aaron kernis

Chamber Music Northwest review: “River” flows

Composer Kernis's new quartet highlights festival concert of older works in new guises.


Chamber Music Northwest thoroughly mixed old and new in its Monday and Tuesday concerts this week. I caught the Tuesday performance, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. Even the old was presented in new guises, and the new could hardly be newer.

Aaron Jay Kernis’ third string quartet, River, was first heard in public only two nights earlier. And yet there was a bit of the old about it, as in a fine vintage whiskey. Kernis, one of America’s foremost living composers, seems to have matured at a fortunate and pivotal time – too long ago to feel compelled to include pop influences and too recently to be overly impressed by the esthetic polemics of the mid-20th century. The style of River is bracing, but full of entertaining variety and sweet, if complex, harmony. It doesn’t sound as if its composer is interested in proving points, shocking an audience, or creating paths others must follow if they want to be part of the in crowd.

While the five movements all have subtitles that suggest aquatic imagery, the quartet is not primarily an exercise in tone-painting. The first movement, “Source,” opens with a short solo cello aria, and eventually builds through many twists and turns into a dramatic climax, much as Beethoven might have created. The even weightier middle movement, “Mirrored Surface – Flux – Reflections,” is not particularly placid or limpid as might be expected. Instead, I was reminded of the way ripples on water’s surface can break up a reflected image into something distorted and phantasmagorical. But the musical bits and pieces that Kernis built the quartet from tend to be fluid and even melodious, and, like the titular river, they tend to flow into each other rather than break up into sharp contrasts.

Kernis String Quartet No. 3_Jasper Quartet - photo by Jonathan Lange

The Jasper Quartet gave the Northwest premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s String Quartet No. 3 at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The two shorter movements flowed the most smoothly. Trills and other rustling effects gave an impressionistic cast to the second movement, “Flow / Surge,” the quartet’s most obvious tone-painting. In the fourth movement, “Cavatina,” a continuous melody wove through mysteriously shifting close harmonies like a salmon wending its way ever upstream. In the substantial finale, “Estuary / Mouth,” the opening cello aria returned, and seemed to spread out, here concentrated, there diluted, into the other instruments. Though buffeted by musical turbulence, one delicate remnant survived the journey to drift off at the end, seeming to ask, where to now?

The music suggests the flow of water on another level as well. Trying to fit it into the old categories of tonal or atonal is delightfully pointless. If there is tonality, it is tonality that wriggles this way and that, like the distorted view of a streambed through lenses of roiling water. If there is atonality, it is smoothed into attractive curves, as if worn down from the midcentury moderns’ craggy monuments.

The Jasper Quartet, for whom the work was written, seemed in total control, yet lively and expressive at all times. One might even say they surfed its manifold challenges, and with élan. Visiting from his New York home, Kernis gave a brief introductory overview of the work, and seemed thrilled with the performance.


BodyVox dancers join Chamber Music Northwest this weekend.
Photo: David Krebs.

Dance and music collide again at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend. The venerable Portland festival resumes last year’s collaboration with the always engaging BodyVox dance outfit Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Renowned for its sense of humor and use of multimedia elements (especially film), the dance company has made a good partner for classical music institutions including CMNW lately, so it should be a treat to see how they approach Igor Stravinsky’s sly, tuneful and acerbic little fable, A Soldier’s Tale. (Hint: it may all be a dream. Or not.)

The program also features music by the wild 20th century composer Iannis Xenakis, Chopin, Paganini and CMNW’s Protege Project young composer in residence, Katerina Kramarchuk, a Moldova native who grew up in Hillsboro and whose music was featured in a Protege Project concert last week. She’s writing a new piece specifically tailored to BodyVox’s choreography. CMNW deserves kudos for supporting and showcasing young Oregon creative artists.


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