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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

By Matthew Neil Andrews
August 14, 2017
Featured, Music

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

Agócs explained from the stage that Queen of Hearts revolves around a chaconne, which she described as “repeating patterns of notes, something musicians have been doing for centuries.” The chaconne in 5/4 is an attempt at “transcending the anxiety that keeps us up nights.” I marvelled at Agócs’ simple courage in singing her theme a cappella to demonstrate it for the audience, her rough voice no impediment to the simple clarity of the melody she brought forth.

Composer Kati Agócs.

The music covered a lot of territory, toggling back and forth between the chaconne and the song. Agócs blends the history of piano trio writing, from Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Shostakovich, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Robert Paterson (whose music Claremont recently recorded), with her own distinctive voice. Neo-baroque simplicity and spaced-out piano flourishes stretched a canvas for variations on Agócs’ long-breathed melody, with occasional tonal slippage into mediant-related key areas and flirtations with Milhaudy bitonality. Tinkling Auerbachish chromaticism in the piano supported grand Romantic string gestures, lush melodies breaking apart into anxious glissandi, harmonies built from stacks of thirds never quite adding up to an octave, all struggling toward a final, crashing, resounding tonic major triad, held almost too long before closing with a joyful tag.

Lash’s Form and Postlude jumps right into the familiar early 20th-century expressionist/impressionist sound world of Bartók, Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, and of course Ravel. Overtly tonal but with that special kind of tonally anchored chromaticism at which the ostensibly diatonic pedal harp excels, lots of colorful thirds and sixths but not too many triads and a lovely dearth of common-practice-era tonal functions. Dominated by wilting descending lines and a recurring folkish melodic gesture, the texture is mostly homophonic, chords on strings and squiggles in the winds, with the cello carrying the bulk of the melodic responsibility with her low, groaning, conflicted song like a dark, brooding Byronic hero. (In the film version of this music, the cello is portrayed by Alan Rickman, or maybe Colin Firth if he’s willing to grow a beard.)

Harpist and composer Hannah Lash’s new ‘Form and Postlude’ was premiered by Emily Bruskin, Becky Anderson, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Julia Bruskin, David Shifrin, Joanna Wu, and Lash herself at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

There are only so many ways to group the instruments in a piano trio or even a string quartet. I loved how Lash exploited the larger variety of possible permutations available in this larger-than-usual (seven instruments) chamber configuration. The Bruskin sisters returned on violin and cello, joined by Shifrin, flutist Joanna Wu, violinist Rebecca Anderson, and violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama (whom we will hear from again). A bluesy duet between Wu’s flute and Shifrin’s clarinet might be supported by impish string pizzicati; a yearning, scalar, quintessentially stringy melody would pass from viola to violin while tightly articulated trills in the winds colored the harp’s pastel chords like oily daubs of fresh paint.

Such pairings and triplings shifted constantly throughout the piece’s twenty minutes, violins and flute carrying the upper voices over harmonic textures in the clarinet and lower strings, bowed strings facing off against harp and winds. Melodic phrases tended to jump around the ensemble, the players finishing each other’s sentences like a group of veteran card players. The only instruments to get an entire, long-winded theme were that brooding Byronic cello—and occasionally, of course, the harp, played with virtuosic vigor by the composer (always a difficult bit of double consciousness).

Lash is quite the harpist, and a fine stage performer as well. She conducted with her eyes, keeping a roving eye on the balance in the ensemble, and ended her piece with an upward sweep and a skyward gaze. This calculated gesture, repeated the following afternoon at Lincoln Hall, looked like something off of an album cover. It was a nice way to signal the work’s completion, pragmatically as well as emotionally.

Composer Hannah Lash.

It was gutsy to program Lash’s work before its inspiration, Ravel’s identically instrumented mini concerto, what Lash referred to as “a cornerstone in the harpist’s repertoire.” There’s a pragmatic challenge in writing pieces using existing but unusual combinations: what we normally call a “companion piece”, meaning a new piece which can be performed alongside its inspiration. Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano, written in response to Brahms’, is one of my personal favorites (see also: anything written for Pierrot ensemble, such as everything Joan Tower wrote for her Da Capo Chamber Players, or eighth blackbird’s recording of Agócs Immutable Dreams). On the one hand, you get the support of the existing work and the weight of its composer’s reputation; on the other hand, if you’re going to put yourself on that level you’d better deliver.

Lash delivered. The ensemble performed admirably, Lash showing off her skills as a world-class harpist and composer, clearly not sweating the comparison. Lash has spoken of the difficulties in being categorized as a “woman composer”, arguing that while the outsider element is useful it also cuts off women from their rightful place as equal heirs to the historically male-dominated tradition. At the beginning of the festival, she told ArtsWatch “I have every right to stand in the river of classical music that flows forward. So instead of trying to redefine tonality or counterpoint or moving so far outside the tradition, I really am appropriating the tradition exclusively to men and growing it from there.” Or, as Neko Case so eloquently expressed it, “is a lioness not a lion, motherfucker?”

Maurice Ravel

And I have to be honest, here: even though I like Ravel’s music and this piece in particular, he’s always somewhere in the B+ range for me, below Debussy and Saint-Saëns but above Lalo and Dubois (just to grab the nearest comparisons). I doubt Lash was trying to one-up her inspiration, but I do think she overshot her goal of parity and ended up landing in the realm of the superb. I certainly knew which composer I wanted to hear again.

And lest we confine this to gender distinctions, I have to say I felt the same way about the first half’s Agócs-Mendelssohn pairing. The older work is more overtly classical, with all the sophisticated counterpoint and over-the-top piano stylings that 19th-century bourgeois money could buy, and Claremont turned in a beautiful and stirring performance…but I’d still rather listen to Agócs.

Enhanced Encore

Another rare privilege: hearing new compositions more than once. When the Oregon Symphony Orchestra premieres a new work, we generally get a weekend’s worth of chances to hear it again. Last month, Portland Opera put on a pair of David Lang’s operas for a total of four evenings. Other than that, the old joke “world premiere = final performance” still seems to be the norm. Chamber Music Northwest, though, produces concerts at both Reed’s Kaul Auditorium and Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

So it was that the next day I got to hear the Agócs and Lash trios again, along with another great composer-performer piece in Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Sonoran Storm for solo viola and Cascadia Composer Bonnie Miksch’s piano trio Song of Sanshin. In another “rare privilege” moment, this was the third time this summer I got to hear Miksch’s Korean-inspired trio performed live. Surprise, surprise: it got better each time, even when played by different ensembles. Fortunately, it was recorded last year by Fear No Music, so I can listen to it again any time I like.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama performed her own music and other works at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Ngwenyama’s Sonoron Storm started with a little light show in Lincoln Recital Hall, a brief bit of scene-setting that seemed gratuitous but set the mood for her vibrant solo piece. The barefoot violist-composer laid out exciting fiddly melodies and folky baroquial chord changes over groovy rhythmic bowing and a relentless backbeat, something you don’t hear often enough in Classical Music.

At the post-concert “coffee with the composer” discussion, the four composers sat and answered questions about their work and the state of new music. Agócs, who is also a visual artist, spoke of “the anxiety of influence”: the problem of wresting something new from under the weight of both centuries-old traditions and the Cambrian explosion of 20th-21st century arts and entertainment. “There’s all this great music out there, how do I respond to that? The title is something affirming I found.” The title, Queen of Hearts, is “a pun on the ‘mother of higher love’ card in a deck of playing cards.” It seems it was not meant to be an over-literally programmatic title, but rather—as with Joan Tower’s post-compositional approach to fanciful titles— more of a dedication. “I love the idea that a queen can be both humble and powerful at the same time.”

Ngwenyama and Agócs discussed the relationship between visual art and sonic art, Agócs praising music’s “interactivity, dynamic real-time interactions, and exchanges of ideas” and explaining that she thinks of form visually, “building a form that has a trajectory and continuity.” Such long structures are difficult to construct, “but I love the payoff.” I reflected on Queen of Hearts and found that I understood it better.

Miksch, too, expressed a fondness for structure, with an emphasis on transformations in time: “I live for transitions,” she said. “I have a hard time in jazz when people clap after the solos—I want to hear the transition!” Miksch’s love for “long, long phrases” was evident in Song of Sanshin, which is at its core an epic, ever-evolving, Harrison-esque folk song.

Lash said that she “rarely think[s] of outside influences.” Composition is “all about planting a seed and watching a vine grow, just listening to my own materials and thinking about what I need to do. The mineral content of my soil is based on my own listening and musical DNA.” For Ngwenyama, “everywhere’s a soundscape.”

Portland composer and Portland State music professor Bonnie Miksch.

Miksch spoke of the novelty in being “the oldest composer on the program” (she’s only in her forties) and having a historical perspective on the state of new music and the role of women composers. In 2017, we have access to everything, and we have to either put on blinders or find a way to integrate it (a sentiment described as “anything goes” by Gabriella Smith at the previous week’s coffee talk). Fortunately, today’s musicians can draw from the past and present across multiple cultures, genres, and media, from Bach to rock, from antique acoustic instruments to the latest in electronic instruments. Miksch called this capability both “daunting and super exciting.”

The group fielded a few questions about the perennial weirdness of performing one’s own work, or to put it the other way around the difficulty of writing for a performer with whom you are intimately acquainted. Ngwenyama joked that “it hurts to write that many 16th notes—it hurts to play them sometimes too!” and praised composers like Bach and Reger and especially her fellow violist Hindemith for opening up the instrument’s possibilities.

Lash spoke of her mission as a composer playing the harp, an instrument “that’s almost exclusively associated with being female.” “It’s been my special project to expand the harp’s voice, to jump off from tradition and explode it, writing within and writing against.”

What interested me in this assertion, besides its clear, focused intentionality, is that Lash’s approach doesn’t rely on extended techniques or electronic augmentation (strategies followed by Jennifer Ellis and Sage Fisher, for instance) but instead aims at enlivening the tradition of classical harp music. I thought again of Lash’s insistence that women composers are composers and heirs to “the river of classical music that flows forward.” She talked about needing space from her instrument: “I have to spend all my time away from the harp, or physical habits intrude. Lash the composer is giving Lash the player a lot of problems. She sometimes gets mad! But if I got close, then in performance it blossoms. Athleticism makes the impossible happen.”

Miksch, Lash, Agocs, Ngwenyama at CMNW’s Coffee with the composer.

Ngwenyama and Miksch both use more immediate strategies.  “I just grab the instrument and start playing,” Ngwenyama said. “If it works, it works.” Miksch takes a personal, vocal approach to her writing: “I sing an awful lot when I write. I don’t compose quietly.”

Agócs returned to the question of form, saying that in order to hear a piece as a whole she likes to “play a new work all the way through every day.” Miksch and Ngwenyama agreed that form and pacing play important roles in their work, Ngwenyama remarking “we are form obsessed.” This played into the question of knowing when a work is finished, Agócs joking that her finish lines are deadlines and Lash talking about the magical moment when all the materials coalesce. Miksch pointed to the moment “when you finally give up on all the things you thought the piece was going to be, and it becomes its own thing.”

The conversation next turned to an age-old conundrum involving the nature of music: does a musical composition need to be about something else–does it need to tell a story or paint a picture–or can it be only about itself without external reference? The modern roots of this debate stretch at least as far back as Brahms vs. Wagner in the case of Who Gets To Claim Beethoven, but you find it gearing up in the Middle Ages as another form of the old secular vs. sacred debate (and of course it goes back much further than that, into the history of Ancient Greek music theory and thence to India and the Beginning of Time).

As a composer myself and a keen follower of this debate, my ears perked up when an audient said “your music all seems programmatic…is it because there’s no common language to make music coherent and accessible?” Lash said “NEVER—my music is completely abstract. We don’t have a shared language, but each composer develops a syntax which is hierarchical, directional, and has tonal relations worked out.” Music, like other languages, moves and acts; it does something.

Agócs concurred, explaining that despite its title her piano trio “isn’t programmatic”, adding that “people follow the story…I have faith in audiences.” Ngwenyama added “we’re all humans, we all have emotions,” and Miksch agreed that “emotions connect to sound and music.” Lash continued, explaining that “harmonic relationships are very emotional…the way the bass moves is very poetic.”

This way of hearing music as a living thing with its own agency and its own story is at the heart of why so many of us consider it a religion. Composers are the priests and mystics, dipping into the same river and bringing back all that we find. Lash said it was precisely this awesome power that attracted her to composing in the first place, listening as a child to her dad’s classical recordings and asking “Who made this? How did it come into existence? I want to do that!” I understand the feeling. The same thing happened to me.

For Miksch and Ngwenyama, the conversion was more organic and came out of childhood playfulness. Miksch’s mother encouraged her children to be creative, spending rainy days making up plays and silly songs. Later, composing was where she could get away from practicing violin scales to “go deep” and “be as weird as possible.” Ngwenyama recalled her childhood experiences with youth orchestras and the Yamaha method, which used composition exercises and magnets to teach staff notation and ear training. Those movable magnets made a big impression on the young violist: “from the beginning, music was fluid.”

Our coverage of the week of women composers continues on Wednesday. In the meantime, consider this: none of the women on these concerts had to be The Woman. No one had to be the lone female voice in a room full of male voices, answering for an entire gender while Beethoven gets to just be Beethoven. Agócs, Lash, Miksch, and Ngwenyama are extremely different composers, and it seemed to me that what they really had most in common was the searing independent streak which is the birthright of all American composers. And, incidentally, while CMNW was eroding Gender Tokenism they also helped erode Living Composer Tokenism.

“By elevating and commissioning the work of women,” Agócs said from the stage before her new work’s performance, “CMNW is elevating the field.”

Next time, we’ll hear more about Composing While Female from Agócs, Lash, Miksch, and Ngwenyama, plus Gabriella Smith, Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, more Claremont Trio, and the face-meltingly beatific Calidore Quartet.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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