Chamber Music Northwest review: Voluptuous voice and viola

Violist Neubauer and singer Chiew make a potent pairing.


First things first. Unless you have a particular aversion to mezzo-sopranos or the music of Maurice Ravel, go hear Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Artist Evanna Chiew sing his cycle Madagascan Songs (Chansons madécasses) tonight at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Not only will you hear a rarely performed late Ravel masterpiece – forget Bolero– you’ll hear it sung by what may be the perfect voice for it. I haven’t heard any previews, but Chiew has the precision to meld thrillingly with its sometimes crunchy chords, and yet a warmth which should make the sweeter sections of the work glow.

Maybe because this is Portland, otherwise known as Beervana, “malty” is the adjective that popped into my head at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall last night as I heard Chiew singing three youthful, almost impressionistic songs by the early 20th century British composer Frank Bridge, plus elegiac songs by Jules Massenet and pioneering Russian composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky. Sweet but substantial, and toasty warm all the way down. And yet how often, with voices described as “warm,” does each note seem smeared with the goo of poorly shaped vibrato? None of that with Chiew. With vibrato or without, there was never any doubt where she was singing.

Singer Evanna Chiew also performed last week in Chamber Music Northwest's New@Noon series with clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Singer Evanna Chiew also performed last week in Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon series with clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Nor was she by any means the only performer giving such delight. The concert theme was “Celebrating the Viola,” in particular the viola of longtime CMNW stalwart Paul Neubauer. All five songs included viola as well as piano, and Neubauer’s radiant tone created an intimately balanced partnership with Chiew’s voice. Neubauer started the concert out front with Franz Schubert’s tuneful “Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano” D. 821, which these days is usually played in viola transcription since the arpeggione is long extinct. It was an expert and engaging performance, but what stayed with me were not the tunes so much as the slow brooding middle movement, in particular a passage where the viola supplied a dark bass line to pianistic arabesques above. The piano is a powerful instrument, but Neubauer showed the viola can stand up to it and more.

He needed a willing piano partner to make the point, and he had one in the acclaimed young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who also did the honors in the evening’s finale, Robert Schumann’s riotous and ground-breaking Piano Quintet op. 44. Barnatan proved to be great addition to CMNW’s piano roster. Not only was his balance with the strings well-judged at all volume levels and his execution nearly flawless, he also seemed in rapt communication with the other players and radiated a joy in performance that was infectious.

Thus he joined perfectly with ever-genial cellist Fred Sherry, who has entranced festival -goers for years with his consummate artistry in this respect. Not that the more pensive string players, Neubauer and violinists Daniel Phillips and Nikki Chooi, came up short. Neubauer had his moments in the sun in this work too, and shone even against such formidable sonic forces. There’s no need to emote like pop stars, but this isn’t the recording studio. People are watching, and a little extra obvious passion can make a real difference. Especially in this work, which for all its drive and invention sometimes falls into cookie-cutter phrases, a characteristic weakness of Schumann’s. With everybody on stage obviously (or at least apparently) having the time of their lives, we in the audience will have too good a time to notice.

Which brings me back to Evanna Chiew. I have to admit I was so wrapped up in her voice that I don’t have a clear memory of her stage manner, but that’s a good thing. I have a pet peeve about the standard, nearly meaningless gestures so common at vocal recitals, and I would surely have remembered those. She’s a natural. Go hear her tonight.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, mostly of what are typically called “art songs.” He believes the best art songs can stand next to any symphony or string quartet as the highest expression of the composer’s art.

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