On Thursday Portland had a few hours of ideal summer, and the Reed College campus was lush with green trees, thick grass, and the lovely scourge of ivy. A few black tents dotted the landscape, shelters for people serving coffee and tea. Ladies in dresses and men in button-down shirts came and went. The relative ease of the atmosphere at sunset recalled an English lawn party. It was a prototypical evening at Chamber Music Northwest, and the spirited crowd had gathered to hear the concert Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems. The music of the title’s two “lights” – the lesser-known Carl Nielsen and the more popular Edvard Grieg, with a new arrangement of his Peer Gynt – summoned less an imagining of the aurora borealis and more the mysterious spirits of nature on the move.
Kaul Auditorium, Reed’s 750-seat concert hall, must be a musician’s dream. It’s made for acoustics, not just the audience’s leg room or vantage point, and outside and in seemed to blend. The welcoming smell of fresh timber filled the air. The greens gave off a vibrant hue through the windows as the stage lights glowed off the fresh polished neutral woods. The five chamber musicians took the stage in white coats and black shirt and tie, with the exception of cellist Mihai Marica, who wore an aubergine-colored gown. Not a stern soul was to be found: they entered the stage with bright eyes and glee in their cheeks.
In Thursday’s repeat of a Wednesday night performance at the lovely Nordia House in Southwest Portland, David Shifrin, the festival’s artistic director, led on clarinet, a beautiful model with a finish that started in the traditional black and became a light mahogany tone at the bell, highlighted with golden keys. The first piece, the Danish composer Nielsen’s Serenata in vano (serenade in vain), is a short musical tale about a group of young men walking through the street who see a lovely girl in a window and try to coax her out to play. She declines. They wander away with the puckish arrogance of defeated young ego and think, she wasn’t that good looking, anyway. Marica’s cello and Curtis Daily’s double bass wove the impassioned passes, and the audience was drawn in by the heart strings. Ryan Reynolds’ bassoon, William Purvis’s horn, and Shifrin’s clarinet made the ambling footsteps and cocky postures of giddy boys come to life.
Starting the concert off with Nielsen was a nice choice. It was a challenge to Nielsen to write a piece using the instruments Beethoven most loved, and this year’s Chamber Music Northwest is in honor of the great-great-great grandfather of punk music himself, Ludwig Van. As a flautist noted to me during intermission, Nielsen is a naughty composer. His work is technically and physically demanding, with quick leaps among ideas, emotions and tempos.
As much as the group appeared happy to be playing in a well-designed music hall, it also seemed to relish performing Neilsen and taking on his sonic dare. His Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57, written toward the end of his life, seems to be Neilsen’s answer to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, those famous workhorses that took every known instrument, scale, and device and put them in a solid group. Where the Brandenburg Concertos inspire an intellectual industry in the listener, Neilsen’s Op. 57 makes more of a case for shock and awe. The sheer skill and exploration are a delight to the ensemble, which expanded to nine pieces for this work. They played with an electricity that moved offstage and through the audience: we were captive in our seats. Watching them was like watching a pro tennis player kick up the clay dust and reach further by arm’s length in an elaborate, seductive, on-the-fly math game. The human potential to recreate small miracles in a short time made a beautiful noise. In the final notes of Op. 57, Shifrin held his clarinet almost horizontal for a gorgeous sustain that wrapped the audience in a bubble of exuberance. Like the final moments of a good meal with friends, we celebrated with Shifrin and company.
Most of us have a place in our hearts for Edvard Grieg and his Peer Gynt, and we can thank the sound collage artist Carl Stalling and the old Warner Bros. cartoons for providing a gateway drug to classical music. Grieg’s Morning Mood lit up the movie and television screens with peach and golden rays as the funny Clark Gable- and Groucho Marx-inspired rascally wabbit awoke for a day of tricks. Thursday’s audience sat in anticipation to hear the familiar Gynt hits, but were they in for a surprise. The new arrangement, by Portland composer David Schiff, took the nine members of the group and pulled them into one sound, creating a cohesive instrument we had not heard before. It was fast and furious, like the traditional Baroque strings in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As the nine musicians segued into Arabian Dance, a gentle drop of sheer silken acoustic scarves swirled like a girl selling textiles in a Middle Eastern outdoor market. Etiquette called for sitting in our seats and taking it all in. The combustion onstage made it a little bittersweet that we had to stay composed while the musicians made such a beautiful fury. This Peer Gynt conjured the drops of night rain finding their final point-on-point collapse from forest leaves, the leaping streams of cold mountain refuges, and the careful tiptoes of deer looking for sweet young grass. The Hall of the Mountain King was less the evocation of majesty that we read about as young adults in books of European mythology, and more the force of nature in which we find refuge after a long, good, exhausting hike. At the end, the instruments rose in unison and made a coloratura, a crystal clear cold feat that painted pictures of walking through the king’s hall and meeting a firm, but friendly, old spirit. The lights this time were onstage, but the composers made more that a few worlds for us to consider.