Chamber Music NW: Relax, it’s only a masterpiece

The Emerson Quartet takes a bow last week at Chamber Music Northwest. From left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, David Finckel, Lawrence Dutton. Photo: Jim Leisy

There are two kinds of concerts: the ones you get dressed up for, and the ones you don’t.

All things being equal I prefer the latter, but sometimes you just man up and throw on a jacket and tie. It’s a matter of expectation (some concert halls and events simply call for it) and, sometimes, simple respect for the musicians and the music.

Chamber Music Northwest, where I’m heading tonight to catch the festival’s collaboration with the dancers of BodyVox on Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, falls into a curious in-between. It offers great classical music by fine musicians drawn from all over the country, and, as with Portland Opera and the Oregon Symphony, that seems to call for a touch of formality. But it’s also a summer festival in a usually relaxed environment – a chance to kick back and enjoy the music – and that seems like an invitation to just go with the flow.

What to do? On my way to Lincoln Performance Hall the other afternoon to hear the Emerson String Quartet perform Beethoven’s magnificent late String Quartet in B-Flat Major for CMNW, I slipped out of my jeans and into a pair of simple slacks, and put on a shirt with a collar and buttons. No tux or tie, no flip-flops or Bermuda shorts. In between.

In one way, at least, Chamber Music Northwest isn’t in-between at all: It’s way out there on the demographic edge. “Why is everybody here so old?” my 14-year-old son asked with a smirk. He knew the answer: although he lives and breathes this stuff, most kids his age wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this. Nor, for that, matter, would most folks quite a bit older. Sometimes it seems as if classical music’s tottering into the sunset with its white-haired audience.

Even serious music’s biggest fans often hate the format, as Portland pianist Maria Choban made clear on ArtsWatch recently in her guest post Kill the piano recital. “Basically it comes down to anachronism – let’s get rid of it,” she wrote. “What are our 21st century sounds and rhythms? Let’s live them in our concert halls. Let’s have fewer museums full of Beethoven and mindless virtuosity and more music galleries full of Hauschka, Lisa Moore and Don Byron.”

For Choban, and others, it’s not just a matter of depressing venues but also of the music itself, the preponderance of historical composers and their music, the analogy to museums in the fusty rather than vibrant sense. What: Beethoven again?

Yet maybe it’s also partly a matter of how American audiences think they’re supposed to act at a concert: If it’s classical, we must be reverent. The popularity of Chamber Music Northwest is one response to that partly self-imposed formalism, encouraging a more genuinely enthusiastic and relaxed engagement with the music and musicians. You don’t exactly get the rowdiness of a rock-show crowd, but it’s far from a straitjacket atmosphere, either. And, come on: Do we really want to see Edgar Meyer crowd-surfing?

Other places treat even traditional concerts as something like participatory sports events. I’ve been to a symphonic concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the crowd roared its approval of its favorites as if they were matinee idols – during the performance ­– and where members of the audience rushed up the aisles to lay bouquets of flowers on the stage. That wasn’t a duty or an intellectual exercise. That was love.

Truth be told, the Emerson almost demands a formal relationship with its audience: In that sense, it’s atypical of CMNW. These are four superb musicians who’ve been playing together for years, and their approach seems to be that it’s the music that’s drawn us all together here, so let’s skip the small talk and just get on with it. At last Sunday’s concert they dressed in formal white and took their places onstage in an austere cube. Then, with barely a nod, they started playing. The music was varied: Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major. K. 575; contemporary British composer Thomas Adès’ 2010 “The Four Quarters” for String Quartet; and, after intermission, Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 30, ending, as it doesn’t always, with the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133.

The Emerson’s Finckel peeks through. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Music is intensely personal and notoriously subject to moods: How many times have you slipped a CD you love into your player and changed it after one cut because the time and place weren’t right? I don’t know how much the formality of the occasion affected my response to the Emerson concert. The Mozart was played gorgeously but on this occasion didn’t especially move me. The Adès was knotty and cerebral (the final movement, according to program notes, is in 25/16 meter) and undeniably contemporary, but also seemed passionless. The Beethoven was knock-your-socks-off flabbergasting.

Across town at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium the following night, the mood was different: more relaxed, in that familiar CMNW manner. A program of vocal music by Brahms, Barber (“Dover Beach”) and the incomparable Schubert – the guy just knew how to knock out a song ­– began with the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner  Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Perpetual Chaconne” for Clarinet and String Quartet, and the mood was both easy and energized.

Part of that was due to the affable personality of festival artistic director David Shifrin, who was also the featured clarinetist, and the festival regulars of the Orion String Quartet (violinists Daniel and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, cellist Timothy Eddy). And much of the festivity, the sense that something special might be happening, came from composer Kernis himself, who spoke before the performance, quite winningly, explaining a bit about how he built the music and confessing to hopefulness, excitement and nervousness. I liked the way he opened up to the audience, and that made me sympathetic to the music that followed. It was rhythmic, lyrical, a little melting and falling-apart like a Dali clock, vigorous and modern, at times harsh but not shocking, at times mournful but on the whole, pleasurable. Kernis and the atmosphere had humanized it, and afterwards I couldn’t help but wonder: Might I have been more sympathetic to the Adès under similar circumstances?

My response to pianist Choban’s plea for “21st century sounds and rhythms” is that time bends, and sometimes the sounds and rhythms of the 21st century are also the sounds and rhythms of the early 19th. Kernis explained in his program notes his fascination with “the innovative, intuitive, and transformative approaches to variation found in fantasias from the 1600s and then again from late Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms to the late 20th century.” Many such works, he wrote, employ “developing variations,” which “tend to begin from small cells and grow outward bit by bit. They can suddenly catch fire and explode toward wholly unexpected places or find logical paths that mutate so much that the music and listener frequently reach new territory.”

Wham-o. Writing about his own music, he was describing what I’d felt the previous afternoon listening to that astonishing, driving, angry, arrhythmic, impolitic, groundbreaking, surpassingly beautiful and shockingly innovative late Beethoven: the sound of music screaming inside a deaf man’s head. Wholly unexpected – almost holy unexpected – places mutating into new territories. Performing it, the four members of the Emerson – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, cellist David Finckel, who is leaving the ensemble soon – shed their physical detachment and leaned into the music, striking at it fervently, yielding to the rigors of its demands. And later I thought, no matter how I responded to the Adès or the Kernis, this was music of the 21st century. Nothing that I’d heard in quite a while had been as utterly and fiercely contemporary as the music of this isolated, antique fellow approaching his deathbed. Time bends.

It didn’t matter that the Emerson can seem aloof, or that Shifrin can be charming, or whether the performers and audience were wearing white tails and top hats or Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps. In the presence of greatness, only the greatness matters.

Of course, I’d still rather be wearing a T-shirt and jeans. But for music like this, I’m willing to compromise.

4 Responses.

  1. josephine pohl says:

    Great review! “Nothing that I’d heard in quite a while had been as utterly and fiercely contemporary as the music of this isolated, antique fellow approaching his deathbed.” I am very fond of contemporary music, but J.S. Bach fits the same description for me, as well.

  2. bob priest says:

    you wanna strap-on a tie for a concert? feel free.

    personally, i take solace from the more imaginative concert attire sported by the likes of salonen, rattle & MTT.

    so, do you mind if i save my necktie party duds for the bored room &/or military tribunals?

  3. Bob Hicks says:

    I feel your pain, Bob! But don’t you feel just a little strange when all the women are dressed to the nines and you’re dressed to the twos?

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