david shifrin

Chamber Music Northwest review: back to Bach

After an unprecedented exploration of contemporary music, festival finale goes Bach to basics with the Brandenburg concertos

After five weeks of coffee talks and panel discussions, old new music, new new music, new old music, and old new music made new again, it was a relief to settle into familiar old Lincoln Hall for an evening of familiar old Johann Sebastian Bach. On July 30th, Chamber Music Northwest closed out its 47th season, gathering its motley cast of virtuosi for a well-balanced and thoroughly satisfying performance of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Before the music started, CMNW Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin expressed his thanks to the performers, composers, audiences, donors, and sponsors, with “a very special thanks to J.S. Bach for organizing this program and gift-wrapping it for us.” Shifrin explained that the 20 musicians taking the stage that Sunday afternoon would be playing Bach’s music “just as he wrote it, except I will be playing the trumpet part on Eb clarinet, and the viola da gamba will be cello. We think he would like it this way.”

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin (front right) played clarinet in one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I think we can make a case that: 1. Shifrin’s caveats notwithstanding, there are still deep aspects of this performance — intonation, instrument construction, venue acoustics, and so on — that are definitely not just as Bach wrote it; 2. That Bach’s music, like the plays of Shakespeare, seems to have some vital quality which allows it to be endlessly adapted and reinterpreted with what so far seems to be an inexhaustible variety of results.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: winds of change

Imani Winds leads a series of wind-assisted concerts featuring new music

Strings tend to dominate chamber music concerts, so it was nice to hear so many wind instruments at this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. It helps that artistic director David Shifrin is himself a master clarinetist, frequently appearing on concerts both with other wind players and with the customary strings.

Tara Helen O’Connor performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

My first taste of this year’s windiness came with CMNW’s July 21 New@Noon concert in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall. Tara Helen O’Connor started us out with Allison Loggins-Hull’s Pray for flute solo and electronics, the flute part mostly straightforward modal melodies evolving into fancy, violinish arpeggios and creepy, cinematic dissonances, the backing track full of jazz organs, Björk-y electronic beats, watery reverb, and poppy chord changes like something from an ’80s Laurie Anderson tune. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Loggins-Hull’s “Urban Art Pop Duo” Flutronix has performed at the Brooklyn Museum and covered The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

Hsin-Yun Huang performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We did get a bit of strings that day, with Hsin-Yun Huang’s solo viola performance of Joan Tower’s Wild Purple, a merry crescendo of energetic virtuosity packed with Tower’s usual post-serial melodicism, dissonant glissandi against open strings giving way to Bartóky suggestions of folky pentatonicism and jolly bouncing tritones.

Then, Imani Winds breezed onto the stage. Bassoonist Monica Ellis introduced the group: “me and my winds are so happy to be back in Portland. We think it’s our fourth time…we’ll have to fact check that. It’s also a pleasure to be ensemble in residence.”

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Chamber Music Northwest: the sound of glass ceilings shattering

Festival's focus on female composers reveals institutions changing and opportunities for women growing, though barriers remain

It might seem like a good time to be female and a composer. All three of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music finalists were women, several have won the award over the years (including four of the past seven) and names like Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Chen Yi and many, many more are regularly recognized as among the finest living composers regardless of gender.

And yet, a widely cited Baltimore Symphony survey revealed that of the music performed this past season by 85 American orchestras, only a little over 1 percent was written by women. No women occupy the top ten slots of most performed orchestra composers, living or dead. Two of the most acclaimed young male American composers, Andrew Norman and Mohammed Fairouz, recently asked music organizations to consider awarding commissions to female composers even over their own music, all other things being equal. Clearly barriers remain to women in classical music.

But those obstacles haven’t deterred this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival from scheduling scores by a score of women among its five weeks of concerts, including commissioning — that is, paying for — a trio of world premieres by rising young female composers. The repertoire ranges from one of the earliest composers we know by name — the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen — to Romantic composers Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann to some of today’s composers, including award winners Joan Tower and Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, who’ll also participate in a panel discussion with other top female American composers, six of whom will be in town for the festival. Several report that while some obstacles remain to full gender equality, even the hidebound world of classical music is changing for the better.

Some obstacles remain. “There’s been pressure placed on more established opera houses and chamber music societies whether they accept this notion that women composers can be part o their vernacular,” says Imani Winds flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. “And rightly so.”

The problem is especially acute with composers of color, she says. “In general composers of color face the same obstacles as woman — but it’s a double negative punch. There is a tone of frustration with composers of color now over the futility in writing music, knowing that their works may not be performed in more notable chamber music series. The big struggle that all institutions face now is with building audiences and donor bases, breaking that glass wall that prevents folks of color from coming into the concert series.”

Valerie Coleman (second from left) performs her music and more with Imani Winds at this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Coleman worries that young women composers of color aren’t finding their way into classical music, in part because they don’t see people like them represented in programs and performances. “The big discussion among women composers of color is this huge elephant in room: why does it appear to be fewer and fewer composers emerging?”

Coleman’s answer: “There’s a lack of African American women composers not because of opportunity but because of the lack of outreach being made.”

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Chamber Music Northwest preview: women’s work

Portland's annual summer classical music festival throws the spotlight on female composers past and present

by ANGELA ALLEN

Since 1971, Chamber Music Northwest has brought world-class musicians and a deep (mostly) classical repertoire to Portland’s summer-hungry listeners. This year marks the first that women composers take center stage during the five-week festival from June 26 through July 30.

It’s about time. About a quarter of the programing, including lectures, rehearsals and concerts, is devoted to women composers.

There is “a fairly equal number of men and women composing great music today,” said longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin. Over the years, CMNW has occasionally presented pieces by leading female composers including Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, Valerie Coleman and Portland State University’s Bonnie Miksch. But this season, artists will play works by more than a handful of women.

Composer Kati Agócs.

Women composers from the 12th century (Hildegard von Bingen) through today headline concerts and lectures. This summer’s program includes 19th and early 20th century music by Clara Schumann, Fannie Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, while Hannah Lash, Tower, Zwilich, Coleman, Gabriella Smith, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Caroline Shaw, Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, Gabriela Lena Frank and Kati Agócs fill out the contemporary roster. Some will speak on a 2 p.m. panel July 15 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium where they’ll discuss their works and the challenges involved in gaining attention and respect in today’s music world.

“It will take another generation or two before we establish something analogous to literary women’s canon in music composition,” Agócs emailed from Boston where she lives and teaches composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “There are many fierce women working now, but it will be a long road. Commissioning new works and mentoring young women are ways to bring about a female canon in music.”

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Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

Ambitious theater and music performance reveals an inspired composer, but an uninspired story

by JEFF WINSLOW and BRETT CAMPBELL

Editor’s note: Chamber Music Northwest’s new production,  “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld,” received its premiere at this summer’s festival before going on tour. ArtsWatch sent two writers to cover it, one from a musical perspective, the other a theatrical one. They came away with different impressions.

Even at the height of his fame, Johannes Brahms was an unusually private person. He rarely made public statements aside from his music, and towards the end of his life he burned piles of letters his family and closest friends had sent him over the years, even asking for his own letters back. (This was long before copiers, let alone e-mail.) In contrast, his rival, composer and dramatist Richard Wagner, left a torrent of text about his life and ideas, including some the world could have happily done without. Still, Brahms’s life had its portentous if not operatic moments.

The Dover Quartet joined actor Jack Gilpin, clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet joined clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

One moment music lovers can be especially grateful for was his meeting with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1891, shortly after the composer had decided to retire. He was so taken with Mühlfeld’s artistry that he began calling him Miss Clarinet (Fräulein Klarinette), possibly in wistful memory of times spent squiring various attractive young female singers around Viennese society. That artistry got Brahms composing again, not only writing four meaty chamber works featuring clarinet, but also no fewer than 20 piano solo works, many that would become audience favorites.

No car chases or vampires in sight, but this story of creative renewal is pretty dramatic as classical composers’ lives go, and it was probably irresistible to David Shifrin, who is not only Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director but also an internationally renowned clarinetist. CMNW teamed with playwright Harry Clark, actor Jack Gilpin, and director Troy Hollar to create a cross between a concert and a play, a one-man show with live music. As a composer who’s been in awe of Brahms for 40 years, I found it fascinating, although I naturally focused much more on its music than its modest drama.

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Running the gamut with Beethoven

The Miró Quartet and violinist Jennifer Frautschli time-travel audaciously with the Big B. at Chamber Music Northwest

To borrow from Henry James, there are times when Beethoven has nothing to say to us, and those are our worst moments. Chamber Music Northwest and the Miró Quartet are in the midst of two performances titled Beethoven’s Progression – the program opened Monday night at Reed College and repeats Tuesday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall – that give a look into the composer’s evolution, contrasting his early and most popular septet with a later, largely shunned string quartet. Part of a season-long exploration of Beethoven’s music, it’s also a preview of Shifrin and the Miró’s collaboration with actor Jack Gilpin on the world premiere this Friday of playwright Harry Clark’s theatrical work An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld.

In our times the artist who perhaps most resembles Beethoven is painter Chuck Close. Close suffered a spinal artery collapse in his late 40s that has left him mostly paralyzed. His early works are large photorealistic portraits that dive straight into the psychology of his subjects: forceful and assertive observations about the conflicts between body, heart, age, and desires that fluctuate in the human mind. After Close’s accident he stayed with the canvas, but used his limited mobility not only to break down into atomic precision the colors in their composition, but also to dig the knife deeper into the mindsets of his subjects.

The Mirò Quartet: down in the trenches with Beethoven.

The Miró Quartet: down in the trenches with Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 and String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 give us a similar handle on the composer. The Septet begins as a playful match among strings, woodwinds and horns. Beethoven takes a cavalier delight in matching tempo wits with Mozart, the older master’s snappy rests with the strings that take us from lullabies to the sound of young girls learning how to be coy. Where Mozart makes bubbling play with his sounds, knowing he is creating delight for us mere mortals, Beethoven is looking at the intellect that could create such revolutionary nuance.

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Northern Lights, shining bright

Chamber Music Northwest takes a joyous trip to Scandinavia with a pair of Nielsens and Grieg's "Peer Gynt"

On Thursday Portland had a few hours of ideal summer, and the Reed College campus was lush with green trees, thick grass, and the lovely scourge of ivy. A few black tents dotted the landscape, shelters for people serving coffee and tea. Ladies in dresses and men in button-down shirts came and went. The relative ease of the atmosphere at sunset recalled an English lawn party. It was a prototypical evening at Chamber Music Northwest, and the spirited crowd had gathered to hear the concert Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems. The music of the title’s two “lights” – the lesser-known Carl Nielsen and the more popular Edvard Grieg, with a new arrangement of his Peer Gynt – summoned less an imagining of the aurora borealis and more the mysterious spirits of nature on the move.

Violinist Theodore Arm (left) discusses David Schiff's new arrangement of "Peer Gynt" during rehearsal. Photo: Kimmie Fadern/Chamber Music Northwest

Violinist Theodore Arm (left) discusses David Schiff’s new arrangement of “Peer Gynt” during rehearsal. Photo: Kimmie Fadern/Chamber Music Northwest

Kaul Auditorium, Reed’s 750-seat concert hall, must be a musician’s dream. It’s made for acoustics, not just the audience’s leg room or vantage point, and outside and in seemed to blend. The welcoming smell of fresh timber filled the air. The greens gave off a vibrant hue through the windows as the stage lights glowed off the fresh polished neutral woods. The five chamber musicians took the stage in white coats and black shirt and tie, with the exception of cellist Mihai Marica, who wore an aubergine-colored gown. Not a stern soul was to be found: they entered the stage with bright eyes and glee in their cheeks.

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