Chamber Music Northwest review: Artistic alliances

Youthful exuberance shaped the mood, while collaboration stitched a common thread throughout festival’s first weekend of performances


Chamber Music Northwest hitched up with Portland’s Northwest Dance Project and Korean-born pianist Yekwon Sunwoo in Friday’s performance of Chopin’s music and original dance. Saturday showcased top Argentine tango musicians with Reed College and CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin on clarinet. And Sunday, the Oregon Bach Festival’s youthful Berwick Academy, led by the dynamic and equally youthful Matthew Halls, played Beethoven with Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Artistic Director Monica Huggett. Now that’s some crossing over.

Preludes and J. Crew 

Northwest Dance Project played off pianist Sunwoo’s Chopin interpretations to perform “Summer Splendors,” a corny catch-all name for a sophisticated performance with a terrific dance company. Portland is blessed with a hand full of skilled, creative contemporary dance troupes, and I rank this company at the top of the list with Body Vox.

Its artistic director Sarah Slipper and fellow choreographers Lucas Crandall, Tracey Durbin and Rachel Erdos broke Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 into four dances, creating a dance each for six preludes. As Andre Gide wondered a century after Chopin composed these sketches (alternating between major and minor keys), “Preludes to what?” The lyrical music – if not as well-known and capacious as Chopin’s Etudes –  stands on its own. A 2014 Vendome Prize-winner, Juilliard School Master’s degree graduate, and barely into his mid-20s, Sunwoo is a cheerful keyboard luminary who remained graceful under pressure. He continued to smile when dancers and choreographers received roses while he stood flowerless as the curtain came down. Yet Sunwoo was the star: He played the preludes for 40 minutes and earlier, in a different tux, partnered with cellist Peter Wiley, an Opus One and former Beaux Arts Trio member. The flourish-ridden Largo from Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65 and the high-energy Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante Op. 3 were bonuses for the evening’s music-lovers. Chopin appreciated the cello almost as much as the piano.

Yekwon and company taking a bow! What a wonderful collaboration with Northwest Dance Project. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Yekwon Woo takes a bow with NWDP dancers at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Choreographed by different artists, the four Preludes dances proved distinctly their own pieces, yet similar lifts, staging, and emotional range—scattered with humor—unified the performance. In tone, the dances showed less angst than the music. An attitude of understatement prevailed, despite the dancers’ phenomenal athleticism, including women lifting men. Perhaps the subdued “costumes” – gray and white jeans, t-shirts and simple dresses – contributed to the relaxed mood. They looked like J. Crew models, whose talent these dancers trumped.

A Chopin-loving audience member thought the dances proved too cool for the high emotions of the Romantic music. He was admittedly more tuned into the music than into the dance. The audience was more attuned to the dance.

This is where collaboration is best taken in its entirety, all pieces inhaled in one big breath or mouthful, not bitten off into its single parts. For me, the dance worked with the music, even though the choreography wasn’t entirely driven by the Preludes.

Taking tango to the next level

The weekend’s exotic highpoint turned out to be Saturday night at Reed College with THE world’s tango-music experts direct from Buenos Aires.

Piazzolla and After – Argentine Tango Today” spun on exhilaratingly for almost three hours. And what engaging hours they were — even if the program’s order was charmingly inverted: the first piece played in the main part of the program was listed as one of the last, and there were other on-the-spot changes.

Keep in mind, this night was all about the music, not the dancing. Astor Piazzolla, a gonzo bandoneon player (button squeezebox similar to an accordion) who died in 1992, pretty much defined “nuevo” tango as we know it— and most of us on this continent don’t know a whole lot. He upped the ante on popular tango and made it vastly more complex.

 Piazzolla and After -Argentine Tango Today with Tango for Musicians at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Piazzolla and After — Argentine Tango Today, with Tango for Musicians at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Saturday’s musicians, many of whom are composers, take Piazzolla’s work to the next level. This is not dance-floor stuff; it’s far more. A Latin lightness, passion and liveliness ruled the performance, with musicians playfully correcting one another’s English onstage and pianists good-naturedly rotating for different pieces. Pianist Exequiel Mantega, 32, composed two pieces, “Immensidad” and “La Deschissiada.” Keyboardist Diego Schissi wrote and played “La Yeta,” “La Musica” and “El Amalgro,” complex compositions that stood out among this select crowd’s work. Hernan Possetti played piano as well. Other composer/players were Ramiro Gallo on violin, Paulina Fain on flute and Belgium-born Eva Wolff on bandoneon, each with a distinctive musical style and all with irresistible onstage flair.

These musicians are writing method books to explain techniques and performance practices “to make tango sound like tango” to all musicians, according to Morgan Luker, a Reed professor who has arranged the Tango for Musicians exchange for three years. Part of the program entails teaching other musicians, and they, too, performed in the student Orquesta Tipica (with several Argentines embedded). Adding to the night was the Redwood Tango Ensemble from San Francisco, which zealously played three pieces by its bandoneon player, Charles Gorczynski.

There is no timpani in tango bands, though it’s common to hear the bass or guitar players thump on their instruments. Listen for change-ups in keys and rhythms, and curious sounds (to North Americans) produced by the interplay of violin, bandoneon, guitar, bass, flute and piano.

CMNW’s artistic director Shifrin played clarinet in the opening “Oblivion” with the Argentinians, and he nailed Piazzolla’s classic, arranged by pianist and composer Mantega. Yet the evening was not about Shifrin, his immense musicality, or the clarinet, but about the magnificent collaboration of the tango musicians with CMNW efforts.

Berwick plays Beethoven

The Oregon Bach Festival’s newly minted Berwick Academy (named for University of Oregon donors Phyllis and Andrew Berwick) of up-and-coming musicians aged 21 to 35 embrace Beethoven as well as Bach. The group is a new part of the 45-year-old Oregon Bach Festival, led since 2014 by the brilliant British-born Matthew Halls.

Halls is a bold and refreshing presence on the podium and planets away from stodgy conductors (not that his predecessor Helmuth Rilling was a stick in the mud!). Halls’  young musicians bob their heads and envelop themselves thoroughly in the music (and tune their instruments between movements). He is a subtle director – a nod there, a quick gesture here. Yet he has the work under control with his hands, not a baton.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 blew us away. Beethoven wrote the four-movement 35-minute piece in his creatively lush early 19th-century period, when he left his teacher Joseph Haydn behind and became Beethoven – while his hearing was waning. The piece was a respectable fit for the youthful expressive orchestra, whose members appear to be a bunch of romantics, at least onstage.

Violinist Monica Huggett performs Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major with Matthew Halls conducting the Berwick Academy. Photo:  Jonathan Lange.

Violinist Monica Huggett performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major with Matthew Halls conducting the Berwick Academy. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto followed. It received an inauspicious premiere when Beethoven’s buddy Franz Clement, after the first movement, played the concerto on one string, holding his violin upside down and inserting some of his own compositions.

This time, Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Monica Huggett was on the violin, and she used every fret and string to the max. At first she looked as tense as her violin’s strings. After all, the performance was intended to be the piece de resistance due to the staggeringly difficult violin part. By the time she reached the rondo, Huggett was fully engaged with the orchestra players, many of whom she mentors in period performance practice. And they were mesmerized by her violin virtuosities. I preferred the symphony.

Not to pass over plush-voiced soprano Tamara Wilson, who is partly known for her strong but atypical Verdi renditions at the Met. She sang Beethoven’s “Ah, Perfido!” with the orchestra playing behind her like seasoned pros. I’d like to hear what this group can do with Bach. More, I look forward to watching and hearing Halls for many years.

It’s important for artists to push and find new partnerships, and even if the “new” fit is not perfect, or perfectly in tune, these efforts help to expose audiences to many possible artistic combinations. Bravo to CMNW in its informal, hot-weather glory for making new connections.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. 

One Response.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “A Chopin-loving audience member thought the dances proved too cool for the high emotions of the Romantic music. He was admittedly more tuned into the music than into the dance. The audience was more attuned to the dance.”

    of course one needn’t be Polish to interpret Chopin, either musically or choreographically, but as a point of reference, interpretations by those who are might serve to inform, e.g.,

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