Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

As Shifrin acknowledges, not all the innovations entirely succeeded. While its expansion to include year round programming, like Imani Winds’ weeklong residency this spring and other one-off concerts at Portland5 Centers for the Arts have been generally positive, a shorter added winter festival proved much less successful at drawing audiences out into Portland’s damp January chill; it’s now down to a single weekend. Before settling on Alberta Rose Theatre, an acoustically outstanding hall that usually presents rock bands, CMNW’s other alternative venue shows proved acoustically or logistically problematic. And while its commendably open-minded older audiences have adventurously followed the festival to its pop-oriented venues, those shows have so far failed to attract hoped-for numbers of younger listeners who generally frequent them.

Peter Bilotta

But CMNW continues to work assiduously to broaden its audience, including adding performances and outreach in suburbs to the city’s east and west like Hillsboro and Gresham and an annual free show downtown. Visiting ensembles offer outreach programs at schools and community colleges. And though they’re not publicized as widely as they should be, Bilotta notes that substantial ticket price breaks are available for audience members in their 20s and 30s, as well as Arts for All.

An Institution Reinvigorated

The first-week shows featuring the dynamic young Kenari Quartet demonstrated how CMNW’s Protege Project is bringing fresh blood into the festival. The oldest piece on that Friday’s noon concert, by living Polish master Krzysztof Penderecki, was eclipsed by three recent compositions written in the past two years by young Americans, including Kenari’s own Corey Dundee, whose eruptive the… of my… are an… musically reflected his struggles with depression.

Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director David Shifrin

CMNW’s veteran performers, most associated with New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, teach at the nation’s most venerable academies such as the Juilliard School, which gives them access to the finest young performers. These Proteges — whose roster has included the Dover and Jasper String Quartets, violinists Bella Hristova and Benjamin Beilman, and composers Andy Akiho, Gabriella Smith and Chris Rogerson — appear alongside their teachers in regular CMNW programming, which also seems to have sharpened their mentors’ performances, which in the past had sometimes apparently attempted to substitute long familiarity with each other and the standard repertoire for adequate rehearsal.

The weekly noon series, which includes talks with most of the composers, grew out of Shifrin’s desire to create more spaces for new music. Not only did Portland State University’s intimate, recently refurbished Lincoln Recital Hall offer superior acoustics, its downtown location also attracted a wider range of listeners than festival’s longtime leafy suburban venues. According to Bilotta, Noon@Noon attendance has more than doubled since the series began, sometimes selling out the 200-seat venue.

Kenari Quartet performed at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

Kenari also performed in the recently created Casual Wednesday series aimed at younger listeners. The quartet’s polished, intense June 27 show there featured still another recent CMNW innovation: concerts with a theatrical element related to music. Unfortunately, its music (drawn from Kenari’s other CMNW repertoire) proved more successful than the contrived dramatic presentation featuring an actor portraying saxophone inventor Adolphe Sax.

But the final Wednesday concert featuring Akiho’s music was a rousing success — particularly the second half, comprising his five-movement LIgNEouS Suite with the Dover Quartet and starring marimbist Ian Rosenbaum, who delivered as spectacular a solo performance as I’ve ever seen at CMNW. (Their recording will be released soon.)

The Dover Quartet and Ian David Rosenbaum performed the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s ‘LIgNEouS Suite’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Just Dandy Photography + Social Media; Kimmie Fadem.

Young performers and new music also infused most main stage concerts, which this year mixed Mozart, Dvorak and other classics with contemporary American works by John Luther Adams, Roberto Sierra, and more. Most of the new music comes from a commissioning fund established a few years ago and supported by donors and co-commissioning partners.

“We want to honor the canon and expand the repertoire,” Shifrin explains. “You need these angels to be able to take chances. We’ve done that in the form of box office support for ambitious projects that we know won’t necessarily sell out but are important to our mission of furthering the chamber music repertoire.”

J.P. Redmond, Monica Ellis, Mark Dover, and Julietta Curenton perform Valerie Coleman-Page’s ‘A Right to Be’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The festival’s relationship with Imani Winds, which succeeded the venerable Emerson Quartet as artists-in-residence last year, has also brought greater diversity and vitality to CMNW stages while increasing performance quality. Music by the ensemble’s two excellent composers, founding flutist Valerie Coleman and horn player Jeff Scott, provided some of the summer’s brightest moments. A Right to Be, Coleman’s stirring “immigrants’ anthem,” highlighted the July 6 New@Noon concert that also featured compelling music by 19-year-old wunderkind J.P. Redmond and violist/composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama.

At the next day’s concert, photos of Coleman’s childhood West Louisville, Ky., neighborhood and Muhammad Ali, who also grew up nearby, were projected above the Lincoln Hall stage where Imani and the sterling Harlem Quartet played movements from her CMNW commission Shot Gun Houses, which sizzled with the energy of its main subject, the former Cassius Clay. Violinist Melissa White noted from the stage that her mother also grew up in the neighborhood and, like Coleman’s father, knew Clay/Ali.

Commissioned by a pair of CMNW patrons to commemorate their 50th wedding anniversary, the program’s other new composition, Scott’s Fantasy on 1967 amounted to a medley of pop hits from that year (“Brown Eyed Girl, “Light My Fire,” et al), capably if not compellingly arranged for wind quintet — except for a brilliant, closing “Somebody to Love” that even Grace Slick might have dug.

Imani Winds, Harlem Quartet, pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith, and poet A.B. Spellman performed Jeff Scott’s “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The Harlem Quartet and Imani, plus a jazz trio, joined forces on July 5 at Reed for Scott’s ambitious, evening-length Passion for Bach and Coltrane narrated by poet and jazz writer A. B. Spellman — who also happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, and whose poems supplied its libretto. Opening with a quote from the Goldberg Variations, it drew on material from that J.S. Bach classic and John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme while mostly avoiding mere pastiche, sometimes finding fertile common ground among three worlds — Bach’s, Coltrane’s, and Scott’s. Only a movement inspired by a Spellman poem about the great Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba felt extraneous.

Beyond the Cultural Revolution

More contemporary music arrived at the festival’s Beyond the Cultural Revolution concerts, which, like last year’s festival featuring dozens of works by women composers, amounted to a new music mini-festival with the festival. Along with music by esteemed composers Zhou Long, Chen Yi, and Tan Dun, the concerts featured new works by younger composer Vivan Fung, Oregon’s own Pius Cheung, and Kai-Young Chan, played by pipa virtuosa Wu Man, renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the Dover Quartet and more.

That Friday’s New@Noon concert was one of the best I’ve ever seen in that series. Tango pianist Alex Brown propelled Zhou Long’s explosive Taiping Drum with sharply accented, widely spaced piano chords imitating drumming. Renowned violinist Lin, one of the world’s most prominent violinists a couple decades ago, proved he hadn’t lost a bit, matching Brown’s intensity. The audience erupted in applause.

Cho-Liang Lin, David Shifrin, and Bright Sheng performing Sheng’s ‘Tibetan Dance’ at New@Noon: Beyond the Cultural Revolution. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Bright Sheng, originally scheduled to play piano in Zhou’s piece too, led an all star trio with Shifrin and Lin in his own Tibetan Dance, whose intimacy, nicely contrasting with the pounding opener, reflected the long relationship of the couple who commissioned it in 2001. Sheng accurately compared its placid opening movement to the feeling of being in a Japanese garden; ArtsWatch writer Daniel Heila heard echoes of Gurrelieder. The simple, serene second movement exploited Shifrin’s alluring lower range. Lin and Sheng also contributed percussion to the playful, pulsating closing movement, tapping the violin body and smacking the piano frame. It was a total crowd pleaser that really should have closed the show.

Pius Cheung performing his ‘Nian3’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

The world’s best-known pipa virtuosa, Wu Man, had earlier shredded on her lute, electrifying the audience with a traditional work that imitated the rhythms of a galloping horse. If she was Jimmy Page this afternoon, then University of Oregon prof Pius Cheung was John Bonham. The wiry percussion master, clad all in black topped by a big rust-colored scarf, approached the single bass drum on stage, wielding what looked like taiko mallets. (He said later he’d custom fashioned it from wood bought at Home Depot.) The high drama in his 2016 solo Nian3 owed an obvious debt to that Japanese percussion music, and he later also credited influences from Chinese drumming traditions and The Rite of Spring. (As Heila mentioned, if you listen closely enough to most contemporary music, you can hear Stravinsky in everything.) Another hearty ovation ensued.

A 2013 piece by another Hong Kong born composer, the youngest on the bill, under-30 Kai-Young Chan, closed the program. Ignis fatuus reflected its subject, which his program notes described as “a pale, ghostly green light commonly seen in marshes and around graveyards with a reputation as an ill omen or a dark creature in east Asian folklores.” The Daedalus Quartet’s tense, muted swoops and tremolos sometimes imitated the Chinese traditional fiddle erhu, haunting a baleful, slow violin tune. Like everything else on this terrific program, it was a strong success, but should have swapped places with Sheng’s piece.

Wu Man performed at Lan Su Chinese Garden.
Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

“It felt like my hometown,” Wu Man told the audience about how she felt when first entering Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, site of that evening’s concert. She explained that she grew up in Hangzhou, not far from Suzhou — which happens to be Portland’s sister city and whose gardens provided the model for Lan Su Garden, as well as some of the craftsmen who built it. Her opening traditional piece for solo pipa started the show at a much more relaxed than her earlier intensity at PSU. As her fingers executed rapid runs, the breeze picked up, rippling the pond’s surface to match the music, while koi glided imperturbably beneath.

You’d think a concert of Chinese music would feel just as home at Lan Su as Wu Man did. It’s one of my favorite Portland places — I’ve heard jazz and classical music often and even performed there several times, unamplified. Unfortunately, while the surrounding traffic and airplane noise probably makes it unavoidable, its close-miked amplification system flattens and harshes the sound of acoustic instruments.  Despite the beauty of the blooming lotus blossoms, waterlilies, gardenias and the rest, the setting ultimately undermined the music for me.

Still, the open air and gathering dusk rather than a concert hall lent an appropriately lonely, folky feel to Lin’s performance of Sheng’s 1990 solo The Stream Flows. Peppered with percussive plucks, his nuanced performance evoked the vocal quality of a female traditional southern Chinese folk singer, other times reminding me of many afternoons spent listening to the erhu in the garden teahouse, reaching a high intensity climax before fading away.

Frenetic Memories, a CMNW commission from Sheng’s former student Vivian Fung, reflects the composer’s travels through southwest China, hearing music by minority ethnic groups. “I did the Bartok thing,” she said from the stage. Current and former CMNW Proteges the Daedalus Quartet and Romie de Guise-Langlois (whose clarinet evoked indigenous bamboo instruments) excelled in the most sonically adventurous work of the day, with little string shivers softening, then building to wild eruptions and flurries. Clarinet and cello alternated keeping the beat and then came the promised surprise (spoiler ahead): the recorded voice of the very folk singer whose voice she’d imitated in the piece emerged from the instrumental swirl.

Violinist Cho-Liang Lin performed Bright Sheng’s ‘The Stream Flows’ at Lan Su Chinese Garden. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

Again, this one should have ended the concert on a high note, instead of Chen Yi’s harrowing Ning. Intense and violent almost from the outset, the trio hauntingly evoked the Japanese military’s horrific, six-week 1937 mass rape and massacre of Nanjing. The music’s contrast with the placid setting made it even more terrifying, imagining how such savagery could come to a such a serene place. 

Wu Man’s pipa fired fusillades while Lin’s violin and Sophie Shao’s cello, using plucking and bowing techniques from both Asian and Western traditions, sounded now like an air raid siren, now like hysterical wailing. More placid passages were interrupted by intense interjections, with the pipa picking up steam, strings accompanying at first then playing their own implacable dark duet while Wu Man’s angular banjo (to use Steely Dan’s term) shivered in the background. Finally it morphed into a requiem, with a Puccini quote, creepy creaking sounds and high, held string notes creating a quiet lament that Lin likened to “waking up from a nightmare in a cold sweat.” When it ended, we all uncertainly shuffled out of Eden.

The Silver River

The highlight of the weekend and the festival for me was Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s chamber opera The Silver River, co-commissioned by the festival two decades ago but unperformed here until now because of daunting technical requirements, since surmounted by a combination of advancing technology (including lovely digital projections that obviated the need for expensive physical backdrops), organizational and financial commitment, and a scaled-down production. (Read my ArtsWatch preview for plot details and more.) I was surprised that CMNW didn’t partner with Portland Opera — right in the midst of its own summer season — to co-produce, but then the show might have ended up in the inferior acoustics of PO’s usual chamber opera venue, Newmark Theatre.

Dana Green as Buffalo in Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River.’ Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

It worked a treat at Lincoln Hall, thanks not just to Bright Sheng’s evocative score but also to librettist David Henry Hwang’s witty, contemporary inflected libretto, whose cheeky humor was slyly executed by Dana Green as Buffalo, strong and funny throughout. When the Jade Emperor orders her to leave heaven and find a shepherd, “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she replies, “but I don’t do earth,” she replies, her eye roll audible from the back row. “I mean, it’s dirty, and there’re bugs, and the cuisine is wretched.”

The rest of the production was equally adept. Robert Longbottom’s deft direction on a bare stage kept the action compelling and the meaning clear, even when the Emperor spoke Chinese almost throughout. (Their movements and Buffalo’s responses in English told non-Mandarin speakers what we needed to know.) Anita Yavich’s sumptuous celestial colored costumes contrasted with the earth-toned terrestrial denizens. Ian Anderson-Priddy’s projections (including a commanding waterfall and starry silver river) ranged from fantastic to just realistic enough to be believable when the characters interacted with them.

YuCheng Ren as The Jade Emperor in ‘The Silver River.’ Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

It’s hard to believe Sheng’s luminous, ear-friendly music, which smoothly integrated recognizable Chinese and Western sonic gestures, hasn’t been recorded yet, though that may be remedied soon. (Its seven parts total a CD-friendly 68 minutes.) Its only dramatic drawback was an occasional lack of stylistic variety that lent a certain sameness to the music over the course of the show. A couple of moments, as when the cowherd ascends to a heavenly plane, and again when the lovers’ grief at their forced parting triggers storms to erupt, cried out for greater contrast and intensity. But overall, just as the story (based on a famous ancient Chinese myth) bridged heaven and earth, gods and humans, Sheng’s music beautifully bridged East and West.

So did the six musicians. At stage right, colorfully garbed Wu Man played her Chinese pipa, while renowned flutist Ransom Wilson, in earthy suede, purveyed pastoral Earth sounds from stage left. Similarly, young baritone Theo Hoffman sang the role of the Cowherd (clearly and resoundingly) in Western operatic manner in English while YuCheng Ren used Chinese opera vocal and movement style and language. From the floor, Cheung provided prominent percussion, including the opening notes, while Shao, violinist Teddy Arm and de Guise Langlois. Sheng conducted with brisk assurance. And co-choreographer Katherine Disenhof, ably abetted by Portland natives Claire and Ellie van Bever, snagged the biggest applause as the lead dancer Goddess Weaver.

Katherine Disenhof, the Goddess-Weaver, and Theo Hoffman, the Cowherd, with Claire van Bever and Ellie van Bever in ‘The Silver River.’ Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

Vision Validated

That opening night applause was immediate, exuberant, not the perfunctory obligatory standing O too often seen on Portland stages, but genuine shouts and cheers, to which ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow and I might have contributed. The Silver River is one of the best things I’ve ever seen at Chamber Music Northwest, and this performance validated Shifrin’s original — and renewed — impulse to bring new music, non-Western music and theater to what had been mostly a relatively staid European Masters chamber music festival. Finally staging its Portland debut had long been on Shifrin’s “bucket list” to accomplish before he retires, after 40 years as artistic director, in 2020 — the festival’s 50th year.

He will leave behind a reinvigorated festival whose audience numbers have stabilized — a triumph in the beleaguered classical music world — and whose demographic is gradually growing a bit more diverse, Bilotta says, thanks to its innovations. “When we program music everyone knows, we sell more tickets,” Shifrin explains. “What we’re trying to do is change the equation so that music everyone knows becomes a larger pool.”

David Shifrin, center, performing with Miro Quartet at 2018 Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shifrin’s successor will be announced at the end of next summer’s festival. A search is already underway, but they could save a lot of time by offering the job to Imani Winds. The group already runs its own festival, and it’s hard to think of a better combo of broad audience-friendliness, contemporary music smarts, and forward looking sensibility. Although I saw ensemble curation work well when I covered the Ojai Festival that eighth blackbird programmed a few years back, if a single director is needed, how about Valerie Coleman? At one of the talkbacks, the Imani founder and flutist said she hasn’t decided what to do after her sabbatical from the group ends, though she did reveal that she was weighing a job offer on a faculty position in Miami. If she takes it, she’ll be ready for a summer break from the heat, humidity, global warming-fueled floods, marauding alligators, rotting fish carcasses, stolen elections, and the other follies comically chronicled by Miami’s own Dave Barry. Coleman or Scott or the whole band seem like ideal candidates to continue the decidedly non-musty festival’s continuing reinvention in its second half century.

Chamber Music Northwest’s 2018-19 season begins October 5 with a concert featuring CMNW’s 2018-19 artists in residence, the Dover Quartet, playing music by Bartok, Britten and Dvorak at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. A shorter version of this story appears in The Wall Street Journal. Stay tuned for more 2018 Chamber Music Northwest coverage next week.

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