Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

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


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.


Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

Riveting Chamber Music Northwest performances showcase an exemplary 21st century composer


Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.


Berwick Chorus review: Dynamic tension

Oregon Bach Festival performance of Frank Martin's 20th century classic reflects composer's spiritual conflict


I am surprised by the number of musical settings of the Catholic Mass that have been written by twentieth-century composers who have reason to be apostate: Igor Stravinsky with his long-suffering wife back in Russia and his life-long mistress at his side, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison with their devoted same-sex relationships, Leonard Bernstein’s life of pop fame and decadence.

I am neither Catholic nor Christian. But I can see (and hear) the tidal influence that this faith can have on artists: piety and devotion at one time, decadent behavior, or “anti-Christian” lifestyle at another. Perhaps that psychological dissonance is what drove these artists to excel, to lsesh themselves to great achievement: a dynamic tension that arises from simultaneously attempting to transcend and to dissolve into a Faith.

Frank Martin, a devout Christian and son of a Calvinist minister, wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir between the years 1922 and 1926; the last movement was not finished till four years after the first four were composed. Martin was loath to have the work performed and it did not have its premier until 40 years later. The composer explained that it was “a matter entirely between God and myself.” This suggests the best behavior of Tolstoy’s beloved Father Sergius, who strived to live for God without living for the praise of others. The tidal pull of Martin’s faith against the good graces of his audience must have played a part in both the suppression of the piece and its great beauty.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

However, since its premier, the Swiss composer’s work—performed in Portland earlier this year and at the Oregon Bach Festival last month—has achieved great success and critical acclaim. I wonder how that settled with Martin. Did he struggle with the same doubts that Father Sergius did, when the poor hermit realized that, indeed, he “lived for men on the pretext of living for God.” I think that Martin did. I think that he struggled with the beauty he unleashed with his piece (its torn-paper sonic climaxes), wondering whether the beauty served the aesthetic needs of his audience or the ascetic purpose of worship. After leaving the Agnus Dei unfinished for several years, he chose to end the mass with a self-effacing, humbling study in the coming together of estranged elements. 


MusicWatch Weekly: Music on screen and in the sunshine

Summer music festivals take music outside and in, while cinemas spotlight music on screen

It’s a sweet time of year to be an Oregon music fan. By day, you can head outside for symphonic sounds, and by night, hear classical and jazz music indoors — including at the movies. Please let ArtsWatch readers know of more summery music in the comments section below.

Oregon Festival of American Music
August 10-13
The Shedd, 868 High Street, Eugene.
At a moment when our country seems more divided than ever, OFAM’s celebration of American World War II-eramusic provides a much-needed reminder of a time when Americans pulled together more than ever before or since. Wednesday night‘s show with singer Shirley Andress and saxophonist Jesse Cloning fronting a crack jazz small combo featuring nationally renowned trumpeter Byron Stripling and guitarist Howard Alden recapturing the birth of bebop by showing the transition from Ellington, Gershwin, and more to Dizzy Gillespie, Yardbird Parker, and Thelonious Monk.

Siri Vik and Shirley Andress sing at Oregon Festival of American Music.

Siri Vik and Shirley Andress sing at Oregon Festival of American Music.

Thursday afternoon’s concert brings the Emerald City Jazz Kings, trumpeter Tim Clarke, and a quintet of veteran Shedd vocalists for standards from the era’s films, including “As Time Goes By” (“Play it, Sam!”), “Blues in the Night,” “Moonlight Serenade” and more. Thursday night’s big band concert (with singers including Siri Vik, Ian Whitcomb, and Shirley Andress) features music from concerts for troops based at home and overseas, sponsored by the United Services Organization, a coalition of religious and secular charities. The biggest USO star, singer/actor/comedian/hoofer Bob Hope, used one of those tunes, “Thanks for the Memory,” as his theme song, and it’s on the bill along with “The Man I Love” and others probably unfamiliar to most listeners who didn’t catch them the first time around.

The Army Hit Kit of Popular Songs (including “A Wing and a Prayer,” “I’ll be Seeing You,” “GI Jive,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Star Dust,” and rarer gems) will be distributed to anyone who wants to show up at The Shedd for a free, Friday afternoon singalong led by the institute’s Road Scholars. Friday evening’s special theatrical cabaret extravaganza recreates a February 1945 Armed Forces Radio Service Command Performance, a variety show that included a complete radio theatre production, Dick Tracy in B Flat, written by Meredith Willson (of The Music Man), jokes, songs (“The Very Thought of You,” “Sentimental Journey,” “All the Things You Are,” etc.) and more.

Jesse Cloninger and Tim Clarke play at OFAM.

Jesse Cloninger and Tim Clarke play at OFAM.

Saturday afternoon’s jazz concert, with Clarke, guitar ace Howard Alden, and rhythm section joining a quartet of top Shedd singers, spotlights the immortal music (“That Old Black Magic,” “Skylark,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “One for My Baby,” and more) of Johnny Mercer. One of America’s — and the 20th century’s — greatest songwriters, he also headlined a regular radio show broadcast to the troops. Saturday night’s concluding concert presents eight Shedd singers crooning tunes by the era’s biggest hitmakers — Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, including Mercer’s “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy,“ (of course), “Victory Polka,” Mercer’s “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” and more.

Sunriver Music Festival
August 10-15
Sunriver Resort Great Hall and Summit High School, Bend.
Wednesday’s classical concert stars guitarist Adam del Monte in Rodrigo’s ever-popular Concierto de Aranjuez, and the orchestra plays more classic early 20th century music from Manuel de Falla’s stirring score to the ballet The Three Cornered Hat, plus Respighi’s The Birds. Friday’s classical concert features a pair of warhorses: Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, plus  soaring brass music by Giovanni Gabrieli.

On Sunday and Monday at Summit High, Pink Martini pianist Thomas Lauderdale divides the piano part with festival Young Artists Scholarship alumnus Hunter Noack in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the festival orchestra. Pink Martini plays its own Afro Cuban arrangement of Prokofiev’s fun Peter and the Wolf with former Miss America Katie Harman narrating. The Spanish flavor lingers in Tuesday’s recital with Israeli-American cellist Amit Peled sporting Pablo Casals’s own cello and recreating some of the 20th century Spanish master’s own programs — Faure, Handel, Bach, etc.

“The General”
August 12 & 19, Hollywood Theatre, Portland; August 13, Bohemia Park (outdoor screening), Cottage Grove; August 14, Egyptian Theatre, Coos Bay; August 16 Tower Theatre, Bend; August 17, Ross Ragland Theater, Klamath Falls.
This special revival of the first great movie filmed in Oregon (Cottage Grove) features a new live score composed by renowned Portland film composer Mark Orton, a mainstay of the fab Tin Hat, which he’ll perform live with Tin Hat violinist Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, Mousai Remix String Trio, and Todd Sickafoose.


Portland Percussion Group review: Low and Mighty

Ensemble's concert of marimbas, vibraphones and newly commissioned music hits high notes amid the low notes


At a percussion ensemble concert, I expect to see a stage full of equipment. Percussion music traditionally calls for arrays of timpani, bass drums, snare drums, side drums, tom-toms, tam-tams, small gongs, large gongs, water gongs, congas, bongos, woodblocks, tables full of shakers and bells, amplified cacti, giant steel racks hung with giant glass bowls, and so on. So when I walked into The Old Church for Portland Percussion Group‘s end of season concert, I was surprised and delighted to see only four instruments: two marimbas and two vibraphones.

The vibes were small enough–typical three octave Mussers–but the marimbas were a matched pair of five octave behemoths, their range extending well into contrabass territory. I’ve played a few 4.3-octave marimbas, and even in that register you can feel the low A in your guts. I knew that three of the compositions PPG (Chris Whyte, Brett Paschal, Paul Owen, Brian Gardiner) would be playing that night had been composed specifically for the ensemble, winners of their recent “2×4” call for scores, and had every expectation of hearing music written with that bottom octave in mind. I took care not to sit too close, and checked to make sure my ear protection was handy.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland's Old Church.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland’s Old Church.

Christopher Bradford’s Marimba Quartet No. 2, third prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, set the right tone for the evening, with its rhythmic variations on 6/8 and 5/4 motifs and its ample use of the marimbas’ five octaves. Every time the mallets wandered into that lowest octave, especially when resonant open fifths and octaves appeared in the bass, nervous system agents in my gut tried to inform me that someone was covertly playing the pedals on The Old Church’s majestic old organ.

Definitely my favorite of the evening, Gordon Stout‘s Skylark Orange Circles lived up to its Torkean synesthetic promise, octatonic and Lydian modes expanding and contracting from close jazz chords to broad, open-spaced stacks of augmented fourths. The quick 7/16 rhythmic motif anchoring the piece recurred with and without figurations and arpeggiations, leading the ear to interpret the odd meter alternately as a precisely articulated complex meter or a very unusual swing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Stout has spent as much time studying jazz vibraphone master Stefon Harris as he has Olivier MessiaenSomewhere in all that sparkling uncanny post-tonal consonance, I swear I really did hear a skylark flying in bright orange circles.

Kylle Strunk’s lovely and timely second-prize-winning Oaxacan Fantasy delighted me with both its unapologetically traditional tonality (for which the composer, in attendance, unnecessarily apologized) and its staginess, with players moving around the marimbas, playing from either side in turn, carefully executing complicated polymetric hockets with their backs to each other. I must confess that I haven’t spent much time listening to or studying Latin American marimba music, and couldn’t find much substance in the musical material; perhaps it is only that we were listening to dangerous party music in a safe and pointedly non-partying context.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Marc MellitsGravity, I found its familiarity slightly distracting. It’s not just that it was so reminiscent of Philip Glass, with its repeating patterns of major seventh chords and descending aeolian ground bass; it can be practically impossible to get out of Glass’ shadow (to say nothing of his fellow minimalist music pioneer Steve Reich’s). Eventually I remembered one particular Glass album, Aguas da Amazonia, commissioned and recorded by the Brazilian ensemble Uakti in the 1990s. I don’t really hold any of this against Mellits, who is a fine composer, and the PPG’s performance left nothing to be desired, but it did make this one the least interesting for me personally. Too bad it was the only piece that used the vibes; I would have particularly loved to hear some vibraphone in the Stout.

Closing the evening, the first prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, Mason Lee’s lovely six-sectioned color-suite Of Light, proved the most melodic of the five compositions, which is always refreshing to hear in percussion ensemble music. Among all the colorful modes and extended tertian harmonies, brief (and not so brief) melodies seemed to float around at several levels, with quick little melodic motives expanding into long, form-level melodic periods in the outer voices. Yet despite being actually more substantial as a composition than the others on the program, its originality was buried under the white noise of two hours’ worth of very little textural variety. I’ll have to hear it again in isolation.

In the end, this was essentially a marimba showcase, although the vibraphones did provide some timbral variety. Before this show, I would not have expected to enjoy an entire evening of marimba music — and I’m a marimba player myself. However, the variety of the compositions made the concert work as a whole, as did the instruments’ expansive beauty and power, the Old Church’s sympathetic acoustics, and the deft playing of the Portland Percussion Group. And I’m happy to report that my earplugs stayed in my pocket all the way to the end.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Mount Hood Community College. He and his music can be reached at

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Punch Brothers and Gabriel Kahane review: Extending American traditions

Unexpectedly satisfying Oregon Bach Festival double bill features composer/musicians who add classical music dimension to bluegrass and singer-songwriter legacies


One of the joys of live music is finding great music in unexpected persons and unconventional places.

When I first saw the Punch Brothers in 2010 at Pickathon in Happy Valley, Oregon, they were a tight group of virtuosos playing dazzling but frigid bluegrass-inflected compositions built on classical forms and ambition. But at this summer’s Oregon Bach Festival performance at Eugene’s Hult Center, Punch Brothers were a mature, smoothly operating entertainment force-of-nature whose ambitions have been fulfilled.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

I had no idea who their opening act, Gabriel Kahane, was, except that he is the son of pianist and Oregon Bach Festival regular, Jeffrey Kahane. In his opening set for the Punch Brothers, I discovered a gifted songwriter and performer who satisfied more than one of my aesthetic expectations of original American pop music: he sang with his own voice (not Colin Meloy’s, Ray Lamontagne’s, Tom Waits’, etc.), and he dealt with current and historic material in the language of his times. In an era of rampant artistic emulation, pseudo-folk theatricality, and thematic assimilation, Kahane transcends by delivering himself. Well, yes he does come off as Zach Galifianakis’s kid brother, but I don’t think he can help that.


“Natural History” world premiere at Crater Lake dazzles all the senses

Composer Michael Gordon's piece bows amid the stunning natural beauty and history that inspired it.

For a first visit to Crater Lake National Park, things couldn’t have turned out much better. For years I had been urging my family to visit this hallowed Oregon landmark, and finally my wife, my daughter, and I had opted for a Southern Oregon getaway that would include a visit to it. Little did we know we would also be treated to a musical performance that combined natural beauty and cultural sophistication in a particularly Oregonian fashion.

While researching our planned trip, I noticed a warning that Crater Lake’s West Rim Drive would be closed for part of Friday, July 29, the day we had intended to drive up. For a moment, I was annoyed, until I read the reason for the closure: the world premiere of New York-based composer Michael Gordon’s “Natural History,” to be performed at the place that inspired it for an invite-only audience. I’m no classical music fanatic, but this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pulling the sort of strings one can pull when one writes for a non-profit arts journalism website (there are perks!), I arranged to have our names added to the guest list.

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

Driving from Ashland, we arrived in the nick of time, about five minutes before the scheduled start of the performance and with two dogs in tow. Near the edge of the crater’s rim, at The Watchman Overlook, several dozen folding chairs arranged in a semicircle supported a rapt crowd. In the center of them sat four members of the Klamath Tribes, members of the Britt Orchestra, and a 50-member choir. Following introductions and a benediction by the Klamath Tribal Elders, music director Teddy Abrams led the performers in a sublime realization of Gordon’s creation.


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