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Fall Chamber Music: Fresh approaches

By Brett Campbell
January 5, 2016

Death to chamber music! Oops, I mean death to “chamber music.” The music can be great, but the name can sound off-putting and archaic to music lovers who aren’t already part of the classical music insiders club. If we just called string quartets, piano trios, and the rest “bands” like all those other ensembles that make music, it might feel more welcoming to outsiders. Because despite its reputation for stuffiness, some chamber musicians — that is, classical small bands — are producing some of most innovative sounds — and ways of presenting of them — in music today. This fall concert season that just ended provided several examples.

New Music

This fall, classical small bands seemed to add more 21st century music than usual to their programs. The new Montrose Trio’s October 4 concert, which also devoted about a third of the show to a contemporary work — even better, a premiere, and still better, a co-commission from the presenter, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music. Of course, local  new music ensembles like FearNoMusic, the Mousai (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Tristan Bliss) and Third Angle (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Jeff Winslow) regularly include new music in their shows, but they tend to draw niche audiences interested in new music, unlike these touring ensembles such as the Montrose and the Calder Quartet, whose December FOCM performances included one piece each night by leading contemporary composers Andrew Norman and Thomas Ades, in programs that each featured one composer from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

The single performance of Temple Visions was the only new work by a composer of our time among those the trio played over three nights in Portland and Eugene, but Michigan composer James Lee III’s intensely dramatic trio definitely deserved its place among the classics by Haydn, Mendelssohn, et al. The trio (pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinist Martin Beaver, cellist Clive Greensmith) gave a high-tension performance of Lee’s taut composition, navigating its choppy jump cuts with focused precision and earning raucous applause.

I’d call the commission, FOCM’s second ever in its nearly eight-decade long history, an unqualified success, and I wish more presenting organizations would invest more often in the creation of new music. They’re co-commissioning another new work for the Pacifica Quartet from Bang on a Can’s Julia Wolfe, an excellent choice, but I hope FOCM and other Oregon presenters will also commission new music by Oregon composers. Wolfe doesn’t lack commissioning opportunities, especially since winning this year’s his year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, but plenty of Oregon composers deserve the support (and national exposure of their music if played around the world by a major ensemble like Pacifica Quartet) from this Oregon classical music institution. More important, Oregon audiences deserve the chance to hear the music of our own creators played by top notch classical small combos. Our presenting organizations should be at least as eager to support Oregon composers as those from New York.

Extra-musical Enhancements

A string quartet plays music by Haydn in front of a projected image of a sunrise over a rocky beach. A horn-rimmed, bearded professor sits on the stage apron, until he rises and begins to lecture the audience at Portland’s Newmark Theatre about biology.

Welcome to another development in chamber music’s evolution. Along with including new music on programs, some bands are augmenting their concerts with non musical contributions. In November, for example, Third Angle New Music resumed its mix of words and music and a few weeks later, the Mousai deftly garnished their “Vignettes” concert with concise theatrical touches. The Fry Street Quartet went several steps further in the October 15 Newmark performance, not only including a newly commissioned work, but also making that music part of a larger creation that transcended music and even art.

Co-sponsored by Portland5 Centers for the Arts and Chamber Music Northwest, the Fry performance was part of the Crossroads Project, a laudably ambitious and well intentioned attempt to combine music, visual art, photography and science to illuminate the most pressing concern humans face today: our willful, dangerous devastation of the environment that nurtures us. Artists are often accused of being self-obsessed or isolated in ivory towers; that charge won’t stick to the Fry Streeters. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, humans are still letting corporate greed and ideological obtuseness endanger our civilization’s very survival just so a few mega-wealthy people can make even more money, leaving their descendants to deal with the disaster they made.

As the Republican Congress and presidential candidates have proved over and over (including in their knee jerk reaction to President Obama’s speech about gun violence this week), merely citing facts, reality, and science won’t persuade those who resist them for irrational reasons. So maybe facts shaken and stirred with art can change behavior, by somehow reaching the non-rational parts of our brains. Or as the program put it, “Crossroads is a live performance, grounded in science, elevated by art. … Compelling information is transformed from intellectual to visceral through compelling imagery and powerful music.” Or maybe not; even the participants acknowledge that they’re hoping more to mobilize people who already agree with them to take action, rather than to convince the deniers. How did it work?

Fry Street Quartet brought its Crossroads Project to Portland's Newmark Theatre.

Fry Street Quartet brought its Crossroads Project to Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

Rising Tide, the project’s first chapter, places the foursome onstage with narrator Rob Davies, a Utah State University (where the Fry is in residence) environmental physicist who’s that prof many of us were lucky enough to encounter in college, the approachable, affable one who could convey complex ideas in a relaxed, easily understandable way. In four sections, each with clearly signposted subsections, Davies did so brilliantly, clearly elucidating the workings of the planet’s various natural processes, including water and food production, then moving to illustrations of how the heedless, greed-fueled economic engine disrupts them, via toxic emissions, carbon-induced climate change, plastic bags, and more, with catastrophic consequences now and in the future.

Davies augmented his lecture with powerful projected images by painter Rebecca Allen and photographers including Lu Guang and Garth Lenz; I liked the way that one morphed into the other so that sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference between photo and painting, but the ambiguity annoyed my companion. It’s kind of like Koyaanisqatsi and Powwaqatsi, but with words instead of time-lapse sequences. Most of the information, in a general sense at least, is probably familiar to anyone who watches PBS science specials or reads even middlebrow popular science articles (including Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker reporting), yet it’s still gripping and worth retelling as often as possible. Davies’s well rehearsed presentation occasionally felt a tad glib, like a quotable passage from a really intelligent book, yet always deeply felt and impeccably sourced and supported, with repeated refrains of “this we know” to distinguish documented fact from ideology and opinion. His talk smoothly wove alarming figures and facts about mounting extinctions, declining wildlife populations, overconsumption, pollution, toxics and more into the narrative.

The Fry Streeters interpolated music by eminent New York composer Laura Kaminsky (who once led the music department at Seattle’s Cornish College), whom they approached based solely on her reputation for writing music pertaining to environmental issues) between the lecture segments. They, too, delivered the goods, with tight, passionate, sometimes theatrical  performances and occasional spoken contributions. I especially enjoyed Kaminsky’s new quartet’s (also called Rising Tide) second and third movements, the former moving from pointillistic plucking to urgent fretting climax then back to abstract phrases and ending on slow, uneasy note. The latter unleashed agitated strings and rapid fire repeating patterns to accentuate its message about dead zones, desertification, and more. The epilogue, which included moving music by Janacek, ended the show on a hopeful note, with an onscreen recitation of success stories, including socially conscious Portland businesses and other “good guys,” and ways for the audience members to take action.

So: a timely, important message on the topic most relevant to today’s world; lovely visuals; compelling music; well-presented lecture — sounds like a total triumph.

Alas, as much as I wanted this show to succeed, Rising Tide added up to less than the sum of its considerable parts. The words worked on my brain, but the music and art that accompanied them didn’t also open the door to my heart; with my mind primarily engaged in following the argument, the event still felt like a primarily intellectual, not emotional experience. The disparate components remained compartmentalized rather than integrated.

That may be because the performance was structured along the lines of the lecture — an essay-like argument — rather than describing the kind of emotional arc you encounter in great works of narrative art, whether fiction, drama, or nonfiction. (A recent episode of the public radio show Radiolab, filmed in Seattle, used a superficially similar approach.) Along with the science, music and visual art, the project might have also profited from input from a dramatist/storyteller.

That’s not to say the Crossroads Project was a failure: we did enjoy a powerful message and enticing visual and musical art — a thought provoking multimedia experience. If it all didn’t quite gel, the show certainly worked as education, and as advocacy — after all, who would pay to attend a show like this if they didn’t already accept the broad outlines of its message? Whether it will inspire audiences to take action is hard to say. (If you were there and it did, please let us know in the comments below.) But for me, without some sort of dramatic structure to tie it together emotionally, Rising Tide feels more like a noble but not entirely successful experiment that appeals mostly to the head, not enough to the heart.

Guy Mendilow Ensemble performed at Portland State University

Guy Mendilow Ensemble performed at Portland State University

Widening the Scope

Some of the most galvanizing chamber music performances I heard last fall drew on a wider range of sources than the typical Eurocentric program. In October, Portland State University brought the Guy Mendilow Ensemble to Oregon, with a program that mixed brief narrative set-ups for the songs — not aural program notes, but rather stories flowing in and out of the musical set pieces, somewhat like the Mousai did in their “Vignettes” show last month, seamlessly integrated into the performance with few breaks for applause. The program itself told a story of musical development, covering centuries of Ladino influenced music from medieval (a song from the Crusades) through modern times, the latter including a letter written on the train to the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp. Using fiddle, percussion (berimbau and shakers) and voice, Mendilow’s trio gave a glowing performance that touched on folk, classical, and so-called world music from across the ages.

In November, Friends of Chamber Music brought the Dali Quartet to Portland to play music from Latin America. (The foursome’s Eugene show focused on Euro-classics.) Some of the composers were familiar (Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Turina), others not so much. Along with music more buoyant than some of the usual furrowed-brow Romantic and 20th century European classics, the performance offered warmly expressive (though never flamboyant), heartfelt performances by this ensemble of musicians who rose through Venezuela’s famed El Sistema democratic musical training system. Each member gave a concise, well thought out introduction to one or more pieces on the program, and their unaffected joy in the music they chose shone through. They characterized each movement of Villa Lobos’s varied first quartet so adeptly that they made it sound better than it probably is. Other moods ranged from poignant (in Carlos Almaran’s bolero, The Story of a Love) to exhilarating (Astor Piazzolla’s Four, for Tango) to romantic (Carlos Gardel’s The Day You Love Me) to sheer fun, with the musicians smiling and the audience rapturously responding with whoops and cheers during a unanimous standing ovation.

The Dali Quartet performed at Portland's Old Church concert hall.

The Dali Quartet performed at Portland’s Old Church concert hall. Photo: John Green.

Unfortunately, I missed the December concert in FOCM’s same Not-So-Classic series: a presentation of the Shanghai Quartet with pipa virtuosa Wu Man performing contemporary music by Chinese composers. But judging by a recording I heard later, they, like the other small combos here showed just how moving even unfamiliar music can be when played with real commitment and skill, qualities too often lacking in the dutiful, under-rehearsed performances we still see too often, and that help contribute to chamber music’s undeserved reputation for stodginess.

The other common thread in all these shows was the performers’ and presenters’ eagerness to look beyond the standard classical chamber music repertoire and standard way of presenting it. Whether that alone is enough to sustain abundant small band classical music is debatable at best, and the topic of past and future ArtsWatch stories. For the most part, the listeners I saw at these shows didn’t seem appreciably larger, more diverse or younger than those at “regular” classical music gatherings, but that’s still a substantial audience, and one that, in Portland at least, appears to welcome a refresh of the usual chamber recital format and content. If changing the formula keeps even the current audience coming back, that’s a small victory, for music makers and music lovers alike. In any case, the prospects for reaching broader audiences won’t brighten by continuing to cling to time-worn formulae and repertoire, so bravo to all these bands and presenters (and listeners) for trying. Their willingness to play different kinds of music with real passion and in unconventional ways may mean that the death of “chamber music” will apply only to the name, not the art.

The refresh continues in the second half of the 2015-16 season. Portland5 Centers for the Arts. continues its increasingly intriguing programming with the dance/cello combination of Cellopointe (co-sponsored again by Chamber Music Northwest) on January 27, Brooklyn Rider string quartet on Feb. 2, Turtle Island String Quartet on Feb. 11, Black Violin on Feb. 24, and 2Cellos on Feb. 24. Friends of Chamber Music’s Not-So-Classic series continues with Rachel Barton Pine & Mike Block on Feb. 12 and Harlem Quartet on April 14. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more coverage of those shows and other small-band sounds.

Did you attend any of this fall’s unconventional chamber music performances? Let ArtsWatch readers know how they worked in the comments section below.

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