Northwest Piano Trio and Delgani Quartet previews: Youth Movement

Young Oregon ensembles add new voices to Oregon chamber music

It usually takes many years and many rehearsals for even the finest musicians to develop the solid chemistry it takes to make chamber music that, paradoxically, sounds fresh and spontaneous. The members of many of the most renowned classical ensembles have played together for years, sometimes decades.

That kind of longevity is relatively rare in Oregon chamber groups, which often change configuration and membership frequently, the better to play a wider range of repertoire. Any given concert by Third Angle, Chamber Music Amici, the Oregon Bach Collegium, FearNoMusic, 45th Parallel and so many others might involve a completely different set of players than the last one. That flexibility gives listeners more variety, but affords the players little time to cultivate the tightest ensemble.

There are exceptions — the Arnica Quartet, the winds-and-piano Mousai, Oregon Guitar Quartet and others have been together for some years — but even the state’s longest running traditional chamber groups, like the University of Oregon-based Oregon String Quartet and Portland State University’s Florestan Trio, rarely perform enough these days to reach rarefied ensemble heights.

Northwest Piano Trio performs this Saturday at Portland State University.

Northwest Piano Trio performs this Saturday at Portland State University.

But help is on the way. Over the next two weekends, two new Oregon chamber ensembles — in the two most common classical configurations — composed of eager young players will bring their fresh energy and  programming to fans of intimately scaled music.

Northwest Piano Trio: Reconnecting with Audiences

Cellist Hannah Hillebrand’s non-musician friends often feel intimidated at classical concerts. “They’re afraid that if they drop a program or clap at the ‘wrong’ time, people are going to scowl at them,” Hillebrand says. “It’s like a non-Catholic going to Mass and not knowing when to stand and when to sit! The problem now is that people think they need some higher level of education to love classical music, and that’s not the case.”

To repair that “disconnect between performers and audience,” Hillebrand last year formed Portland’s Northwest Piano Trio. The members, who also include pianist Susan McDaniel and violinist Heather Mastel-Lipson, have experience in various ensembles including Portland Opera and Vancouver Symphony. Hillebrand was inspired by her teacher, cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, who has for decades anchored Portland’s renowned Florestan Trio, which usually plays in traditional venues that separate performers from the audience. Although NWPT’s first concert this Saturday night occurs at one of them— Portland State’s small Lincoln Recital Hall, which was easy for Hillebrand, who teaches there, to book — she ultimately wants to attract younger and less traditional listeners by bring the music closer to them.

“We need a trio committed to performing in venues that can expose people to this repertoire, where people can access it and we make them feel invited and comfortable,” she explains. That means aiming for more intimate spaces, such as the southeast Portland wine bar Vie de Boheme.

NWPT also hopes to “engage the audience in a way that makes them feel the music is for them,” she says, by talking to listeners from the stage about what they love about the music before they play it, rather than resorting only to program notes, and by playing expressively — smiling when they encounter a passage of musical humor, for example.

“I’d love to say music speaks for itself,” Hillebrand explains, “but we have a responsibility to be visually engaging, to make the pieces come alive in the different ways we can communicate as performers.”

Another way to reach broader audiences is to play music of our own time in “performances that give listeners a contemporary perspective on a non-contemporary art form,” says the group’s press release. Many listeners will at least know West Side Story, which she hopes gives them a point of contact with the composer of a highlight of NWPT’s Saturday concert: the lively 1937 Piano Trio that composer Leonard Bernstein wrote when he was a teenage college student, two decades before his Broadway classic. The concert includes another 20th century work: Dmitri Shostakovich’s searing 1944 Piano Trio #2. But both are still older than any of the musicians on the stage, or probably even their parents. So Hillebrand, who really enjoyed playing Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s trio with ARCO-PDX last month and has performed at Cascadia Composers concerts, also intends to program music by Oregon composers — another way to reach today’s Oregon audiences and keep the music vital.

“We like the idea of making classical music something that’s moving forward, not just stuck in the past,” she says. “We want to encourage the creation of new music in this century, and the best way to do that is to perform things by living composers.”

Living composers offer another advantage to musicians that dead ones don’t: “I find it really rewarding getting input from the composers themselves,” Hillebrand says. “They often have less conviction than you’d think about how to play something, and they want someone to bring artistic style and make decisions. They have an idea and they want you to cultivate it.”

That requires a different level of inventiveness than playing classics with a received, often petrified, performing tradition.  “That’s how we encourage each other’s creativity,” Hillebrand says. “I didn’t get a lot of exposure to new music in school — it was all Romantic and Classical. When we broaden our repertoire, we find new ways to grow and connect. And when we’re forced to make musical decisions in a different way, where we’re not thinking so much about the conventional ways of performing a piece, that encourages growth and change within us as a group.”

All three members also teach, and “it can be empowering for students to see how that decision process goes,” Hillebrand says. “We’re not just up there vomiting out someone else’s idea and we get in trouble if we don’t do it ‘right.’ We’re making bold decisions.”

But as committed as NWPT is to offering contemporary relevance, they don’t want to ghettoize new music or old music by playing either exclusively. “We’re trying to give the audience a more eclectic emotional experience than just playing all Mozart,” whose music is also on Saturday’s program, she says. “We want people to understand that Mozart and Bernstein and Shostakovich are all part of the same family, like kids, just with different voices.”

Delgani Quartet performs April 7 in Eugene.

Delgani Quartet performs April 7 in Eugene.

Delgani Quartet: Spring Dance

Like NWPT, the members of the new, Eugene-based Delgani Quartet enjoy the interpretive freedom that comes with playing new music.

“We’re all interested in contemporary music because it’s a breath of fresh air,” founding violinist Wyatt True explains. Unlike the classics, with their formidable history of innumerable recordings, “with contemporary works, we can form our own interpretations and let people follow us.”

Accordingly, the Delganis April 7 debut features the premiere of southern Oregon composer Jason Heald’s fifth string quartet. Based on traditional Celtic melodies, its movements will be interpolated (as is often the case with Irish airs in traditional shows) before and between the other two works on the debut program: Antonin Dvorak’s gorgeous 13th quartet (his first after returning to his Czech homeland from the American sojourn that spawned its popular predecessor) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s blistering ninth quartet, from 1964. The third movement of Dvorak’s quartet, a traditional Czech spring dance, makes a fitting harbinger of the season, and of another fresh new voice in Oregon classical music.

After obtaining their graduate degrees from the University of Oregon last spring, True and Jannie Wei, who’d performed together as students, decided to stick together (they married last summer) — and stick around Eugene. With fellow Oregonians cellist Kelly Quesada (another UO colleague) and violist Morgan O’Shaughnessey, the foursome began playing small private events. (The group’s name is a combination of the name of a winery that hosted their first performances and the name of the Italian violin maker who crafted Wei’s instrument.) Although, like NWPT, the Delgani members are all in their 20s and early 30s, they’re already veterans of such ensembles as the Oregon Mozart Players, Oregon Bach Collegium, Portland Cello Project, Eugene Opera and Eugene Symphony.

The foursome’s ambitious four-concert Eugene season next year (plus other shows scheduled in Corvallis and Southern Oregon, with more to come) sparkles with accessible contemporary music by 20th and 21st century composers, including Oregon’s own Lou Harrison and several commissions. They’re also freshening the performance format with multimedia and narrative elements in some of next year’s shows. And they’re working with one of Oregon’s top composers, Paul Safar, in a concert later this month.

The arrival of these two young homegrown chamber ensembles, both devoted to mixing the classics with music of our own time and place, accelerates the recent refreshening of Oregon classical music. As their members develop the chemistry that comes with extended playing together, Oregon composers and listeners can look forward to more opportunities to hear new music played with the devotion it deserves — and old music delivered with fresh perspectives.

Northwest Piano Trio performs this Saturday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, 1620 SW Park Avenue, and Saturday, April 25 at 7:30 PM in the Frank Lloyd Wright Gordon House, 869 W Main St., Silverton.

Delgani Quartet performs Tuesday, April 7 at 7:30 PM in United Lutheran Church, 2230 Washington St., Eugene. 

Part of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.


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One Response.

  1. Madume says:

    I’ve seen the trio at local venues, great musicians and inspiring young women. Will definitely see their show at PSU!

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