david shifrin

Chamber Music Northwest review: New music showcase

Festival’s New@Noon series spotlights contemporary compositions

Is chamber music only for old people? Anyone who attends chamber music concerts in Oregon and takes a look at the audience’s relatively advanced age must be filled with both admiration and worry. Admiration for so many senior Oregonians who continue to pursue the pleasure of live music making, which at its best offers thrills no recording can match. And concern about the question: when a good portion of that audience is no longer able to make it to shows in a few years, who will support live chamber music in Oregon? Pollyannas postulate that the chamber music audience is always old, and that today’s youngsters will repopulate the seats when they’ve attained sufficient income and leisure time to do so, but informed observers like Greg Sandow say the data don’t back that claim, that the classical music audience is demonstrably older than it was three or four generations ago. And the fact that so many classical music presenters are trying all sorts of gimmicks to lure younger audiences suggests that they recognize the looming demographic disaster.

To its credit, Chamber Music Northwest has been trying hard to avoid it. A few years ago, the venerable Portland presenting series started its Protege Project, which brought younger performers to town — twenty and thirty-somethings who represent some of the cream of the rising crop of younger classical musicians, many of them students of CMNW’s veteran core — and set them loose in the festival’s informal Club Concerts in indie rock clubs and in the festival’s other shows.

But while the age demographic onstage grew younger, for the first years at least, the heads in the seats remained stubbornly gray and white. While it was gratifying to see CMNW’s surprisingly adventurous older audience members gamely venturing out to new venues, the early results (and my own anecdotal observations) didn’t show a dramatic drop in the age of attendees. Last year, the festival moved some shows from a ritzy private school far from Portland’s urban action to Portland State University’s splendid Lincoln Hall downtown, a venue easier for urban hipsters to reach.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson's String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson’s String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

And CMNW continues to rise to the challenge. In introducing several of this summer’s concerts — and not just those devoted primarily to recent music — executive director Peter Bilotta made a point of emphasizing the festival’s commitment to new music, including this summer’s seven premieres. CMNW puts its money where his mouth is too, since it commissioned — that is, paid composers to write — several of them.

This summer’s 45th annual festival, which concluded at the end of last month, introduced yet another attempt at rejuvenation: longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin conceived the New@Noon series, which, along with sounding all 21st century hip with that twitterific @ symbol, presented three concerts of music by living composers at noon on Fridays at Lincoln Hall. How did it work? We’ll take a look at the shows in this story, and draw some conclusions in part two.


Chamber Music Northwest reviews: Pros and Proteges

Seasoned veterans and rising stars bring elegance and energy to classics


The Emerson Quartet is always popular with Chamber Music Northwest audiences, and this year was no exception, with both shows sold out. It’s easy to understand why. They don’t engage in theatrics or other behavior worrisome to CMNW’s core demographic, nor do they play up the darker sides of their repertory, but they do deliver some of the most elegant, lovingly detailed performances around. I caught them on July 11 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, where they played the first of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s landmark “Haydn” string quartets, K. 387, a late Mozart string quintet (K. 614) with the able partnership of Paul Neubauer’s viola, and Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet.

 Emerson String Quartet played Mozart & Ravel at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson

Emerson String Quartet played music by Mozart and Ravel at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets are a celebration of the growing friendship between the composer and Joseph Haydn, who established the string quartet in its preeminent position in the world of classical music. They are also an homage to the older composer, one which Mozart, who was capable of tossing off a masterpiece in days, worked on carefully for over three years. The result is one of the pinnacles of the string quartet repertory, and the Emerson was in their element performing the first quartet, sometimes subtitled “Spring.” It flows and bubbles along, allowing listeners to either abandon their cares to it as on a fine spring day, or revel in its abundant compositional subtleties. The group provided all that could be desired for either kind of listening. Its finely-honed sound filled Kaul well, possibly aided by the group adopting soloist positions, all performing standing up except for the cellist.


Chamber Music Northwest Club Concerts review: Seeking new listeners in new spaces

The summer festival’s alternative venue series brings young players to an old audience.


A vibrant chatter fills the air at Jimmy Mak’s, Portland’s premier jazz venue. People are happily eating and drinking, gaily greeting friends from across the room, holding eagerly anticipatory conversations of the evening’s imminent music. Is this the night of a Mel Brown Quintet or Bureau of Standards Big Band show? No! Surprisingly, it’s the opening night of Chamber Music Northwest’s Club Concert series. Initiated in 2010, it is a sort of alt-CMNW series, designed, according to the festival’s website, to “break down the barriers between performers and audience.”

Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project musicians performed at Portland's Jimmy Mak's Jazz Lounge. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project musicians performed at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

In conjunction with the festival’s Protégé Project, the series was intended to bring some of the most talented young musicians on the cusp of their careers into the fold, providing opportunities for mentoring with the established CMNW artists, community outreach, unique collaborations, and off-the-beaten-path repertoire. “I proposed a series of concerts to be held in venues and neighborhoods not ordinarily served by CMNW,” festival Artistic Director David Shifrin explained in an email. “Club concerts are one aspect of this effort which we hope will attract music lovers (possibly younger than our average listeners) who may be hesitant to experience our music in the somewhat more formal setting of a concert hall.”

Based upon what I observed at the club concerts this year, the program seems to be a remarkable success. It is presenting works off the beaten path from the mostly staid programming of the main stage concerts, encouraging a less formal relationship between the audience and performers, and slowly bringing in some younger patrons to what is arguably the oldest audience in classical music in Portland.


Chamber Music Northwest review: Pièces de Résistance

Summer festival opens with Debussyan delights, defiance.


A hundred years ago today, a shot heard around the world killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and within weeks Europe plunged into World War I. Long-simmering resentments and rivalries erupted all over the continent, and its greatest ever flowering of artistic optimism withered and collapsed.

The leading French figure of that flowering, and the first musical modernist, Claude Debussy, who had wrestled with the rampant Wagnerian esthetic of his day, and won, found in himself a streak of fervent patriotism. Though he was too old to go to war, he wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand, “if, to assure victory, they are absolutely in need of another face to bash in, I’ll offer mine without question.”

At first he could not compose, but in the summer of 1915, Debussy was seized with a sudden determination to make a contribution only he could make. In short order this most painstaking of artists nearly doubled his catalog of mature piano music and wrote two chamber sonatas. A third was written over the next two years as he struggled against the cancer that would ultimately kill him. On each, the title page was emblazoned, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

Tara Helen O'Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Tara Helen O’Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The three sonatas, his only so-named essays in what had become a quintessentially German genre, deliberately thrust aside the enemy shades of Haydn and Beethoven to invoke earlier French models. They were his final masterpieces, sadly – three more planned sonatas were never completed. Instead, too weak to be moved, he died in an upstairs bedroom as German shells exploded in the surrounding streets of Paris just months before the armistice.

German music continues to dominate Chamber Music Northwest‘s offerings, like so many classical chamber music festivals. So it seems particularly apropos that in this anniversary year, artistic director David Shifrin chose an all-Debussy concert, including the three sonatas, for the opening salvo. Rounding out the program was the clarinet and piano rhapsody, the great-granddaddy of all contemporary solo flute pieces, Syrinx, and Reed College composer David Schiff’s deft arrangement for clarinet and string quartet, Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. I caught these Tuesday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, and for a short time my always generous appetite for Debussy was well sated.


Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin


Last Thursday’s Chamber Music Northwest concert wasn’t billed as a “new music” concert, even though most of the works performed were written in the last 20 years by living American composers. Maybe it was because all five of the programmed composers are getting up there, celebrating their 75th birthdays this year. They’re all still very active though, and to prove it, two – Joan Tower and William Bolcom – came to the show from distant parts, and Bolcom even performed in his own works. Listening to the wide variety of styles presented, and considering some which were missing, I was mindful throughout the evening how classical music is shaping up in the early 21st century, and how old and new aren’t necessarily what they used to be.

One could hardly find a better exemplar than a five year old piece written by a (then) 99-year-old composer. Thanks to a donation by local Elliott Carter enthusiast Bruce Cronin, the concert opened with a special performance of the third of Carter’s “Tre Duetti.” Long-time CMNW participant Fred Sherry, the cellist the piece was written for, and violinist Yura Lee, who partnered with him wonderfully tightly in Maurice Ravel’s Violin and Cello Sonata earlier in the week, gave an utterly committed performance. A couple of passages of rhythmically regular musical ping-pong between them were surprisingly square, and I wasn’t particularly convinced by the ending. But for the most part we were treated to a rich variety of arresting details in delightfully intricate counterpoint, hallmarks of Carter’s style for the last 65 years of his very long and productive life.

Fred Sherry.

Cellist Fred Sherry

In somewhat the same way, Charles Wuorinen’s string sextet “Zoe,” completed just this year in memory of a beloved cat, cast a backward look to a dense, complex, continuously dissonant sound once considered cutting edge but which fewer and fewer young composers are making a splash with these days, at least not in this unadulterated form. That backward look was the only sense of memorial that one could discern in the undistinguished array of motives, rhythms, and harmonies which passed by seemingly heedless of any world beyond themselves. I was reminded of the paean to the composer in the program notes, which at the same time unintentionally gives an impression of someone totally absorbed in his own mental landscape, with little desire to connect with living and breathing people around him. That he and the six performers are all masters of their craft was evident when the music coalesced in the last half-minute or so and ended on exactly the right pitch in the right rhythm. But it took far too long to get there.

John Harbison has made a name for himself putting a more human face on the mid-20th century avant-garde, and I expected great things from “Six American Painters” for flute plus string trio, inspired by George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, and Richard Diebenkorn. And indeed, I rarely got the feeling, as in the previous work, that the composer didn’t care to provide pure sensory pleasure. As someone who responds strongly to extramusical imagery, though, I was mostly puzzled by these understated portraits. Only one – Winslow Homer – stood out from the pack, yet how it stood out! It sizzled, it skittered, it flowered into an invigorating evocation of salt air and seascape, with nary a cliche, just inspired composition. Several folks I talked with afterwards, some schooled, some not, were especially taken with it.

It was time to hear from another, very different stream of American music – not necessarily dissonance-shy, but straightforward and melodic – once derided as old-fashioned, but which has survived to see its detractors begin to wear the same look. John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Piano” is a concentrated version of the music he wrote for the moody 1997 film. Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo gave a strongly etched performance, passionate without histrionics. The only problem with the material in such a short piece was that the many recurrences of the chaconne theme got to be a bit much. The stark minor thirds and jagged rhythms it opens with are more spread out in the film, where they land with shattering effect. Nonetheless the piece went straight to my heart and hung over my mood all the next day.

Joan Tower

Composer Joan Tower

Just prior to the performance of Joan Tower’s fascinating “Turning Points,” she came out and gave a short, entertainingly self-deprecating talk, but there was nothing self-deprecating in the work, a clarinet quintet featuring a virtuosic solo part. It was written for CMNW artistic director David Shifrin and he owned it, even powering flawlessly through a register-skipping section which Tower seems to have designed expressly to torture clarinetists into letting out a squawk or two. True to its title, the piece motored to life immediately with tight circulating lines in all instruments, but just as absorbing if not more so was the subplot that developed in the ever-changing pattern of instrumentation. About two-thirds of the way through I found my interest flagging a little, and I realized that narrative was on hold while the strings engaged in some kind of tussle between different camps of (melodic) intervals. But soon they got over it and moved on, and the piece drew me back in again as it built to a big finish.

The program ended on a lighter, but no less intelligent note as composer-pianist William Bolcom and his lifelong partner in crime Joan Morris came on and entertained the hell out of us with a generous selection of American cabaret and popular songs, many written by Bolcom himself. He may be one of the grand old men of American music – and locals remember the Portland Opera production of his serious opera “A View from the Bridge” a few years ago – but he can whip up a mean ditty as well.

William Bolcom performed American music at Chamber Music Northwest.

Composer/pianist William Bolcom

Nor did they neglect the classics, giving us Gershwin and Vernon Duke and Richard Rodgers. Portland native Morris engaged us from the first with her lively manner, perfect understandability and smoky low range. It was a perfect ending to an American concert on the Fourth of July.

It was also a nod to a movement within classical music that is gathering strength, though only among much younger composers so it didn’t fit into the theme of 75th birthdays. More and more we hear attempts by classically trained composers to give popular idioms the genre-shattering multifariousness and many-leveled structure which is classical music at its best, or conversely, give pride of place in their work to a surface attractiveness and immediacy worthy of those same idioms. For the most part, they haven’t been terribly successful as yet, but who knows what is coming.

A more curious omission from the program permitted by the accident of birth years was minimalism and its descendants. LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass are all OLDER than 75 – think of that! And yet their music is at least as important for the generations of composers and musicians maturing today than many of the composers presented, especially on the first half.

Still, a 75th birthday is a milestone, and all these composers deserve their place in the sun. Kudos to CMNW’s Shifrin for realizing that in composers all born in the same year, and who are still living – indeed, at the height of their powers – there is so much variety, and arranging for Portlanders to hear such a highly satisfying two hours of their music.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and is on the board of directors of Cascadia Composers.

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A lot of Oregonians are on summer vacation this weekend, but Oregon classical music is as active as at anytime during the year, thanks mostly to the twin towers of Oregon summer music, the four-decade old Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest. The University of Oregon festival’s big concert in its Portland mini-season featured one of the great 20th century choral orchestral works, British composer Michael Tippett’s moving 1944 oratorio, A Child of Our Time. Modeled on Baroque masterpieces by Handel and J.S. Bach (whose Mass in G is also on the program conducted by future OBF artistic director Matthew Halls at Eugene’s Hult Center Saturday and Northwest Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Friday), it uses African American spirituals like “Steal Away” as musical seeds, much as Bach built some of his sacred works on the girders of Lutheran chorale tunes.

I have no idea why it’s never been performed in Oregon till now, but it means that you shouldn’t pass up this chance to catch one of the highest British musical achievements.  The OBF’s Portland incursion also includes another J.S. Bach master work: New York organist John Scott performs his Organ Mass, or Keyboard Practice (Clavier-Ubung) III Monday at Trinity Cathedral and Friday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church.


The Amphion Quartet plays the Someday Lounge.

Early Sunday evening, July 24, the gentle final notes of Gustav Mahler’s valedictory symphony, “The Song of the Earth,” faded into the rafters at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, sounding an apt farewell to Chamber Music Northwest founder Sergiu Luca, who died in December. Though the violinist hadn’t been part of the festival he founded in 1971 for three decades, this tribute concert coincided with a summer rejuvenation of his creation and other Portland classical music institutions, as if to say, this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

The evidence of transition was everywhere on stage, but during the concert honoring Luca, it was best represented by  the magnificent young singer, Sasha Cooke, already a star in the making. She delivered moving, convincing performances of music by very different composers, Ravel and Mahler, as she had done a few nights earlier with Brahms and Chausson. Cooke was one of a dozen or more 20-somethings on stage for Luca’s farewell, most of them members of CMNW’s Protégé Project, now in its second year. The project brings rising young musicians to town for performances, a residency and various outreach programs. Except for a few special events, the Protégé-only concerts took place on Sunday afternoons at venues better known for hosting indie rock bands, and the musicians also participated in teaching and various outreach activities.

Taken together, this summer’s major classical events — CMNW (especially the half dozen Protégé concerts), Portland Piano International’s new music-oriented week-long July festival, and the Oregon Bach Festival’s new push into Portland — added up to a real sea change in Portland classical music. Arriving after the Oregon Symphony’s triumphant May Carnegie Hall performance (named best concert of the year by no less than New Yorkercritic Alex Ross), this summer blossoming has brought a real transfiguration in the city’s classical scene — a sense that even some of our old guard, mainstream institutions are at last gazing firmly forward into the 21st century, bringing in new repertoire, new faces, and newly adventurous spirit to once predictable programs.

What’s even more remarkable is that much of this transformation was wrought not by visionary newcomers, but rather by three of the city’s most experienced arts administrators: CMNW artistic and executive directors David Shifrin and Linda Magee, and PPI’s Harold Gray, all of whom have been on the job for more than three decades.

This summer demonstrated that despite the gloomy tidings of bankruptcies, aging audiences, and fossilized repertoire in many provinces of the crumbling classical music domain, we’re in the midst an exciting time for fans of Portland classical and post-classical music — perhaps the most thrilling since all of those institutions arrived in the 1970s, when today’s aging CMNW veterans were themselves eager twenty- and thirty-somethings.

The Protégé Project, which began promisingly last year with a (mostly) different batch of youthful talent, was conceived by Shifrin, who has connections to top young players through his Yale teaching position and his central role in the New York classical music firmament, and Magee, who brought it to alternative venues. (Here’s a thorough exploration of last year’s program.) Classical music organizations around the country are scrambling to find new audiences before the old ones expire. Some (including a few in this very city) try superficial gimmicks or marketing approaches. Others — loath to alienate their current, aging subscriber base by fiddling with the formula — make only grudging gestures toward contemporaneity, much less the future.

To its credit, CMNW, perhaps alarmed by the sea of grey- and white-haired heads that dominate its audiences, looked to reinvigorate its four-decade-old festival with an infusion of young blood and fresh musical talent, and not just the official Protégés. This summer’s festival proved that approach to be a smashing success. The young performers, of course, benefited from facing a wide variety of challenges — from dodgy acoustics to occasionally awkward, often charming stage remarks — and audiences in CMNW’s safe, nurturing atmosphere. But the biggest winners were Portland music lovers, young and old.

The first rumblings that things were going to be different this year erupted at the first Protégé concert at the Someday Lounge. Displaying admirable versatility, the Amphion Quartet excelled in string quartets from three different eras: witty in early Classical Mozart, fervid in Romantic Schumann, blistering in modernist Bartok (during which one patron keeled over; she revived after medical personnel arrived to assist).


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