Ani Kavafian

Zorá Quartet review: A program that tells a story

Chamber Music Northwest concert shows European classical music's range of expression

There’s something quite charming about a well-programmed concert. I love it when the different elements all work together to tell a coherent story, or present familiar compositions from a new perspective. A July Chamber Music Northwest concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, performed by the Zorá Quartet and other CMNW artists, did just that. The concert featured compositions by Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ludwig van Beethoven, in performances by CMNW alumni and Protege Project Artists, and the selection was just right: from light-hearted violin duos to a bitter 20th-century quintet for piano and strings, ending on the profound final string quartet of one of the tradition’s giants.

Ani Kavafian. Photo: Bernard Mindich.

Ani Kavafian. Photo: Bernard Mindich.

Teacher and student duo Ani Kavafian and Benjamin Hoffman began the evening with selections from Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, composed in 1931. It is always nice to see teachers performing with their students, passing the torch and revitalizing traditions (even relatively new traditions) for the next generation, and Bartók wrote these duos with just such a pedagogical purpose in mind; as with his Mikrokosmos, Bartók’s identity as a composer cannot be separated from his identity as an educator and as a champion of folk music. Teacher Kavafian and student Hoffman (a student at Yale in his first season with CMNW’s Protege Project) performed a well-balanced selection, covering a fair portion of the vast range of Bartók’s quirky and profound musical personality. Performers and audience alike were visibly, audibly enthusiastic, chuckling and toe-tapping at the delightful neo-folk miniatures, which made it feel more like a village gathering than a formal classical music concert.

Now in her 22nd season with CMNW, Kavafian’s joyful demeanor during her brief time on stage felt like a homecoming—a performance for friends and peers in a familiar space, showing off her pupil and generally having a good time. Although any of Bartók’s many chamber pieces could have made for a good first act, the decision to open with such life-affirming and humanistic music started the concert’s story on just the right note.


At CMNW, great musicians handled Andrew Norman’s ‘Gran Turismo’

String pyrotechnics lit up the Fourth of July for Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival


“Higher! Louder! Faster!”

That’s how 36-year-old composer Andrew Norman describes the “emphatic trajectory” of his 2004 “Gran Turismo.” Eight violinists played this violins-on-speed piece as part of Chamber Music Northwest’s “The Power of Strings” concert Fourth of July weekend (July 3 and 4) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

The audience seemed to enjoy the ride, and if I didn’t concur entirely, at least I appreciated its wit.

Two groups of world-renowned violinist siblings—Ani and Ida Kavafian and Daniel and Todd Phillips—were part of this astoundingly accomplished group who, at quicksilver pace, exchanged rising and falling phrasing (imagine race cars circling a track), contentious string conversations, and swift-and-swifter tempos. And yes, at times for me, it conveyed a kind of screeching atonality similar to trying to start a stubborn engine.

Chamber Music Northwest's Power of Strings concert featured many summer festival regulars/Photo by Tom Emerson

Chamber Music Northwest’s Power of Strings concert featured many summer festival regulars/Photo by Tom Emerson

Certainly this piece “needed” to be played in Portland, after grand reviews from important critics praising it for its “Chaplinesque humor” (LA Times) “staggering imagination” (Boston Globe), and “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors” (New York Times). Inspired by a car-racing video game and visual rhythm in Futurist paintings, such as in Giacomo Balla’s 1913-14 speeding-car paintings, Norman’s work was thankfully delivered to us by very good violinists: la crème de la crème. This piece could turn painful with less accomplished musicians.


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