Weekend MusicWatch: Summer festival fever

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.

Eugene is the Oregon Bach Festival’s main focus, of course, despite its increasing statewide presence. Along with the Tippett and Scott performances, this weekend features the festival’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy in a concert of music by Bach, Handel, Copland and more — including the premiere of a welcome commission from SFYCA alum Stanford Scriven. The festival’s two most attractive smaller scale concerts happen Monday and Tuesday at the UO’s acoustically impeccable Beall Concert Hall.

Halls, a renowned historically informed keyboard player and protege of Portland Baroque Orchestra artistic director Monica Huggett, plays some of Bach’s greatest solo music on harpsichord and leads a chamber orchestra in two of the master’s finest keyboard concerti Monday, and the following evening features a scintillating and unusual all-Debussy program with pianists Davide Riley, Ya-Fei Chuang and a trio of singers in several of his vocal works, including the lovely, pseudo-mythological Songs of Bilitis. The rest of next week offers some attractive gems — films, Rilling leading his celebrated Discovery Series (this time exploring Bach’s mighty St. Matthew Passion), talks, and more, but several of the best (including Beall concerts by Rilling and pianist Angela Hewitt) concert are already sold out, and others nearing it, so check the festival website before making plans.

The Tokyo Quartet and Jeremy Denk
at Chamber Music Northwest.
Photo: Jim Leisy

 That other major summer festival, Chamber Music Northwest, continues this weekend in Portland with an excellent and relatively unusual Mozart concert, spotlighting one of his best Divertimenti (a misleadingly modest name for such an achievement) and piano trios and Portland composer (and Portland State University music prof) Bryan Johanson’s poignant 2004 tribute to doomed Portland violinist Marty Jennings, the string quartet Notes on a Vaulted Sky. Monday and Tuesday’s CMNW concerts feature two of the most renowned works of the European Romantic era: Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat and Brahms’s Clarinet Sonata #2, starring CMNW artistic director David Shifrin and one of the real musical legends of our time, 77-year-old pianist Gil Kalish, who’s been a stalwart advocate for contemporary music throughout his career and also an acclaimed accompanist (for stars like Dawn Upshaw) and teacher.

I heard Shifrin play Brahms’s other clarinet sonata at an excellent CMNW show last weekend, this time with pianist Jeremy Denk, who supplied subtle precision and, when appropriate, robustly expressive passion to balance Shifrin’s limpid tone.  Members of the Tokyo Quartet and oboist Stephen Taylor turned in a sweet run of Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet to open the show, but pairing it with the similarly pastoral Brahms duo made for too slow a first half; it’s too bad that the originally scheduled Poulenc sonata, which would have ideally complemented it, couldn’t be performed, but that’s what happens when the original star (Andre Watts) unfortunately calls in sick.

Besides, Denk and the Tokyo Quartet made a masterful combination in one of the other major Romantic chamber works, Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in f minor. Again, Denk and his cohorts displayed superb sensitivity to the music’s turbulent emotional changes, resulting in a brilliant performance that couldn’t help winning over confirmed anti-Romantics.

Yet another major summer festival begins next week, with Portland International Piano Festival’s first recital (featuring Andreas Klein playing Beethoven and Schubert Tuesday) plus all manner of films, workshops, lecture-demos and more. Stay tuned for more on all three festivals soon on ArtsWatch.

Jeremy Denk and David Shifrin at
Chamber Music Northwest.
Photo: Jim Leisy


One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    tippett is a wonderful composer that is sadly under-performed in the usa. i particularly enjoy his “sonata for 4 horns” & recommend an exploration of the following works:

    + the 4 symphonies
    + the 4 string quartets
    + the 4 piano sonatas
    + the knot garden (opera)
    + the heart’s assurance (song cycle)
    + concerto for orchestra (especially the 1st mvt.)
    + triple concerto (violin, viola & cello)


    as for the “songs of bilitis,” yeah, some beautiful & provocative imagery there. so, if pierre louys is of interest to you, allow me to recommend some of his REALLY envelope-pushing works (pornography published after his death):

    + “the young girls’ handbook of good manners”
    + “the she-devils”

    AND, do NOT blame me for what you find here. just for the record, know that louys & debussy were VERY close friends @ one time & that debussy shared some of pierre’s rather troublesome preoccupations.

    you’ve been warned.

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