Chamber Music Northwest: The Beethoven summer

The venerable chamber music festival features Beethoven's quartets in 2016, while it spreads in other musical directions at the same time


It’s only February, but try to imagine summer sun and picnic suppers on lawns beneath leafy trees. And friendly bellringers beckoning audiences inside to hear world-class musicians perform Beethoven and Brahms.

Think Chamber Music Northwest. And Beethoven. Especially Beethoven.

For the first time since 1998, Chamber Music Northwest will present all 16 Beethoven string quartets at its 2016 summer festival. Considered the composer’s greatest works, they range from compact, Haydnesque early quartets, to fearless, haunting late works, and they form the nucleus of Chamber Music Northwest’s 46th summer festival.

The Emerson Quartet will play Beethoven's earlier quartets this summer at Chamber Music Northwest/Photo credit: Tom Emerson

The Emerson Quartet will play Beethoven’s earlier quartets this summer at Chamber Music Northwest/Photo credit: Tom Emerson

During the five-week festival, CMNW will also host an influx of young professional musicians and increase its focus on new music outside its conventional home at Reed College.

Creating a festival with Beethoven at its center provides a solid connection to the past. At the same time, this season marks another step in its gradual migration toward a more open and diverse musical experience, taking care of the old guard while courting the avant-garde.

Other highlights of artistic director David Shifrin’s 36th season, which runs June 25 to July 31 at Reed College and other locations, include an expansion to 50 concerts, a new Wednesday evening series, continued collaborations with the Oregon Bach Festival, evenings of dance and music with Portland’s athletic BodyVox, and a theater piece about Johannes Brahms last years.

And let’s not forget the performers, who include some dazzling young musicians as well as the renowned Emerson Quartet, pianists Robert Levin and Andre Watts, world-class tango musicians and scores of familiar faces: the Kavafian sisters (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Fred Sherry and Peter Wiley (cello), Shifrin (clarinet) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.

The numbers, please.

  • 113 performers
  • 5 string quartets
  • 5 new Wednesday concerts
  • 4 world premieres
  • 50 concerts
  • 37 days of music

The festival, known for building incrementally on previous successes rather than leaping into new adventures, opens with a second annual tribute to contemporary tango music. Last year’s tango experiment was an “incredible success,” says Peter Bilotta, CMNW’s executive director. Cellist Peter Wiley will team up with a handful of tango musicians from Buenos Aires attending Reed College’s tango institute. Neo-tango will be the word of the night.

The Dover Quartet plays both Beethoven and a world premiere at CMNW this summer. /Photo credit:Tom Emerson

The Dover Quartet plays both Beethoven and a world premiere at CMNW this summer. /Photo credit:Tom Emerson

Other concerts not to miss include the Grammy-winning Emerson Quartet playing all six early Beethoven string quartets, Op. 18, before the Dover Quartet plays all three of the composer’s symphonically scaled middle-period “Razumovsky” Quartets. Ensembles taking on the challenging late quartets are the Miro, Orion, Dover and Zora quartets.

Levin, a brilliant pianist and keyboard improviser, performs Mozart’s daring C Minor Piano Concerto (Mozart loved C Minor; think the “Great” Mass) and various chamber works, on fortepiano, the early cousin of the modern piano.

A new Wednesday evening series offers mostly contemporary music in off-campus settings, including nights of percussion and jazz. Audiences can also hear four world premieres, from Richard Danielpour, Martin Bresnick, Andy Akiho and Portland’s Bryan Johanson. A new@noon series on Fridays presents works by living composers, many of them with personal connections to the performers.

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox are old hands at collaborations, and this summer sees a two-week run of dance and chamber music set to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

The festival concludes with a theater piece about the elderly Brahms and a clarinetist’s efforts to coax him into writing music for the clarinetist to play. Called “An Unlikely Muse,” the one-man drama by playwright Harry Clark will feature the musicians Shifrin and Watts.


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