Chamber Music Northwest review: middle-age crazy

By JEFF WINSLOW

Chamber Music Northwest, in its 48th season this summer, may be solidly middle-aged in people years, but unlike a lot of solidly middle-aged people, and as the Wall Street Journal noted last month, it’s becoming more and more interested in what’s new in its world.

This season, for the first time since 2000, CMNW’s opening night concert – an occasion for making statements – featured the work of a living composer: Angel’s Fire (Fuego de ángel) by American composer Roberto Sierra. Comfortably sharing the stage was one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s finest violin and piano sonatas, and the charged late 19th-century Romanticism of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s op. 45 Piano Quartet. 

A week later, this was echoed by a similar lineup: Mozart’s only trio with piano and clarinet, a brand-new work for nine musicians by Protégé Projectcomposer J.P. Redmond, and the exotic Romanticism of the op. 7 Octet by George Enescu, a Romanian prodigy who spent most of his professional life in France. I caught both programs at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

McDermott, Kavafian, Wiley and Tenenbom played Sierra at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

By the time Mozart wrote his sonata K. 454, in 1784, he had already composed dozens of sonatas for violin and piano, and had become interested in something new – equal partnership between the musicians. Violinist Ani Kavafian and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott showed how it’s done, each in turn playing out for melodic lines, or receding into the background for accompaniment figures without ever giving a feeling of holding back. It sounds simple, but it’s a knack that eludes many for different reasons, from local yokels all the way up to world-famous names. Nor was there anything pedantic about the duo’s lively and lyrical performance.

McDermott maintained this unconstrained balance even in the dense, tumultuous piano part of the Fauré quartet, blending intimately with violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Peter Wiley. Fauré was a master of those quintessential French musical qualities, clarity and elegance, but this work roars out of the gate like a train leaving the Gare du Nord, and with one blissful exception, barely lets up throughout. Still, this group was careful to keep mechanical clatter to an absolute minimum, instead emphasizing the work’s overarching passionate lyricism. The exceptional slow movement, which again and again evokes distant bells in a mysterious and curiously artless manner, seemed to hang in midair, utterly still, like an apparition from another world. Elegance receded demurely into the shadows. Only in the relentless finale did the ensemble seem to lose presence. No doubt every note of the onslaught was there, but the phrases seemed to remain earthbound where they should have leapt and danced.

It needed fire – the fire of angels, flickering, warming and occasionally raging throughout Sierra’s engaging piano quartet. In four nearly equal-length movements, he explored a wide variety of sounds, moods and atmospheres. One could pick out the influence of 20th century masters György Ligeti (Sierra’s most notable teacher), Olivier Messiaen, and even Claude Debussy, but they all danced to Sierra’s tune. He made particularly effective use of the extreme high and low ranges of the piano, which was almost always busy but always remained in conversation with the other instruments, never dominating. There were many different voices in this conversation, and often they interrupted each other or spoke at the same time, but they were each so distinctive that the narrative flowed clearly and naturally all the way through.

The same group of musicians who would play the Fauré cleanly and evocatively presented all the Sierra work’s mercurial charms, its sparks and shadows as well as its roaring flames. Fauré and even Mozart, were they to hear it, might scratch their heads over much of the actual pitch content, but they would recognize and approve of the fine blend and lively give and take of all the various instrumental parts.

The story goes that Mozart wrote his 1786 piano, clarinet and viola trio K. 498 while playing the game of Kegelstatt, a precursor to today’s bowling, with his friends the von Jacquin family. The performance by clarinetist and CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin, violist Paul Neubauer, and pianist Gilles Vonsattel (who flew from Switzerland on short notice to sub for the ailing André Watts), while polished smooth as a bowling ball, seemed to be more about a relaxed time with good friends than anything so lively as a game.

J.P. Redmond at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest, Redmond’s 9×9: Nine Pieces for Nonet snapped us into the 21st century. An aerobic workout for the ears, it seemed to propel us up a mountain through a herd of charging animals, under dense mysterious bird-filled forests, and across wind-swept ridges to a stupefying vista, then back down the same way only to drop us off at our doorstep with barely a “see you next time.” What happened to the time-honored tradition of hitting the brewpub after a climb? This is all to try to evoke my feelings through this wildly multifarious work, the composer’s first for such a large and varied ensemble – a mashup of the Imani Winds quintet and the (saxophone) Kenari Quartet. Redmond vigorously pursued the wide variety of sounds and combinations available in such an ensemble, from intimate solos to massive blasts from the entire group, and the journey fascinated from beginning to end. One particularly striking passage featured Jeff Scott’s pensive horn solo rising out of strangely yet warmly oozing chords for all the saxophones. I did miss my “beer” though; the nonet just faded out in a reflection of the understated opening. I can’t say for sure that a different ending would have had more impact, but one can miss a chance to create a magical moment by following a structural scheme too closely.

 

 

Enescu wrote his Octet for strings in 1900 when he was the same age as Redmond, and like Redmond’s it was his first work for large chamber ensemble. After the sharp and colorful contrasts of 9×9 though, over time, it seemed to develop a certain massive grayness. Oh, it had plenty of drama, some good tunes – even the satisfying ending I missed in the Redmond – and the brilliant Dover Quartet, together with CMNW stalwarts Fred Sherry, Steven Tenenbom and the Kavafian sisters, gave it a spirited and passionate performance. But most of the instruments were playing most of the time, and with eight of them, each capable of a wide assortment of sound colors – bowed, plucked, sweet, raspy, wailing, muted, not to mention the many subgroups and combinations that can form and dissipate – I expect much more coloristic variety over the course of nearly 40 minutes. Redmond has talked about feeling obligated to produce an important statement for such a large group. Possibly Enescu had the same feeling and tried too hard. Still, this is a minor criticism. After all, his subsequent career went well enough.

Fred Sherry, Imani Winds, Kenari Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Chamber Music NW has wrapped for the summer, and in farewell I have to praise yet one more concert out of many enjoyable ones I heard, the last New@Noon, particularly the works of Julia Adolphe and Pierre Jalbert (rhymes with Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert, not Stephen Colbert). Although the second movement of Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals showed the composer struggling to find something compelling to say with ordinary major and minor scales, the first movement, “Delta Xray,” freely danced between sweetly consonant chords and crunchy dissonances in a completely natural and convincing way – a 21st century ability virtually unknown in the aesthetically contentious 20th century. According to the composer, this movement is intended to evoke conflicting attempts at communication, and the Protégé performers, the Verona Quartet, did indeed give a dramatically charged performance, but the listening experience was pure pleasure. 

Similarly for Jalbert’s Street Antiphons, given a committed and energetic performance by Shifrin and the justly renowned Montrose Trio. Here the crunchier phrases were given a delightful lilt by unabashedly infectious rhythms, another 21st century development. (Although the technique goes back to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, now over a century old!) 

Like Sierra’s work on opening night and Redmond’s, these works were composed in just the last few years. Probably none will win over the audience segment that shies away from anything written later than the many fine Antonín Dvořák works that graced this year’s festival, but for anyone with more adventurous musical tastes, Chamber Music NW gets more interesting by the year. And it’s not just the younger audience that seems to think so – in fact, all three of these concerts had many in attendance clearly well past middle age.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He can only wish he was still 48.

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2 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    almost overflowed my bath tub while engrossed in this sumptuous prose poem – thanks, Jeff

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, and even gladder I didn’t cause you any plumbing emergencies!

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