MUSIC

Chamber Music Northwest review: back to Bach

After an unprecedented exploration of contemporary music, festival finale goes Bach to basics with the Brandenburg concertos

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

After five weeks of coffee talks and panel discussions, old new music, new new music, new old music, and old new music made new again, it was a relief to settle into familiar old Lincoln Hall for an evening of familiar old Johann Sebastian Bach. On July 30th, Chamber Music Northwest closed out its 47th season, gathering its motley cast of virtuosi for a well-balanced and thoroughly satisfying performance of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Before the music started, CMNW Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin expressed his thanks to the performers, composers, audiences, donors, and sponsors, with “a very special thanks to J.S. Bach for organizing this program and gift-wrapping it for us.” Shifrin explained that the 20 musicians taking the stage that Sunday afternoon would be playing Bach’s music “just as he wrote it, except I will be playing the trumpet part on Eb clarinet, and the viola da gamba will be cello. We think he would like it this way.”

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin (front right) played clarinet in one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I think we can make a case that: 1. Shifrin’s caveats notwithstanding, there are still deep aspects of this performance — intonation, instrument construction, venue acoustics, and so on — that are definitely not just as Bach wrote it; 2. That Bach’s music, like the plays of Shakespeare, seems to have some vital quality which allows it to be endlessly adapted and reinterpreted with what so far seems to be an inexhaustible variety of results.

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Montavilla Jazz Festival: turning crisis into community

This weekend's festival shows how arts can help build community in an unaffordable city

by DOUGLAS DETRICK

With rents and property values continuing to rise astronomically in Portland, the affordability of physical space and the role that space plays in the arts ecosystem is coming into sharp focus. The space is sorely needed, yet many arts organizations with limited budgets can’t afford it.

The affordability crisis is a reflection of Portland’s growing pains, but instead of just complaining about the problem, perhaps our arts community can see this crisis as an opportunity. With some creative problem solving, we can help to make Portland a better place to live and also make it a better place to perform and experience the arts.

Portland drum legend Alan Jones performed at last year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser.

This is indeed a crisis, though it’s not unique. Even a quick study of the city’s history will reveal other crises in the past, especially the challenges that people of color have faced when seeking housing in the days of redlining, after the Vanport flood of 1948, and up to the present. But even as poorer Portlanders struggle in an increasingly expensive housing market, there are encouraging signs that the arts community is waking up to its power as a force for positive change in our neighborhoods. This weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival is one of them.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

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‘Madame Butterfly’ review: caged dreams

While confronting social and cultural issues, Seattle Opera's new production of Puccini's classic doesn't neglect the music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904 and it has been jerking tears ever since. The opera classic remains resilient and fresh when done well, as it is in this Seattle Opera production playing through Aug. 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

The opera has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartrending story — and Butterfly. She is a huge character: tough, demanding, sweet, beautiful, desirable, playful – and stubborn. She refuses to  face reality until she can’t do anything about it. She is Puccini’s bona fide tragic heroine, unlike Mimi in La Boheme, whom we know will die. Mimi is not destroyed by herself, by some tragic flaw; she dies of tuberculosis. On the other hand, Butterfly crafts much of her own fate.

Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Puccini created exquisite music and knew how to seduce us by synching it with dramatic moments. The music is chock full of mellifluous tunes and gorgeous arias. But it’s as complex as Japanese customs. Underneath, like a bass line, the music suggests caution and treachery. The ominous boom of the drums reminds us that all is not well.

The opera’s plot is as familiar as the first act’s “love duet” between Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton. But here goes again: A mid-level American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton sung alternately by Dominick Chenes and Alexey Dolgov) stops off in Japan, marries Butterfly when she’s 15 with help of a marriage broker, sets up house with her, impregnates her, and leaves. Butterfly believes he will return for her and her son and their life as a family will commence. She holds on to this fantasy despite warnings and reasoning from those around her. She has another suitor, she has ways out. But she shrugs him off and turns her back. No one can convince her that her dreams are doomed.

Pinkerton returns three years later when Butterfly is 18, not to again take up housekeeping with her, but to retrieve their son, Sorrow, with his new American wife, Kate (Sarah Mattox). And when the moment arrives, he lets his wife do the dirty work by telling Butterfly her son will go to America. Meanwhile he has a minor breakdown. It’s clear why Pinkerton gets booed over and over again at curtain calls even if the role is sung by decent tenors.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

Festival’s concerts and conversations with female composers highlights rich diversity of their approaches and their music 

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

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William Byrd Festival preview: auspicious anniversary

As the summer Renaissance music festival celebrates its 20th edition, it continues to expand its scope and audience

Most people know the greatest writer of England’s Renaissance — Shakespeare, of course — but far fewer can name the greatest composer of that time and place. One Portlander who knows all about William Byrd and reveres his music’s artistry and spirituality is Dean Applegate, founder of Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia. “It’s very spiritually powerful music because of Byrd’s ability to perfectly set the sacred text — word painting,” he says. Considered among the finest of all Renaissance sacred music, it also fit Cantores’ voices perfectly.

Byrd Festival founders Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow, at an early planning session.

So in 1998, Applegate decided to put on a couple of concerts featuring Byrd’s “calm, deliberate, gorgeously dense” (in the words of former Oregonian classical music writer David Stabler) music. Consulting pre-eminent Byrd scholar Philip Brett for advice, he enlisted as conductor Richard Marlow, a famous choral conductor from England’s Trinity College, who’d earlier guest-directed Cantores in Ecclesia. Over two days, Cantores and Renaissance music fans imbibed all three of Byrd’s magnificent masses and other sacred music, a guest lecture by Byrd expert and Stanford professor William Mahrt, and the wine at the post-concert reception. They enjoyed it so much that Applegate and Marlow decided to do it again the following summer.

“I was just drawn to Byrd’s music, and because there’s so much of it, it just made sense to do a festival,” in which they could eventually sing all of it, Applegate says. They’ve repeated and expanded the William Byrd Festival each summer since. “I can’t imagine August without the Byrd Festival,” says Portland singer and Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy, who joined Cantores while a student at Reed College and wrote the first concert’s program notes.

Mark Williams directs Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival.

On Friday, the twentieth edition of the festival opens with a concert of Byrd’s secular music, the first of a dozen events culminating in Cantores’s big closing choral concert August 27.

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‘The Other Mozart’ review: sister act 2

Sylvia Milo's one-sister show at Chamber Music Northwest gives Mozart's talented older sibling Nannerl, her music stifled by sexism, her own voice at last

Unlike the previous night’s Chamber Music Northwest music-theater combination, Ordo VirtutumSylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart, performed July 11 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, ran about 75 minutes with no intermission, and I doubt anyone in the audience felt shorted. It’s an audience-broadening treat to see the festival pursuing these mixed theater and music performances, as with last year’s festival’s Brahms/Muhlfeld show.

In truth, unlike Hildegard, there’s not a lot more to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl, at least not that would make interesting stage drama. (She’s been the subject of a film and novels.) That’s because even though she lived more than twice as long as her brother, we know far less about her life, and the patriarchal world she lived in never permitted equivalent opportunities to make it more interesting. Which is part of the point of Milo’s monodrama, which has been running off-Broadway and touring the world since 2014.

Sylvia Milo in ‘The Other Mozart.’

Engagingly narrated (in, for no discernible reason, German-accented English) by Nannerl herself, the story entertainingly tells (not whines) a tragic tale of a talented musician who at almost every turn is denied the opportunities her similarly skilled brother receives, merely because of her gender and her society’s invidious discrimination against it.

Even most classical music fans probably know little of the brat’s big sis beyond the fact that he wrote delightful duets for them to play on keyboards together, and that she was regarded in her time as an excellent player. In The Other Mozart, we learn much about Nannerl’s life from letters she saved  from family members, including her admiring brother himself, and reviews, some praising her youthful keyboard virtuosity. (Most of her own have disappeared — she was only a woman, after all.)

Milo’s narration in Nannerl’s persona gleefully captures the personalities of her brother, father, sister, and other characters she encounters, especially on the European tours arranged by their father Leopold for her and her brother, hoping to turn the performing pre-teen prodigies into money making attractions. Some considered her at least as talented a performer as her brother, who himself thought her the best performer of his keyboard music; she sometimes received top billing.

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