Weekend MusicWatch: Piano classics and flamenco fever

We’ll be hearing a lot about the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s landmark ballet score The Rite of Spring next year, but I wish equal attention had been paid to this year’s centenary of an equally radical musical advance — though one far less influential because it was hardly heard at the time. Pianist Gilbert Kalish’s stirring performance of the great American composer Charles Ives’s tumultuous Concord Sonata at Portland International Piano Festival Thursday conclusively demonstrated not just how revolutionary an achievement the nearly hour long work is — but also its rough-hewn beauty, probably more evident 100 years after its creation than it was to the stuffy New Englanders of Ives’s time. In Kalish’s able hands, Ives not only evokes what turn of the century Massachusetts and its famous residents looked like, but also how they thought and how he felt about it all.

Few performers would even attempt such a complex masterwork, and not many more could handle Schubert’s equally ambitious last sonata. Kalish played both — a choice that proved unfortunately more adventurous than satisfying, because hearing the two back to back might not have been exhausting for the 77 year old piano legend but it sure was for some in the audience. Shorter, lighter weight works might have complemented the Ives better. As it was, Kalish delivered a performance of Schubert that was more thoughtful than passionate, and a little pedantic, more like giving a tour of a monumental edifice than truly inhabiting it. But Kalish’s spectacular, moving Ives performance alone was worth the price of admission, and another triumph for PPI.

Portland International Piano Festival’s master classes, films and workshops continue this weekend, along with a talk and performance Saturday afternoon by former Portlander Stephanie Rao and Saar Ahuvia, her musical partner in the duo Stephanie and Saar. They’ll showcase Bach Crossings, their fascinating new album of transcriptions by contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag of  music that J.S. Bach didn’t write for keyboard. On Saturday evening, New York pianist Beth Levin plays Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas — an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking involving some of the greatest music ever written for the instrument. Lighter fare (Strauss, Vivaldi, Brahms, Michael Jackson et al) is in the air in Sunday’s closing duo recital by the team of Anderson & Roe.

The Oregon Bach Festival also wraps this weekend in Eugene, with films about Glenn Gould, a tango concert featuring Portland harmonica master Joe Powers (who played the program at Portland State last week), a long sold out concert starring Angela Hewitt, who because of a scheduling quirk was finally able to make it over from her own annual summer festival to Eugene’s closing weekend. She’ll conclude the festival’s multiple perspectives on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And OBF music director Helmuth Rilling will close the festival in traditional fashion by leading a performance of one of the milestones of human musical achievement, Bach’s magnificent St. Matthew Passion.

Although those two festivals are finishing up, Chamber Music Northwest is still going strong in Portland. Perhaps the most renowned string quartet in the land, the Emerson Quartet, returns Saturday and Sunday but alas both shows are sold out, although sometimes a few stray tickets are returned. On Monday and Tuesday, the summer music festival’s most important concerts star Kalish, CMNW artistic director David Shifrin, last summer’s vocal star Sasha Cooke, and more in the world premiere of a CMNW commission, Perpetual Chaconne for clarinet and string quartet by one of America’s finest composers, New York’s Aaron Jay Kernis. (Here’s an interview I did with the composer last year.) The program also includes songs by Brahms, Schubert and Samuel Barber’s lovely 1931 setting of Dover Beach.

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi leads the ensemble
at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jim Leisy.

CMNW’s weekend concerts brought another star to the firmament. Violinist Jennifer Frautschi’s urgent leading role in Mozart’s big Divertimento for Strings and Two Horns K. 334 avoided any danger of turning it into background music, which many of those occasional pieces really were. Instead, the able ensemble, featuring local stars John Cox on horn and Curtis Daily on bass, along with CMNW’s usual starry visiting retinue, delivered a vigorous performance with an enticing ebb and flow. Frautschi’s spun out Mozart’s succession of preposterously catchy dance tunes — enough to fuel a dozen symphonies by lesser composers — with a firm, sweet but never saccharine tone yet maintained a cohesive whole. Although I’m not entirely convinced that a standard concert setting is the best way to hear that music, Frautschi (often rocking back on her heels and leaning into those memorable melodies) and her colleagues turned in a convincing performance. Kalish, Stephen Copes and Ronald Thomas’s elegant performance of a Mozart piano trio and the Amphion Quartet’s poignant rendition of Portland composer Bryan Johanson’s melancholy tribute to his friend, the late Oregon violinist Marty Jennings, Notes on a Vaulted Sky, rounded out a pleasant concert.

But probably the most exciting concert I attended last week wasn’t even classical music but rather a show by the Portland flamenco ensemble Seffarine at northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, the venue for so many fine shows this year. The hall was completely packed when a lone, black clack man strode on stage and launched into a gravelly voiced lament. Even the smattering of children in the audience were rapt during most of singer Jose Cortez’s evocative solos, and once Manuel de la Cruz, rose from the cajon (box drum), doffed his jacket, and began busting out the graceful whirls, percussive stomps and dramatic postures of flamenco dance, the sold-out house was whooping and hollering.

Seffarine at
Alberta Rose Theater

The show smartly alternated among dance numbers, Cortez’s vocal showcases, and instrumental and vocal ensemble works featuring Seffarine founders Nat Hulskamp (a superb guitar and ud player) and singer Lamiae Naki, and guest singer/instrumentalist Bobak Salehi (Hulskamp’s partner in the Portland Persian music ensemble Shabava) on kamancheh spike fiddle, setar, and violin. I wish we could see the passionate commitment to the music from musicians and audience alike on display here at every concert.

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