Emerson Quartet

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL


Chamber Music Northwest reviews: famous and unfamiliar fare

Emerson and Calidore Quartets excel in classics by male European composers, while Claremont Trio shines in works by three generations of female composers


Throughout his long and productive career, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) used the genre of the string quartet as an outlet for his emotions when his orchestral or operatic works had been criticized and suppressed by Stalin’s censors. Earlier this year, the Emerson String Quartet played Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourth quartet in an April 19 concert, and on July 8, still under the auspices of Chamber Music Northwest, they added the composer’s fourteenth quartet and on July 9, the eighth. What a treat to get to hear these wonderful players performing so much of the music of the 20th century’s greatest and most important composer of string quartets.

The Emersons — Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello —began the July 8 concert with a tasty seven-minute appetizer by the English 17th-century composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of his many chaconies small pieces originally written for what was called a consort of viols, generally a quartet of stringed instruments that were the immediate precursors of the modern violin, viola, cello, and double bass. In the Chacony in G Minor, Mr. Watkins took the part of the violone, the viol family’s version of the modern double bass. It was a plausible but hardly necessary introduction to the real business at hand: Shostakovich’s 14th Quartet followed by the same composer’s marvelous Prelude and Scherzo and then, in the concert’s second half, Mendelssohn’s miraculous Octet, written when the composer was only sixteen years old.

The Calidore Quartet joined the Emerson Quartet to play octets at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shostakovich’s fourteenth and penultimate quartet (he also wrote fifteen symphonies) alternates between pensive and almost romantic passages. Shostakovich had begun the piece during a happy visit with the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whom he admired, at Britten’s home in England. Dedicated to a cellist, the quartet showcases that instrument at the beginning before the second-movement Adagio, where the cellist is joined by the first violinist while the other two quartet members play pizzicato. In the final movement Allegretto, the players toss melodic fragments among themselves, a task difficult to do but very effective when done well, as the Emersons demonstrated. The quartet then ends with a quiet return to the first movement’s lovely Adagio.

To end the concert’s first half, the Emersons then brought onstage the Calidore String Quartet to join their mentors in Shostakovich’s not-well-known Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, scored for double string quartet. The Emersons generously assigned their younger collaborators (violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, cellist Estelle Choi) the first-chair parts for this energetic composition by the young Shostakovich, written when he was just 18 years old. Especially in its super-vigorous Allegro molto, with all eight players sawing away like mad, it proved an effective piece on its own.


Philip Setzer interview: keeping it fresh

As the Emerson Quartet completes its Chamber Music Northwest residency, a founder talks about new music, a new music/theater project, and what great violinists really think about onstage


I had never been to a chamber music concert until one time in the early 1980s a friend persuaded me to go the the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC to hear, in the words of the Washington Post’s music critic at the time, “The young and splendid Emerson String Quartet.” Surrounded by huge Old Master paintings, my friend Anne and I sat spellbound while these four musicians wove their Schubert and Mendelssohn tapestries. I had enjoyed the grandeur of symphonic music as a lucky student recipient of free tickets, and attended the Washington Opera regularly with my brother. But I had never before experienced the subtle intimacy of chamber music, and I was hooked.

The Emerson Quartet are Chamber Music Northwest’s Artists in Residence this season. Photo: Tom Emerson.

After 40 years of performing together, the Emersons are, well, older (as are we all), but undoubtedly even more splendid. I’ve been fortunate to interview every member of the Quartet, the most recent being the modest, virtuoso violinist Philip Setzer. One of the wonderful things about chamber musicians is that they are all virtuosi, and yet each is an integral part of the family comprising the ensemble.

With the Quartet wrapping up its two-year run as Artists-in-Residence at Portland‘s Chamber Music Northwest, it‘s time to complete my series of Emerson interviews. Just before he left Portland, we talked about old music (especially Shostakovich), new music, violinists who compose, communicating with audiences (and vice versa), Setzer’s role in the Emersons’ recent explorations of combinations of music and theater, and much more.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).


Emerson Quartet review: Maintaining mastery

Esteemed ensemble’s 20th century Chamber Music Northwest program shows undiminished energy and excellence


Almost since its inception in 1976, the Emerson String Quartet has been regarded as one of the elite quartets. Its awards, prizes, and “best recording” accolades are innumerable, and although, with just one personnel change in 41 years, all its members are no longer young, its sound is still clean and creamy. Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest scored a coup in landing the Emersons as its Ensemble-in-Residence for the 2016-17 season, thanks to a generous gift from one of their contributors, Laura Meier. So it was a bit of surprise that there were some 50 or 60 empty seats at its April 19 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, sponsored by CMNW.

The Emerson Quartet playing last summer at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

That said, a lot of the filled seats were occupied by young people rather than the white-hairs who dominate audiences for classical music in Portland. One imagines that it was the program, and its location at Reed, that brought out the twenty-somethings. All of the Emerson’s repertoire was from the 20th century, including such “difficult” composers as Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Alban Berg (1885-1935), and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), as well as Samuel Barber (1910-1981). This made for a pretty fair representation of 20th-century string quartet music.


ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Conduit’s last dance, Russian lost love, the color of race, chamber tales

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

For more than 20 years Conduit was a vital link – in many ways, the vital link – in Portland’s chain of contemporary dance organizations. A home base for some of the city’s most creative dancemakers, it was also the place that visiting choreographers and dancers made their temporary work home when they were in town. Major work and vital experiments were created here by a host of talented people. Mary Oslund, Tere Mathern, Linda K. Johnson, Gregg Bielemeier, V. Keith Goodman, Jim McGinn, Katherine Longstreth: the list goes on and on, creating a tapestry of the tale of a very large and significant chapter in the history of the city’s dance.

It’s all history now, or will be as of July 23, when Conduit hangs up its hat for good, at least in its current form. The party’s over – but not before an actual party, A Wake for Conduit, fills the Ford Building for a final celebration this Wednesday, July 13. Bring your stories, and put on your dancing shoes. Jamuna Chiarini has the story for ArtsWatch readers.

There Mathern's "Gather: a dance about convergence," performed in 2012 in Conduit's original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

There Mathern’s “Gather: a dance about convergence,” performed in 2012 in Conduit’s original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson



A TALE OF RUSSIAN LOVE LOST. Bruce Browne reviews Portland Opera’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which continues in the relatively cozy Newmark Theatre through July 26. Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s extraordinarily popular Russian verse novel, is re-set in this production to the late years of the Soviet Union and the early years of the post-Soviet era, a switch that works for Browne: “The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change.” He particularly praises Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, the country miss who’s spurned by the cold title character: “Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.”


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