Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

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

by JEFF WINSLOW and BRETT CAMPBELL

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.

Gilpin opens as Mühlfeld in 1907, ten years after Brahms passed on, reminiscing about their relationship, which led to his own international fame. He looks through old letters, sometimes reading, sometimes re-enacting a dialogue from the past (via Gilpin’s versatile voice acting skills). We learn of their first meeting, Mühlfeld’s sadness on learning of the composer’s retirement plans, the pivotal meeting that led to Brahms cutting retirement short, Mühlfeld’s boundless joy on receiving an unexpected Clarinet Trio in the mail one day, and his subsequent acceptance into the circle of European musical royalty in two days spent at the house of Clara Schumann, Brahms’s closest friend and a world-famous pianist, playing music from morning until far into the night. From time to time, the music Mühlfeld played and heard takes over his memories. CMNW musicians are spotlighted and play, so that we seem to hear the music running through his head.

David Shifrin (r) starred in CMNW's Brahms concerts. Photo: Tom Emerson.

David Shifrin (r) starred in CMNW’s Brahms concerts. Photo: Tom Emerson.

With such musicians, we could easily believe we were back in the Schumann house, listening to the top performers of the day. Like Mühlfeld, Shifrin is known for his silky tone, and the various Brahms movements (with some Weber, Mozart, and Robert Schumann thrown in) mostly seemed to be selected to show off that special shine.

The Miró Quartet projected utter mastery in the string parts, and if last-minute substitute pianist Yevgeny Yontov did not quite bring that effortless blend and fluency to the keyboard that André Watts (who canceled at the last moment to receive cancer treatment) would have, he no doubt easily bested “original performance practice.” Mühlfeld related that during the two magical days at the Schumann house, piano duties were shared by the aging Clara, who was beginning to suffer from arthritis, and the 61-year-old composer himself, who by that time was far from the virtuoso he’d been in his youth. Yontov also held back volume more than necessary in the more tempestuous passages, but in context that was arguably forgivable. Shifrin was channeling the last of Brahms’s divas, and we know how divas feel about competition.

For me it all worked. Gilpin doesn’t look much like photos of Mühlfeld, but he was believable as a musician devoted to his art, in awe of the most renowned composers and musicians of the time, thinking back to his happiest days with just a trace of nostalgia. Gilpin also effectively quoted Brahms in the composer’s distinctive voice, which contemporaries described as high and reedy.

Slow numbers were the musical highlights, with the sublime slow movements of the F minor clarinet and piano sonata and the Clarinet Quintet especially beautifully done. In one poignant melodic phrase in the slow movement of the Clarinet Trio, Shifrin and Miró cellist Joshua Gindele somehow tuned and balanced so perfectly that they became a single instrument with its own uniquely rich sound. Yontov’s performance of the solo Intermezzo, op. 119 #1, sailed serenely by, its gentle yet insistent dissonances refracting hues of regret and tenderness by turns. It was hard to imagine that even the great André Watts could have surpassed it.

I wasn’t sure how people not as familiar with the music of Brahms might react to the show, but three friends with much less specialized musical tastes than I were there, and all were at least moderately enthusiastic afterward. Most of their comments were about the music, but it’s fair to infer the staging strengthened its impact. What came across most strongly from Mühlfeld / Gilpin’s affectionate reminiscences, and what is some of Brahms’s most tuneful music, was the softer side of a composer with a formidable and sometimes forbidding reputation, the human face of the Olympian. You got the feeling that if you happened to run into this most private of composers at his favorite Viennese watering hole The Red Hedgehog, while he might not have invited you to join him, he would’ve at least given you a friendly nod. — Jeff Winslow

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who once spent a year listening to no music but Brahms’s.

Unlikely Story

“Chamber music isn’t just Brahms or Beethoven,” Peter Bilotta tells people who ask him what chamber music is. “It’s storytelling.” The Chamber Music Northwest executive director was explaining to the audience at July 29 concert why the evening’s combination of Johannes Brahms’s music and a new monologue by playwright Harry Clark made a good match.

Bilotta is right, as musicians — not just in classical chamber music but also in jazz and other forms — have long noted. Unfortunately, this particular mashup of words and music which helped close the festival before embarking on a tour of other summer festivals around the country, turned out to be plenty of telling — without much story.

Dramatic Flaws

The setup: in 1890, an aging Johannes Brahms declares his intention to give up composing music. He’s old, he’s tired, he’s uninspired. Will Brahms ever compose again?

The initial dramatic impetus Chamber Music Northwest’s major new production comes from the audience wondering whether he’ll actually succeed in his goal to quit, which presumably we’re rooting against, just as we’re rooting for the protagonist of ‘Night, Mother not to follow through on her announced plan to kill herself. Here, you’d expect the story to present the composer with a series of challenges to his resolve to retire, so that we discover at the end whether he was able to do so.

But that question is answered about 15 minutes into the show, when we learn that Brahms has heard the clarinetist perform and is so impressed that he’s instantly inspired to return to his writing desk and compose some of his — and classical music’s — greatest late-career master works. Fin.  

So much for dramatic tension. Unfortunately, there’s still two hours and 15 minutes more left to this show after the most pressing question is answered. Over that stretch, we see the sole actor, Jack Gilpin sometimes brilliantly portray a multitude of characters, most in conversation with each other, with his Mühlfeld also sometimes directly addressing the audience from the perspective of 1907, the year the clarinetist died.

We meet the object of Brahms’s greatest desire, Clara, decades after he fell in love with her but couldn’t act on it because she was married to his friend and patron — a pretty dramatic story right there. We encounter some of 19th century Europe’s most famous musicians, a brief second hand Wagner sighting, etc. And we learn  something about Brahms’s character, including a wry and overlooked sense of humor.

Brahms-besotted aficionados like ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow will no doubt find some of this material, presumably drawn from Mühlfeld’s actual correspondence and other writings, at least marginally interesting. For other listeners though, much of it seems tangential to the main story signaled in the title. The nonmusical portion of the evening, then, is mostly a series of sporadically interesting letters and vignettes. But it’s not a story.

Moreover, it’s sometimes hard to puzzle out exactly where and when Mühlfeld is located; sometimes he’s reading or writing a letter aloud (an old dramatic convention), sometimes reminiscing to us from 1907, sometimes interacting with other characters at various earlier junctures (with Gilpin expertly voicing all of them), and it occasionally took awhile to figure out exactly what was happening and when.

That’s a common and fixable problem in first productions of such time-wandering material. Such dramatic flaws might be tolerable if the music could compensate. Others have tried, with varying success, to build sketchy narrative frames around music, from jukebox musicals like Mama Mia and its many successors to the recent spate of Portland music/story mixes. Often they succeed in spite of their flimsy narrative scaffolding because audiences know they’ll get to hear music they love.

And there’s no question but that Brahms’s late music for clarinet is among the most sublime ever created. But just as recounting a few anecdotes and reciting some letters doesn’t necessarily add up to a real story, stacking an hour-plus of beautiful but very similar music back to back does not a compelling program make. Inevitably described as “autumnal,” these late works share melancholy, wistful mood that’s understandable given the composer’s age (late 50s) and perspective. They’re also written to exploit Mühlfeld’s wheelhouse — his smooth, creamy tone, of which David Shifrin is also a master.

The problem is, though he and his instrument are capable of much greater expressive variety, smooth and creamy is all Shifrin gives us. That might be appropriate if applied to only a single piece on a program. But hearing substantial portions of both clarinet sonatas, clarinet trio, and clarinet quintet back to back — even punctuated by a few piano solos — whether in concert or on recordings, is like eating a five course meal that’s all made from sweet potatoes, prepared in various ways: too much of a good thing. As performed here, at least, the music contains too little emotional variety, and the story too little drama, to sustain the concert’s length. And it wasn’t helped by performances that varied too little in timbre, tone, tempo and dynamics — the kind of by-the-numbers playing that too often hamstrings CMNW shows by musicians who can do better, maybe because of inadequate rehearsal. With little musical or theatrical drama to maintain attention, the program dragged.

Jack Gilpin starred in “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Muhlfeld,” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Jack Gilpin starred in “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Muhlfeld,” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The show’s superb narrator, Gilpin, almost compensates for the script’s dramatic deficiencies, consistently seizing our interest in spite of the undramatic material he’s assigned to deliver. And the backdrop projections of photos of Brahms, Mühlfeld, Clara Schumann and their contemporaries, and the places where they lived and played, lend an evocative sense of historical atmosphere. (I’d have maintained the projection of Brahms’s composing parlor as the main backdrop throughout, with brief occasional takeouts to other photographs, to maintain the sense that we’re in the composer’s and the clarinetist’s inner world.) Unfortunately, that atmosphere was punctured twice by a pair of inconsideramuses who ignored the pre-concert exhortation to silence their cellphones. On the other hand, those alerts provided some of the evening’s only surprising moments.

Next Chapters?

You have to admire the show’s creators for striving to create something more ambitious than mere readings from letters to break up musical compositions. And granted, this is the very first incarnation of a new music-theater creation that will likely evolve. Bilotta announced that the show would be performed elsewhere across the country throughout the summer, including ClarinetFest 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas on August 3, on August 13 at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, August 30 at Ravinia Festival, Yale School of Music next February 28, and at the Phoenix Chamber Music Festival on March 2, 2017.

Who knows, perhaps a real story — as distinct from some interspersed text readings — could be contrived from Brahms’s decision to retire, his encounter with Muhlfeld, and his reconsideration. But because Brahms’ decision to resume composing apparently followed his initial encounter with Muhlfeld almost immediately — no extended agonizing or vacillation over the decision to come back — the playwright would probably have to use flashbacks to construct a story scaffolding between the two big decisions. That would mean a considerable rethinking of the text to bring in more of Brahms’s earlier life.

Or the creators might acknowledge that this situation just isn’t inherently dramatic, and instead of trying to present an actual narrative drama, to merely interpolate snippets of Mühlfeld’s and Brahms’s own words with performances of some of their music. That would cut down the concert’s excessive length. Even so, the show could benefit still further from replacing some of the current music with more varied Brahms compositions, which in turn would mean performing music composed before the Brahms-Mühlfeld encounter. Such an approach would essentially provide audible program notes: words about a piece from the composer and/original performer, followed by the music. That would be a less ambitious show, yet still preferable to one that promises a compelling story but too often delivers only some tedious telling. —Brett Campbell

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