By ANGELA ALLEN
“Higher! Louder! Faster!”
That’s how 36-year-old composer Andrew Norman describes the “emphatic trajectory” of his 2004 “Gran Turismo.” Eight violinists played this violins-on-speed piece as part of Chamber Music Northwest’s “The Power of Strings” concert Fourth of July weekend (July 3 and 4) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.
The audience seemed to enjoy the ride, and if I didn’t concur entirely, at least I appreciated its wit.
Two groups of world-renowned violinist siblings—Ani and Ida Kavafian and Daniel and Todd Phillips—were part of this astoundingly accomplished group who, at quicksilver pace, exchanged rising and falling phrasing (imagine race cars circling a track), contentious string conversations, and swift-and-swifter tempos. And yes, at times for me, it conveyed a kind of screeching atonality similar to trying to start a stubborn engine.
Certainly this piece “needed” to be played in Portland, after grand reviews from important critics praising it for its “Chaplinesque humor” (LA Times) “staggering imagination” (Boston Globe), and “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors” (New York Times). Inspired by a car-racing video game and visual rhythm in Futurist paintings, such as in Giacomo Balla’s 1913-14 speeding-car paintings, Norman’s work was thankfully delivered to us by very good violinists: la crème de la crème. This piece could turn painful with less accomplished musicians.
British composer Gordon Jacob’s “Suite for Eight Violas” was another striking departure from commonplace string repertoires, starring the oft-maligned (especially in New Yorker cartoons) viola. In four parts for 12 minutes, the Phillips and Kavafian siblings joined Paul Neubauer, Steven Tenenbom, Pablo Munoz Salido and Kenji Bunch in a rousing almost-centenary tribute to British violist Lionel Tertis, who lived from 1876-1975.
The piece was not as stunningly audacious as “Gran Turismo,” but its intertwining call-and-response among eight violas was a rare journey in strings.
Excerpts from three Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas arranged for a cello quartet (double-bassist Curtis Daily played as well) were minimalist takes on pieces composed to be sung by male singers. The cello is the closest instrument to the human voice, some say, and I agree. Excerpts from Cantatas nos. 163, 183 and 62, none longer than eight minutes, were arranged by cellist Fred Sherry who directed from the center of the group. Sherry is in his 38th season at the CMNW festival, and his book, 25 Bach Duets from the Cantatas with a two-cello performance score (Boosey and Hawkes, 2011), attests to his passion for applying cello to Bach.
Timothy Eddy, Hamilton Cheifetz and Zizai Ning filled out the virtuoso group. I loved the restraint and minimalism, though maybe some traditionalists longed for low-register singing and more strings.
Antonin Dvorak’s 30-minute Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 was a sweet relief for romantics, so much that the violinists swayed like flags in the wind with the five lyric movements. The flaglike movement made full circle with “The Star-Spangled Banner” done up in quirky strings-only style as the first piece of the concert.
You’ll hear many of these stellar musicians at other CMNW concerts this summer, through July 31, mixed into groups like the Orion and Zora string quartets.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.