andy akiho

Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

Riveting Chamber Music Northwest performances showcase an exemplary 21st century composer

Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.

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Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Anyone checking out the audiences (and occasionally ambulances) at Chamber Music Northwest has reason to worry about its enthusiastic but aging audience – and its sometimes-faltering veteran performers. Too often in recent years, performances by CMNW’s regulars have seemed rough and under-rehearsed, with the regular stable of New York-based classical musicians perhaps riding too much on their long relationship with Portland fans and their starry names that seem to garner ritual standing Os, no matter how occasionally shaky the playing. As accomplished as these performers are, they still need to rehearse to achieve more than superficial competence and chemistry.

Note: some of the material here appeared in an earlier News & Notes post, which we’ve updated to include new reviews and provocations, and separated for easier reading.

To be fair, the touring ensembles CMNW brings in during the festival and in its non-summer series are usually much sharper. Clarinetist and artistic director David Shifrin’s incisive playing seems as sturdy as ever. And in the first weekend’s concerts, CMNW regulars showed that they’re capable of gripping performances, in duos by Kodaly and Ravel, especially in the latter, which featured that ever-genial ambassador of new (and often not-so-genial) music, the great cellist Fred Sherry and the exuberant young violinist Yura Lee, whose striking orange dress and flopping bangs made her resemble an aquatic anemone, swaying in the current while persuasively surging through Ravel’s sonata.

But even though the festival still offers occasional-to-frequent delights, as some recent concerts have demonstrated,  CMNW has clearly recognized the need for revitalization. Can those efforts succeed in helping the festival reach the new audiences it will need when its current one is gone?

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