brentano quartet

Chamber Music Northwest review: quartets and quintets

Strings sing in performances of European classics for string quartet and quintet


What a feast Chamber Music Northwest has brought us in its 2017 Summer Festival! In string quartets alone, the festival has featured since the July 6 concert the the Emersons, the Brentanos, and the Dovers. For other instrumental combinations you can add the Claremont Trio (violin, cello, and piano) and Imani Winds. And that doesn’t count the many other superb musicians whom Music Director David Shifrin has gathered to make chamber music, sometimes on a grand scale.

Rebecca Anderson and Andrea Lam performed Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The July 19 and July 22 concerts were a smorgasbord of strings, with the notable exception of a pianist from the Claremont Trio. The Kreutzer Connection July 19 concert in Alberta Rose Theatre presented three pieces connected closely or loosely with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op. 47, No. 9, called the Kreutzer after its dedicatee Rodolphe Kreutzer, considered one of the best violinists of his time. Like so many of Beethoven’s compositions, this sonata changed the genre for all time. No previous piece for these two instruments had dealt out the music so equally, or made their collaboration so prominent. One of CMNW’s group of freelance musicians, violinist Rebecca Anderson, took on the challenging string part, and the Claremont Trio’s Andrea Lam tackled Beethoven’s piano score.


Mark Steinberg interview: combatting complacency

After performing at Chamber Music Northwest, Brentano Quartet's founding violinist talks about commissioning new music, collaborations, multimedia concerts, and more


The Brentano String Quartet‘s name — after Antonie Brentano, Beethoven’s legendary “Immortal Beloved” — adds a romantic flair to a group of musicians already celebrated for being, in the words of the London Independent, “passionate, uninhibited, and spellbinding.”

I would always go out of my way to hear the Brentano (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins, Misha Amory, viola, and Nina Lee, cello). It’s much more than their technical prowess. There’s something about their playing that convinces me they have surrendered their egos to the music and are committed to doing what each composer most desires.

Brentano Quartet (Mark Steinberg, left) performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival. Photo: Juergen Frank.

The quartet returned to Chamber Music Northwest on July 22 and 23 with violist Hsin-Yun Huang to play three seldom heard viola quintets by Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. First violinist Mark Steinberg graciously submitted to an interview on Friday, July 21 before the group’s scheduled rehearsal. I had talked with Steinberg before and knew him to be poetic and imaginative. He’s small and thin, somewhere in his 40s, with a huge smile and an easy laugh. He seems to have unbounded energy for the task at hand, whether it’s giving an interview or playing an amazingly difficult passage. He talks fast, laughs often, and obviously loves his subject matter.

Why Viola Quintets?

I tell Steinberg that I’ve always loved add-ons to the string quartet and wondered what it is about the viola quintets that is so special. I knew that Mozart had an affinity for this group of instruments, that the viola was his favorite, and that he loved being in the middle of things (the viola’s pitch range lies between the quartet’s cello and violins).

“I think a large part of it is that people just got inspired by Mozart. There’s something about the viola adding another dimension to the quartet — the added texture, layers of counterpoint. Mozart’s viola quintets inspired Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. It’s like Haydn with the string quartet. Once people saw how you could do all that with the string quartet, then everyone wanted to try!”

Longevity’s Lessons

The Brentano has just celebrated its 25th anniversary and I congratulated Steinberg on sticking together and growing together, noting that it only makes for more polished performances. He agreed, sort of.

“On the whole it’s a good thing. We do have a lot of shared history to draw on, so we are much better at sounding okay faster. The reason why it sounds okay is that we have our ways of dealing with that language together. But that’s very different from a great performance. Very, very different.”



Cross-cultural musical ecstasy came to the zoo.

Lazy, hazy? Hardly. Crazy? You bet! Summer used to be the dry time for music as well as everything else ’round these parts. That’s all changing, of course — ask your local farmer — and the same goes for the once-somnolent summer classical music scene.

Now, along with the always appealing Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (about which I’ll have much to say soon), August’s William Byrd Festival, and Portland Piano International (ditto), we have the Oregon Bach Festival‘s welcome incursion into Portland, and tonight, that poses the kind of dilemma that drives PDX music fans madder than Gesualdo.

Do you swing by the Schnitz to hear festival founder and artistic director Helmuth Rilling lead a performance of Beethoven’s mighty Symphony #9, AND see possible Rilling successor Matthew Halls conduct a performance of Handel’s magnificent Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which drew rapturous raves from well informed music fans who caught it in Eugene last week? Or do you head down to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to hear the Brentano Quartet play some of classical music’s most famous unfinished works — augmented by completions of/responses to those works that the ensemble commissioned from some of today’s finest contemporary composers? It’s a real poser, but you really can’t lose either way. It’s the kind of problem most American cities would love to have.

All this comes on the heels of a week in which music maniacs faced similarly tough choices. Wednesday night’s sizzling (in both musical and atmospheric senses) Bach Festival concert by the incomparable Schola Cantorum de Venezuela at near stifling Trinity Cathedral deprived me of the always engaging 3 Leg Torso, among other attractive shows. A stimulating vocal recital (including the premiere of an ambitious new work by a promising young Portland composer, Justin Ralls) by a potential future star baritone, Nicholas Meyer, at the Old Church (again, more soon) forced me to miss a really appealing CMNW show.

And the very next night, I had to skip the same program AGAIN, thanks to a spectacular Oregon Zoo performance, teeming with the sort of unbridled joy that make music and dancing an essential part of human experience, unleashed by what’s undoubtedly the finest aggregation of so-called “world music” stars on the planet: AfroCubism. The occasional all-star band amalgamates the immense talents of a trio of Africa’s greatest and most influential musicians — kora master Toumani Diabate, Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, plus lesser-known but no less accomplished fellow Malian music masters — AND Buena Vista Social Club legend Eliades Ochoa (still indisputably one of the finest singers on the globe) and his corps of crack Cuban compatriots. Any one of those luminaries would be worth seeing alone, and together they were absolutely incendiary, exhibiting the kind of joyful cross cultural connection that has always energized music.

At times, I felt as though I were experiencing a musical Rorschach, like those images that look like a lips kissing if you focus on the black part, like two swans or something when you look at the white. I’d listen to a piece and concentrate on some elements, and it sounded like familiar Malian blues, and then focus on, say, the horn section or Ochoa’s voice, and it was suddenly salsa. Which, I guess, was the point. A couple of pieces started off with the same rhythmic figures (it all comes from Africa, like humanity itself), but what the musicians added on top made them sound like they came from two entirely different traditions. It was a fascinating musical and cultural experience. Disappointingly, it was one of only two world music shows at the Zoo this summer, snapping a summer tradition of family friendly global performers that leaves the city’s summer soundscape less diverse.

Nevertheless, though temperatures may be often be cooler than usual out there, musically speaking, we’re already in the midst of one hot summer. The weekend isn’t even over; tomorrow night brings what may be the most appealing — and, alas, sold out — CMNW program of the summer.

And though the most invigorating Bach festival in years is winding down, Tuesday kicks off what may be the most exciting Portland Piano International Festival ever — easily one of the year’s most attractive classical music events.  So maybe this late-arriving summer thing isn’t so bad after all. I mean, geez, have you tasted the strawberries this year?

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