Weekend MusicWatch: Chamber music, contemporary and classic

BodyVox dancers join Chamber Music Northwest this weekend.
Photo: David Krebs.

Dance and music collide again at Chamber Music Northwest this weekend. The venerable Portland festival resumes last year’s collaboration with the always engaging BodyVox dance outfit Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Renowned for its sense of humor and use of multimedia elements (especially film), the dance company has made a good partner for classical music institutions including CMNW lately, so it should be a treat to see how they approach Igor Stravinsky’s sly, tuneful and acerbic little fable, A Soldier’s Tale. (Hint: it may all be a dream. Or not.)

The program also features music by the wild 20th century composer Iannis Xenakis, Chopin, Paganini and CMNW’s Protege Project young composer in residence, Katerina Kramarchuk, a Moldova native who grew up in Hillsboro and whose music was featured in a Protege Project concert last week. She’s writing a new piece specifically tailored to BodyVox’s choreography. CMNW deserves kudos for supporting and showcasing young Oregon creative artists.

Speaking of Oregon composers, Monday and Tuesday’s CMNW shows open with a new fanfare, commissioned by CMNW, by one of Oregon’s finest composers, Reed College professor David Schiff.  The concerts are supposed to feature singer Sasha Cooke, who so impressed at last summer’s festival, but she was ill and unable to perform last week. It’s looking like she’ll be able to return Monday and Tuesday. The program includes Beethoven’s uncharacteristically sunny Piano and Winds Quintet and Dvorak’s exuberant String Quintet. Next Wednesday brings the final installment of CMNW’s Protege Project to Alberta Rose Theater, with the Amphion Quartet, nonpareil bassist Edgar Meyer, and other artists.

The Emerson Quartet played Beethoven and more
at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Last weekend’s CMNW concerts featured what may be the most acclaimed string quartet in the land. The Emerson Quartet has always occasioned some controversy among music lovers, with everyone acknowledging their unquestioned virtuosity, but some (from some European critics to Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser) left cold by what they perceive as icy, unemotional perfectionism. See Bob Hicks’s characteristically insightful post above for more thoughts on the Emersons.

The fantastic foursome’s CMNW performances substantiated both views. On Saturday, things started going wrong for me even before the first notes sounded, when I noticed that they’d placed Dvorak’s “American” quartet last on the program — after classics by Beethoven and Shostakovich. Now, this is a common strategy in classical music: save the crowd pleaser with the hummable tunes for last, avoid the embarrassment of lots of empty seats in the second half (when the conservative listeners have fled in fear of anything new or challenging), send the audience home humming and happy.

But the Emersons don’t need to do that; no one’s going to walk out on one of their shows except in case of medical emergency. And as much as I admire Dvorak’s lilting chamber music, it will always sound a little lightweight after a late Beethoven quartet. The Emersons seemed to be out to prove a point: that Dvorak is more than a purveyor of pretty tunes, but all their taut, brusque performance of his most popular chamber piece did was undermine the very elements of song and dance that make his music so compelling. It didn’t sing at all. Their hard-charging Beethoven was predictably stronger, showcasing the Op. 135 quartet’s obsessive power, but neglecting  the lighter side of this relatively easygoing (among his late quartets) masterwork. The result for me was a gleaming, impenetrable edifice that I could only admire from the outside. Of course these are all matters of taste and preference. But they explain why, for me, other quartets (especially the Takacs and the Orion) really capture more of the emotional range of Beethoven’s music.

Still, it was an impressive performance, and followed by Shostakovich’s famous eighth quartet, in which the Emersons seemed fully and deeply immersed in its shadowy beauty.

Sunday’s show at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall proved much more compelling, in part because that venue has a much more intimate feel than Kaul. The Emersons’ celebrated penchant for clarity elucidated the beauty of Mozart’s late String Quartet K. 575. They made a strong case for The Four Quarters, which the Emersons commissioned in 2010 from one of the world’s most acclaimed living composers, Thomas Ades, Britain’s great musical hope, who now lives part time in Los Angeles.  A dark, dramatic work with a somber ending and lots of plucking, it sounded utterly unlike anyone else’s music and a worthy contribution to the Emersons’ considerable legacy.

The first four movements of the program’s closing work, Beethoven’s late String Quartet op. 130, pretty much followed the script of their other Beethoven and Mozart performances: lively, urgent, but somehow detached. Then the magic happened. The huge final movement, the famous Grosse Fugue, does feel like it came from another piece, even another planet. It’s so big and so different from what came before that Beethoven followed urgings from early listeners to write a shorter, more conventional finale.

But the Emersons played the quartet in its original form, concluding with the great fugue, and as soon as they flung themselves into its opening notes, it was as though another group had taken possession of their bodies. Their playing immediately became fierier, more committed. Their faces and body language displayed all the passion missing from their earlier performances, with violist Laurence Dutton even stomping his feet, and violinist Eugene Drucker looking half crazed. Their ferocious, almost violent performance fully evoked the music’s extreme intensity, and demonstrated just why, at their best, the Emersons can be the most powerful chamber ensemble on the planet.

Sunday’s performance by the Orion Quartet and CMNW artistic director David Shifrin featured another world premiere, this one by one of America’s leading composers, New York’s Aaron J. Kernis, who introduced the piece and managed to praise Portland and CMNW’s culinary abundance as well as their musical perspicacity. Built on descending, wafting melodic lines and minor chords, Perpetual Chaconne created a melancholy atmosphere and fully revealed its compositional techniques. Its original, sometimes striking gestures and some fine playing added up to some compelling moments, but as a whole, it proved a pleasant if mostly unmemorable experience. Kernis’s work often requires repeated exposure to fully sink in, at least for me, so I’d like to hear it again. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to experience the thrill of the unknown at a CMNW concert, and the festival deserves praise for programming and commissioning works by today’s top composers.

The rest of the concert consisted of vocal works by Schubert, Barber and Brahms; I missed the last thanks to an attack of Brahmsophobia. Among the three solo singers, I was most impressed by tenor Nicholas Phan, whose easy audience connection and clear, strong vocals doubtless persuaded many listeners to join the Phan club.

Chamber Music Northwest wasn’t the only classical music show in Portland last week, of course, but it and other events unfortunately conspired to keep me from attending any more recitals at Portland Piano International, save for one of pianist Paul Roberts’s characteristically fascinating lecture-demonstrations about literary influences on the music of Debussy, Liszt, and Ravel. And Opera Theater Oregon ended its season with perhaps the most successful in its Opera vs. Cinema series. Pianist Douglas Schneider and saxophonist Kim Reese’s improvisations on a few famous tunes from Puccini’s opera La Boheme snugly suited the great 1927 silent film Sunrise (though I wouldn’t have minded more sax), and soprano Helen Funston’s cleverly inserted arias enhanced the sonic environment rather than intruding on the onscreen action. The series has been interesting and worthwhile, but I hope OTO can get back to more fully staged productions next season.

This weekend also brings some fine non-classical music to Portland, including the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, one of the oldest free jazz festivals in the land, rescued from the brink by new leadership and offering a strong lineup of top local jazzers. And on Saturday, classical players including Oregon Symphony violinist Erin Furbee (who leads Tango Pacifico), Vancouver Symphony bassist Mike Murphy and others join Portland jazz piano star Andrew Oliver and tango master Alex Krebs in a CD release concert and dance at Tango Berretin in southeast Portland.

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