‘The Clearing’ review: European present, American absence

Portland Piano International's three-day festival examines the state of the European Union’s contemporary classical music and its 20th century roots

by JEFF WINSLOW

“Clearing” is such a paradoxical word. It refers to the absence of something – storm, forest, piles of stuff – but at the same time invites contemplation of what comes to life in the cleared space. What first struck me about Portland Piano International’s three day, four evening festival of nominally contemporary piano music, “The Clearing,” the long weekend after the election was what was absent: American composers, aside from Elliott Carter, a composer with a long lifetime of ties to Europe.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Rich Brase.

Also, much of the repertory was not at all new: pre-World War II works by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and music written immediately after the war by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, who with Boulez’s passing just this year at the age of 90 are all gone now. These works were included primarily for historical perspective, and the narrow Eurocentrism of the repertory turned out to be only natural: PPI had appointed Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich to curate the festival, and she along with Pierre-Laurent Aimard make up what may be Europe’s reigning power couple of contemporary piano. And so the festival, held at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, turned out to be a lively and fascinating window into the world of European art music from the mid 20th century on, in all its uncertain glory.

Early highlights included three performances in different contexts of the 1945 work which introduced Boulez’s often prickly but always questing esthetic to the world, 12 Notations. On the Thursday evening opening concert, Stefanovich played each highly individual, in-your-face vignette with utter conviction and concentration. The next morning in her master class, she worked with Juilliard graduate student and emerging composer Yihan Chen on selected vignettes. Chen played well, but the work somehow lacked life, instead evoking the endless forgettable implementations of pre-compositional matrices that hobbled art music in the 20th century.

Yihan Chen. Photo: Rich Brase.

Yihan Chen. Photo: Rich Brase.

By comparison, his performance of the same selections in concert that evening were electrifying. No doubt Stefanovich had prepared me with her own performance, not to mention her master class emphasis on passion and drama (without sacrificing precision or ignoring analysis). Chen may have spent the day absorbing the lesson; certainly he amped up contrast between notes and between phrases. As a result, some of the student’s interpretations came off even more colorfully and incisively than the teacher’s. I came away with newfound appreciation for the work.

Another highlight from Thursday evening was the opening set of miniatures by English-born composer George Benjamin, who has just recently scored a coup of sorts with the relative popularity of his 2013 opera Written On Skin, drawing critical acclaim in performances around the world, including last year at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Piano Figures was conceived in 2004 as music even children could play, and Stefanovich’s hands revealed many moments of instant delight. On reflection it leaves an overall impression of exotic beauty, despite its obvious debt to the mid-20th century moderns who all too often remind us that the brutalities of WWII echoed long after the peace treaties were signed. I could imagine many an advanced piano student enjoying these pieces. Probably more than most parents would, but don’t the young want music to cause parental consternation?

Old Battles

Less delightful was an echo of another war, admittedly trivial compared to WWII, that sporadically flared up in the latter half of the 20th century, pitting those who revered the methods of Boulez, and before him Schoenberg, against those who sought instead to incrementally expand and diversify the traditional European conception of music based on major and minor scales that had been developing over hundreds of years previously. Stefanovich is a passionate and consummate musician who believes strongly in the former path, and on the rare occasions she spoke of the music of composers who went a different way, such as the American Samuel Barber or the largely American minimalist movement, it seemed she was less interested and even a bit dismissive.

A whiff of two old chestnuts, progress of musical styles and vindication of composers by the future, lingered here and there also. But even in the leisurely 17th and 18th centuries, it took less than 80 years to rescue J.S. Bach from obscurity. More recently, less than 25 years elapsed from the time Charles Ives largely stopped composing to his 1947 Pulitzer Prize. To riff on a notorious Boulez pronouncement, Schoenberg’s been dead for 65 years now, Webern over 70; they’re probably about as popular and well-loved as they’re ever going to be.

Claudia Chan performed at The Clearing. Photo: Rich Brase.

Claudia Chan performed at The Clearing. Photo: Rich Brase.

In her own sphere, however, Stefanovich was engagingly enthusiastic, even if it was occasionally hard to hear why. Friday evening brought a solo concert split between Chen and prize Aimard student and emerging pianist Claudia Chan, with Stefanovich providing informative commentary. Chen delighted not only with the Boulez selections but with two wildly contrasting works: selections from 20th century Japanese composer ToruTakemitsu’s lushly impressionistic Rain Tree Sketches and the first of Messiaen’s Twenty Meditations on the Infant Jesus, although the latter seemed to drag on rather shapelessly after Boulez’s succinct, brash outbursts. In this context, Chen would have been wise to avoid such a blissed-out interpretation.

Chan’s selections were more of a mixed bag. Most puzzling were two works by German composers, patriarch Helmut Lachenmann’s Guiro from 1969, and Gen Y’er Matthias Krüger’s renk composed just last year, which use the piano in just about every way possible other than the way it was designed for and lovingly perfected across 100 years. Supposedly this approach asks the question “what can music be,” but there’s no reason to expect deep philosophy from a composer. Especially in this age of seemingly unlimited sounds through computer generation or processing, the exercise seems perverse, if not nearly so dangerous as some other such activities: driving a screw with a skewer, or electing an egomaniac real estate developer president of the United States.

A much more effective alternative use of the piano’s sound potential was Brazilian Gen Y’er Michelle Agnes Magalhaes’s Mobile from 2013, for which Chan created an entire percussion orchestra by festooning the strings with various objects of “preparation”. While at first hearing it seemed overlong, every time a certain exquisite gong sound came out of one particular piano string, I wanted it to go on forever.

Among works written for straight piano, two etudes from around the millennium by South Korean Gen X’er Unsuk Chin were most intriguing. In C was nothing like Terry Riley’s famous minimalist composition of the same title; instead giant bells seemed to warn of an ever-thickening plague of fireflies. In Grains, cosmic woodpeckers cavorted among shooting stars and dancing planets. Chan’s performance was brilliant, but these pieces have an over-the-top quality that could have been brought out even more flamboyantly.

More than Music

But wait, as the catchphrase goes, there’s more! Besides concerts and master classes, the festival included panels, films, and Stefanovich’s presentation of a new music website that, if ambitions are realized, will quite possibly become the go-to resource for anyone wanting to educate themselves in depth on landmarks of 20th century and contemporary Western musical art. A video of a performance plays in lockstep with a video traversing the score, with links on each page to commentary. In related videos you can see and hear the composer talking about the work in largely non-technical language, related educational events, and so forth. A political rally had gathered below in Portland’s Park Blocks as Stefanovich talked; once when she opened up a Boulez interview video onscreen, a huge cheer erupted outside!

A panel titled “Composition – Demystifying the Process” featured Portland composers David Schiff, Renée Favand-See, and Branic Howard each presenting a characteristic work and going into lively detail about how they wrote it. It would be hard to imagine a wider variety: Howard at the beginning of his career, happily melding traditional acoustic with the latest in electronic technology, Favand-See solidly ensconced in mid-career with many fine vocal works among others in her catalog, and Schiff, first student, then friend and colleague of Elliott Carter, now one of the elders in his own right, giving back through multiple books on his mentor.

All three works were compelling in their own way. I was pleasantly surprised by Howard’s composition for computer-processed sounds originating from contact microphones inside a piano otherwise played normally. When he stopped it in the middle to resume his talk, I was disappointed; I wanted to hear more. Favand-See’s all-acoustic song flowed just as naturally, expertly concealing its rather complicated compositional process. I don’t usually hear any obvious Carter influence in Schiff’s music, but his tight and jazzy piano trio movement had a feeling of individuals moving through a crowd, like Carter but clearer.

Of two films, György Kurtág: The Matchstick Man, directed by Judit Kele, had the most impact, at least for composers and those with a similarly deep interest in music. While little of the film was in English – Kurtág also speaks French and German along with his native Hungarian – the subtitles presented a touching portrait of this eminent, still living contemporary of Boulez and Ligeti, who loves a wide variety of music passionately, and who has gained self-knowledge and wisdom to share through a long life of struggle with this inscrutable art. Generous samplings of his distinctive music, which often displays a zany sense of humor lacking in his contemporaries, were always identified during their performance.

Thorns & Roses

But of course the concerts remained the focus of interest. I much regretting missing the one chamber music concert, due to a concert scheduling pile-up Saturday night. This is far too common in Portland’s relatively small new-music community! It’s very difficult to choose a concert other than one Pierre Aimard appears in, even with only rumors for advance publicity (at his request). However nothing could keep me away from Stefanovich’s final feast of a concert Sunday evening, loaded with 28 solo piano etudes by five composers, three of them alive and kicking, composing even as you read this.

True, some etudes were not so attractive. Messiaen’s experiments extending serial composition techniques from pitches to rhythm and volume in his 1950 “Four Studies of Rhythm” mostly made clear why Messiaen largely abandoned the effort even as other composers with more abstruse interests took it and ran with it. And despite being talked up by Stefanovich, Cypriot Gen X’er Vassos Nicolaou’s hot-off-the-press etudes included the thorniest and least comprehensible sounds heard all festival. They may have been new, but they owed more to the later 20th century European avant-garde than to anything an American would recognize as contemporary culture.

Tamara Stefanovich performed and curated in Portland Piano International's The Clearing. Photo: Rich Brase

Tamara Stefanovich performed and curated in Portland Piano International’s The Clearing. Photo: Rich Brase

But what lingered in the memory long afterwards were the delicious and delirious Fire Island I and Fire Island II, bookends to Messiaen’s failed 1950 experiment; ten wildly varied and powerfully evocative etudes by Hans Abrahamsen, the Danish composer who won this year’s Grawemeyer prize with his achingly atmospheric orchestral song cycle “let me tell you”; and not at all least, four masterly etudes from the composer who started the current piano etude craze in the 1980s, and who in many ways is the esthetic godfather behind the entire festival: 20th century Hungarian master György Ligeti. In “Open Strings,” “Blocked Touch,” “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and “Devil’s Staircase,” works by now familiar to the new music community and starting to gain wider recognition, Stefanovich demonstrated her own utter mastery of that esthetic. They were all played with breathtaking finesse, and more importantly, even when not beautiful in a conventional sense, they grabbed your ears from the first note and fascinated all the way to the last.

More than once during the festival, even from Stefanovich, I heard denigrating remarks about “entertainment.” Sometimes the speakers were careful to clarify that they were referring to entertainment without anything else to go along with it. (I could call this naked entertainment except… well, do I have to explain?) But even so, these Ligeti etudes stand as exemplars against any such prejudice. They are, before anything else, hugely entertaining. The sensual and emotional rushes that are the glory of the best music, that keep stoking our happy addictions to it, can’t happen unless a composer’s magic grabs our ears first. And that’s entertainment, folks.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    An absolutely first-rate essay here, Jeff, bravo!
    I think it would be wonderful if you curated a series of concerts focussing on the great etude cycles of the piano repertoire: Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Ligeti & more . . .
    Seriously.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      And then I could include some by the American, David Rakowski. He’s written about 100, many quite fine I think. I only know a fraction of them, but Stefanovich didn’t know (of) them at all! (They are published by Peters.) So many composers…

      Thank you for reading and commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      • bob priest says:

        Absolutely.
        And, let’s not forget Sorabji’s 100 Transcendental Etudes &/or William Bolcom’s dazzling set.
        Wait a minuet, how ’bout a goodly gaggle of new etudes by PDX composers commissioned specifically for your series?

        • Maria Choban says:

          “Wait a minuet, how ’bout a goodly gaggle of new etudes by PDX composers commissioned specifically for your series?”

          YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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