Chamber Music Northwest: youth served

The Amphion Quartet plays the Someday Lounge.

Early Sunday evening, July 24, the gentle final notes of Gustav Mahler’s valedictory symphony, “The Song of the Earth,” faded into the rafters at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, sounding an apt farewell to Chamber Music Northwest founder Sergiu Luca, who died in December. Though the violinist hadn’t been part of the festival he founded in 1971 for three decades, this tribute concert coincided with a summer rejuvenation of his creation and other Portland classical music institutions, as if to say, this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

The evidence of transition was everywhere on stage, but during the concert honoring Luca, it was best represented by  the magnificent young singer, Sasha Cooke, already a star in the making. She delivered moving, convincing performances of music by very different composers, Ravel and Mahler, as she had done a few nights earlier with Brahms and Chausson. Cooke was one of a dozen or more 20-somethings on stage for Luca’s farewell, most of them members of CMNW’s Protégé Project, now in its second year. The project brings rising young musicians to town for performances, a residency and various outreach programs. Except for a few special events, the Protégé-only concerts took place on Sunday afternoons at venues better known for hosting indie rock bands, and the musicians also participated in teaching and various outreach activities.

Taken together, this summer’s major classical events — CMNW (especially the half dozen Protégé concerts), Portland Piano International’s new music-oriented week-long July festival, and the Oregon Bach Festival’s new push into Portland — added up to a real sea change in Portland classical music. Arriving after the Oregon Symphony’s triumphant May Carnegie Hall performance (named best concert of the year by no less than New Yorkercritic Alex Ross), this summer blossoming has brought a real transfiguration in the city’s classical scene — a sense that even some of our old guard, mainstream institutions are at last gazing firmly forward into the 21st century, bringing in new repertoire, new faces, and newly adventurous spirit to once predictable programs.

What’s even more remarkable is that much of this transformation was wrought not by visionary newcomers, but rather by three of the city’s most experienced arts administrators: CMNW artistic and executive directors David Shifrin and Linda Magee, and PPI’s Harold Gray, all of whom have been on the job for more than three decades.

This summer demonstrated that despite the gloomy tidings of bankruptcies, aging audiences, and fossilized repertoire in many provinces of the crumbling classical music domain, we’re in the midst an exciting time for fans of Portland classical and post-classical music — perhaps the most thrilling since all of those institutions arrived in the 1970s, when today’s aging CMNW veterans were themselves eager twenty- and thirty-somethings.

The Protégé Project, which began promisingly last year with a (mostly) different batch of youthful talent, was conceived by Shifrin, who has connections to top young players through his Yale teaching position and his central role in the New York classical music firmament, and Magee, who brought it to alternative venues. (Here’s a thorough exploration of last year’s program.) Classical music organizations around the country are scrambling to find new audiences before the old ones expire. Some (including a few in this very city) try superficial gimmicks or marketing approaches. Others — loath to alienate their current, aging subscriber base by fiddling with the formula — make only grudging gestures toward contemporaneity, much less the future.

To its credit, CMNW, perhaps alarmed by the sea of grey- and white-haired heads that dominate its audiences, looked to reinvigorate its four-decade-old festival with an infusion of young blood and fresh musical talent, and not just the official Protégés. This summer’s festival proved that approach to be a smashing success. The young performers, of course, benefited from facing a wide variety of challenges — from dodgy acoustics to occasionally awkward, often charming stage remarks — and audiences in CMNW’s safe, nurturing atmosphere. But the biggest winners were Portland music lovers, young and old.

The first rumblings that things were going to be different this year erupted at the first Protégé concert at the Someday Lounge. Displaying admirable versatility, the Amphion Quartet excelled in string quartets from three different eras: witty in early Classical Mozart, fervid in Romantic Schumann, blistering in modernist Bartok (during which one patron keeled over; she revived after medical personnel arrived to assist).

The following Sunday, they performed at The Woods, a pop music club in what used to be a Sellwood mortuary, but the Amphion’s music, like CMNW itself, proved anything but ready for embalming. The young foursome (Tigard native David Southorn and Katie Hyun on violins, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin, cellist Mihai Marica) captured all of the varied moods inhabiting a quartet by the pioneer of the form, Joseph Haydn, eliciting audible audience gasps in the stretch run of the final movement as they uncoiled all the pent up energy accumulated earlier.

At this concert and an earlier free noontime show at the Oregon Historical Society, the Amphions were joined by one of last year’s Protégés, Romie de Guise-Langlois, whose lilting French-Canadian accent and easy ingenuousness in stage remarks charmed everyone again. The intimate venues made it easy to see something I heard audience members note over and over again: the group’s intense internal communication. They obviously knew the scores thoroughly enough to be able to watch each other assiduously, resulting in precise performances that never felt rote. “I love watching their faces!” I heard listeners exclaim more than once; they visibly reflected the musicians’ still-fresh responses to the music and their nonverbal means of conversing with each other while playing.

Young musicians have to watch each other more than CMNW vets who’ve played these pieces for decades. Yet that very experience has sometimes left the older players prone to unintentionally indifferent and/or under-rehearsed performances. Not these young guns; they played with a sense of commitment, as if these were the most important concerts of their lives, which they probably were.

They’d obviously worked out a consistent stylistic approach to each piece and maintained it throughout, even when brisk tempos or singing phrases caused an occasional clarinet clam (which Langlois remedied at their subsequent performance at The Woods) in Mozart’s sublime “Clarinet Quintet.” His music is notoriously harder to play than it sounds, in part because the pure melody lines, transparent arrangements and exposed parts leave little margin for fudging through heavy vibrato or a fusillade of notes. Neither of these graceful, sometimes playful performances felt like we were listening to an interpretation; they felt like we were listening to Mozart. I wonder if it becomes harder to resist throwing in slight stylistic variations and interpretive gestures after you’ve played a classic hundreds of times instead of only dozens?

At their July 10 concert at Mississippi Studios, the Amphions and fellow Protégés Sooyun Kim on flute and harpist Bridget Kibbey offered persuasive (if maybe wanting some nuance and mystery) performances of more of my personal favorite music, including Debussy’s sublime “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp,” “Sacred and Secular Dances,” and “Syrinx” (the last played moodily sans stage lighting by Kim) and perhaps my most cherished single chamber work, Maurice Ravel’s magnificent “String Quartet.” Handling the rock venue’s distractions with admirable aplomb, the Protégés pulled off warm, winning performances.

Some of the same sounds appeared on the Protégés’ BodyVox program we covered earlier; having earlier experienced the music, films and dance separately, I was impressed at how harmoniously they danced together. Once again, the performers confronted and largely surmounted new challenges and new audiences.

During the same group’s Lan Su Chinese Garden’s Tuesdays by Twilight performance (which I hope will become a summer tradition), they grappled with urban noise (loading trucks, airplanes), open air (with consequences for tuning and resonance) and tinny speakers, yet still pulled off a magical evening — including a movement of the bracing Bartok quartet and music by the great 20th century Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla — plus a pleasant surprise. When violist Lin entered the city’s idyllic classical Chinese garden, he expressed regret that he hadn’t brought his erhu, the bowed two string Chinese fiddle. A local instrument was quickly procured (the Garden teahouse offers traditional Chinese music several times per week), and (with help from other Protégés), he played some lively Chinese traditional tunes, marred only by a couple of saccharine arrangements once common to Westernized versions. I pedaled home on a perfect Portland summer evening, the lilting tones of Debussy’s beautiful “Sacred and Profane Dances” still echoing in my memory.

Yale University’s Wanmu Percussion Trio opened the Alberta Rose Theater Protégé concert with the great 20th century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s haunting “Rain Tree” for marimba and vibes, followed by reprises of flutist Kim’s shadowy “Syrinx” and Thierry de May’s “Table Music” (seen at the BodyVox show, and, I believe, at the TBA Festival some years back) and a potent statement by one of this country’s finest living composers, George Crumb, “Idyll for the Misbegotten,” which punctured susurrations and silences with overblown flute squalls and brutal timpani strikes — Crumb’s sonic metaphor for human destruction of natural beauty.

The big closing piece, Mauricio Kagel’s theatrical “Dressur,” deployed all sorts of choreographed stage antics — coconut shell-belly percussion, confrontations with raised chairs, rattles and rain stick, simulated bamboo chime seppuku, pecan cracking, gratuitous Stravinsky quotations, wooden clog-fu, and much more. The crowd — even the grizzled CMNW regulars — adored it.

For an encore, the trio (Candy Chiu, John Corkill, Ian Rosenbaum) tried to perform Steve Reich’s famous “Clapping Music,” but the effect was lost because the audience unwittingly clapped along, obscuring the greatest living composer’s shifting phase patterns. Oh well, that just means the hall was full of newcomers to this music, and probably the youngest audience of the festival — a worthy achievement. I’m used to seeing performances this fascinating in LA or San Francisco or New York (and occasionally locally at FearNoMusic or Third Angle concerts) — but it’s a real landmark for a Portland summer concert from a mainline classical organization.

By the time the Protégés convened en masse for a Friday night regular CMNW concert on the festival’s closing weekend, the familiar faces felt like old friends. I caught myself wondering how they would do this time, how they might have changed in the past couple weeks … feelings of connection that I rarely experience with more celebrated performers. The concert boasted only one contemporary work — Japanese composer Teruyuki Noda’s atmospheric 1968 “Morning Quintet” for flutes, marimba and bass, which challenged the players more than the audience, who gave it a warm reception.

The concert’s emotional climax was undoubtedly Georges Enescu’s rarely heard “Cello and Piano Sonata #2,” in part because of the eloquent prefatory remarks by Protégé pianist Ilya Poletaev, whose affection for the piece (along with that of Amphion cellist Marica, with whom he performed it recently at Enescu’s own home in their homeland) was just as evident in their heartfelt, soulful performance that gave discernible shape to what could otherwise be a meandering intertwining of extended, related melody lines. Harpist Kibbey — another rising star who glittered as brightly as any this summer — shone in a lovely closing performance of yet another of my personal chamber music favorites, Ravel’s entrancing “Introduction and Allegro” for septet — a gorgeous wrap to the series.

Every one of these concerts ranks among the best I’ve seen this year in Portland, but the Protégés’ positive influence wasn’t limited to their own showcases. Not only did they infuse the regular CMNW concerts with youthful vitality, but the presence of the percussionists, Kibbey, resident young artist Cooke and adventurous pianist Amy Yang also allowed Shifrin to program some too rarely heard repertoire in the regular series. In a reversal of the usual practice, here the youngsters were the “ringers” who enabled the vets to venture beyond the standard rep, including Pavel Haas’s dazzling 1925 “String Quartet #2” (with quasi jazzish drum kit solos played by Wan Mu’s Candy Chiu), Bela Bartok’s seminal, electrifying “Music for Two Pianos and Percussion” (thanks to its unusual instrumentation, a piece I’ve wanted hear live for two decades), and more.

The Bartok appeared on a catchall program that included Cooke’s beguiling performances of songs by Chausson and Brahms. The last in particular, “Holy Cradle Song,” sensitively accompanied by violist Paul Neubauer and bouncing pianist Pei-Yao Wang, displayed her rich alto range (she’s officially a mezzo, but effortlessly sang pieces beyond that range), and as with the Amphion Quartet, Cooke easily suited her performance style to very different composers, never overdoing the vibrato or bel canto affectations in music, like Ravel’s, that doesn’t want it. In her first year here, Cooke was one of the festival’s real stars.

Cooke’s Ravel songs (accompanied by the Miro Quartet, flutist-arranger Ransom Wilson, Shifrin, and Kibbey) appeared on the closing CMNW concert along with that Mahler reduction mentioned above — a chamber orchestra arrangement (including percussion and harp) of Mahler’s original instigated by 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg and completed later by a German musicologist. Even those, like me, afflicted with Mahleria couldn’t help but be moved by the gorgeous tunes and instrumental textures and Cooke’s sensitive delivery. Minimized Mahler sounds about as appealing — and as oxymoronic — as fat-free cheese, but in this case, it tasted more like gluten-free bread, enabling us to focus on the composer’s influential late aesthetic, his yearning tunes, and of course Cooke’s sumptuous singing.

Even though some CMNW performances, like Sunday’s, hit some rough patches, they still benefited from their youthful energy and focus. At some of last year’s regular CMNW shows (and a couple this time), I was troubled to see some of the most familiar names in the classical music world struggling with even familiar repertoire. In the years I’ve attended, CMNW performances have sometimes seemed under-rehearsed. Most of the musicians have played these pieces dozens of times, after all, so they know the scores, but that doesn’t substitute for actual quality rehearsal, even for the greatest artists, if they don’t play together regularly, and may contribute to a lack of urgency. Happily, those lapses seemed less evident this summer.

Not that the Protégés furnished the only freshness at this summer’s CMNW, which usually sprinkles some younger artists into the mix, even pre-Protégé. But even though, in an attempt to establish a separate identity, the Protégé listings were omitted from the printed program book and relegated to a separate section of CMNW’s website (which will be rectified next year, Magee says, since the regular audience braved the journey to clubland, too, resulting in sell outs), the young bloods seemed to be at the center of this year’s proceedings rather than consigned to the fringes. The new Friday night series at Portland State University’s intimate,  newly refurbished Lincoln Recital Hall added another welcome new venue.

Moreover, anytime cellist and ever-cheerful new music advocate Fred Sherry’s involved, there’ll be enthusiastic performances of contemporary music, mostly in the modernist rather than postmodern style, and the festival was graced by several newer works, most notably an intriguing and successful “Clarinet Quintet” commissioned from pianist/composer Marc Neikrug, and the Brentano Quartet’s fascinating and compelling program of completions of and responses to famous unfinished classics. But if CMNW is going to connect with new audiences, it needs to be performing and commissioning much more new music relevant to the 21st century, and especially including composers from this time and place, not just those familiar to each summer’s visiting New York-based elder statesmen.

But that’s for future festivals. For now, let’s revel in this summer’s refresh. Not to diminish classical music’s very real (and often self-inflicted) threats, but the next time someone laments its uncertain future, I’ll think about CMNW’s Protégé Project, the inspiring music they made, and those eager, intense faces — and take heart. I hope Sergiu Luca would, too.

The Protégé Project is only one of many green shoots enriching Oregon’s increasingly verdant classical music garden. Here’s more, and we’ll be telling you about still others in months to come.

Comments are closed.