instruments, specifically the oud and dumbek. Coleman played a jhala-type alternating drone, moving quickly from double-tongued to flutter-tongued octave leaps in imitation of the oud’s tremolo- and cross-string picking. Ellis picked up a lot of the doumbek parts, mutating the popular malfuf rhythm from 4/4 to 6/8. The oboe’s bent notes and clarinet’s half-hole microtones completed the array of Arabic music references.

Whitsell turned out to be a fun little break from the usual CMNW concert venues. There were a ton of kids there, art everywhere, a sweet Jennifer Steinkamp exhibit to check out (but which we didn’t have time for), and the energy of a different crowd. I’d love to hear more classical concerts here (hint hint, Cascadia).

Bach to Twin Peaks

David Shifrin called that evening’s Bach to Twin Peaks: The Chamber Music Spectrum, “my favorite kind of concert.” Aside from the program breaking this year’s theme, with its roster of all men composers, it was a perfect synecdoche of what makes CMNW great: a classic J.S. Bach trio for flute, violin, and continuo, world premieres of two new works by living composers (one of them also performing), and a bit of “old new music” in Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind quintet.

O’Connor, Phillips, Shaw, and Grossman played Bach at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Flutist O’Connor returned to join violinist Daniel Phillips, harpsichordist Jeffrey Grossman, and Dover Quartet cellist Camden Shaw to rip through the Trio Sonata from Bach’s The Musical Offering, a tasty Baroque workout composed to flatter and impress the flute-playing King Frederick the Great of Prussia. O’Connor was totally invested and played like a rock star. After blitzing her way through one especially long, fast passage, she hopped back, took a deep breath, wiped her mouth, turned a page, and leapt right back into the music.

Shifrin joined the Dover Quartet, now in their fifth season with CMNW, to perform Chris Rogerson’s Thirty Thousand Days. The title comes from his father, a statistician who “prefers to think of life as a 30,000 day journey, divided into three equal stages,” the not-even-thirty Rogerson explained from the stage before the performance. “It’s not an autobiographical piece: I haven’t reached my 20,000th day, or my 30,000th day.” He also joked that “you cannot talk longer than your piece actually is.”

Composer Chris Rogerson talked about his new work commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest at its July 25 premiere. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The first movement started out as American as Copland, Reich, Ives… moments even reminded me of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for Soarin’ Over California. The second movement turned turbulent, with “struggle, coldness, and fury.” The strings battered out flurries of sixteenth-note chords reminiscent of the scherzo from Schubert’s Fifteenth String Quartet, Shifrin’s clarinet gliding overhead with a troubled, bittersweet melody. In the last movement I heard a view of death from the perspective of a young man, which is to say death as viewed by the living. Perhaps no specific metaphors were intended, but I couldn’t help hearing echoes of “to dust we return” in the cello’s repeated descending phrase, strumming cool resignation on the open strings. At the very end, the first violin finally perfected the molto cantabile melody it’s been developing over the course of the movement, refining it into a singing, upper register sigh of “loss and love.” The second violin immediately picked up this melody, playing it in a lower register (the lot of all second violinists), modifying it into something a little more melancholy, questioning, and sorrowful. I couldn’t help hearing it as the passing of an idea or a spirit from father to son. I cried then, and I’m crying again now as I write it. Call your loved ones, folks.

“Fantasy on themes by…” is a time-honored classical tradition (my favorite is probably Rachmaninoff’s), and so Daniel Schlosberg’s A Twin Peaks Fantasy for string quartet and occasional piano is in good company. The composer (who wrote his Yale dissertation on Angelo Badalamenti’s immortal Twin Peaks score) described his new piece as “all your favorite melodies swirling around in this primordial goo,” and discussed the aspects of the TV show he wanted to express: a strong sense of place, the scent of pine and doug fir, a single traffic light hanging from a wire, the taste of cherry pie and damn good coffee…the fragility that at any moment can be destroyed.”

Composer Daniel Schlosberg talked about his new work inspired by ‘Twin Peaks’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

As soon as the music started I realized that Schlosberg has been watching the same Twin Peaks I have: that is, the extra creepy, cosmic-horrific, mind-breaking Twin Peaks that the recent third season has been making manifest in ways the original could never quite delve into deeply enough. Right off the top, the Dover Quartet comes on on all vicious tremolo and nasty dissonances like Penderecki’s famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (which played an alarmingly on-point role in season three’s freaky eighth episode) before getting into the familiar original theme. That “primordial goo” ended up proving as important as the themes themselves. The cello and viola might pick up those walking bass lines and Grappellienne melodies that makes us all picture Michael J. Anderson dancing backwards and Audrey Horne taunting Bobby Briggs, but the ghostly sliding harmonics and sul ponticello tremolo remind us that Twin Peaks is all about the evil hiding just underneath the surface, just out of plain sight, in the woods behind your house, in the living room across the street, in the trunk of your neighbor’s car.

Schlosberg’s score, like its source, turns deftly from bittersweet to sickly sweet and back again, from innocent to troubled to dangerous to dead in just a few measures. Every now and then, the cello would deliver a low C pizzicato “knock” (like in Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet). If I could put into words why it creeped me out so much, it probably wouldn’t have needed to be there.

Composer Schlosberg played piano in his ‘Twin Peaks’ music commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Schlosberg himself took to the piano on three of the fantasy’s seven movements; the other four, played by Dover alone, came from the underscore, while these were based on songs from the original series (including that slightly incongruous one James, Donna, and Maddy sang into vintage microphones). He had a little lamp next to the piano that he would turn on and off whenever it was his turn to play, an odd little Lynchian touch that made the whole thing that much more charming.

My main question going in was whether Schlosberg would be able to create something original out of this famous music. My conclusion: not that original, maybe, but definitely worthwhile. Far from being a flat, unimaginative roll-call of The Hits—the sort of thing you might hear on a Starbucks sampler, for instance—we got an imaginary episode of Twin Peaks directed by a skilled young composer. The selection, setting, and even ordering of the music communicated exactly the same feeling as a good episode of the show (especially that intense, sprawling new season, which I obviously cannot get out of my head). The comforting, iconic music is all there, just like the comforting, iconic characters have (mostly) made their appearances this year, but everything feels darker, slower, stranger, a little more mysterious and a lot more disturbing.

After all that, it was a nice treat to hear Imani Winds come on stage with Schlosberg (after a quick jacket change) and play some French wind music. Poulenc’s Sextet is a favorite of mine, a flamboyantly neoclassical bit of perfectly constructed interguerre Mozartisch faux-neo-classical fluff. It made a nice pairing with the Badalamenti-Schlosberg, which exists at one of the other intersections of jazz and classical, and reminded me once again of the uncanny historical connection between American jazz and French art music.

Schlosberg and musicians play Poulenc at CMNW 2017. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

One complaint I heard from several of my more classically experienced fellow concertgoers was the raw, almost exhausted performance. It’s understandable: it was Imani’s second concert of the day (who plays Stravinsky in the afternoon and Poulenc in the evening? Crazy musicians, that’s who!) and Schlosberg looked a little beat from the emotional heavy lifting of his own piece. I have to say, though, this slackened interpretation felt like a strength to me. Hell, at that point I was pretty exhausted myself, and I had been tempted to skip the Poulenc altogether, thinking “who can listen to all that circus music after all those gorgeous, ponderous, heart-wrenching strings?” I’m glad I stayed though, because where some performances capture the Sextet’s manic, raucous edge, Imani and Schlosberg went the other way and turned the scamper into a sashay. I can’t help picture the “deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual” Poulenc, the monk and the rascal, sipping fine wine on a warm summer day and enjoying the relaxed pace.

This is only my second year going to CMNW full time, but I’m already impressed. Women composers, living composers, artists of color, young performers playing old music, and a bit of fresh air blowing across the oppressively lush dominance of strings and pianos. If we chart the wind vectors from last year’s Akropolis Reed Quintet concerts through this year’s Imani Winds shows and thence to October’s American Brass Quintet concert and Imani’s return in April, I think we can hear the wind sing.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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