Surprisingly, the most exciting moment of last week’s Chamber Music Northwest /BodyVox collaborative concert last week might have been the one number that didn’t involve any collaboration at all. Percussionist Ayano Kataoka’s electrifying solo performance of Iannis Xenakis’s polyrhythmic Rebonds for various drums, woodblocks and other beaten instruments sparked a loud chorus of whoops, cheers and audience generated hand percussion. (After hearing Florian Conzetti perform Psappha, another striking solo by the Greek composer last spring, I wonder: could a Xenakis revival be underway?). Kataoka’s sharp accompaniment (to an arrangement of music by Paganini) made Jamey Hampton’s hilarious solo dance “Moto Perpetuo” nearly a pas de deux.
The first half program also interspersed episodes of “Two for One…Three for All…Four for Nothing,” which engagingly told a comic love duet cum triangle cum rectangle tale set to music by Chopin, played with appropriate restraint (so as not to upstage the choreography) by Shai Wosner, who joined Elizabeth Harcombe to provide a soundtrack to a familiar filmed BodyVox work, Metamorfishes.
As usual, BodyVox dancers’ winning humor carried the day; the ensemble’s facility with facial expression, audience connection and clever timing pack a lot more comic punch than other companies’ youthful virtuosity. The smartly paced program hit a more melancholy note with CMNW Protege Project composer Katarina Kramarchuk’s poignant new music (well-played by a CMNW quartet) to BodyVox’s dream-like “Falling for Grace.” It was a treat to see some of these pieces in new contexts — particularly the addition of live music, which always seems to charge up dance performances.
The shorter pieces seemed more focused than BodyVox’s new choreography to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, which took up the second half. Superb lighting effects (which enhanced the entire program), costumes, and chorus dancing, plus a brilliant turn by BV vet Eric Skinner as Satan, er, Satin and strong performances by the other leads couldn’t quite compensate for the shortage of ideas needed to fully propel the storyline. Still, this generally entertaining attempt (particularly thanks to a spirited performance of the music led by a CMNW septet led by David Shifrin) seems worth developing further.
Humor also enlivened CMNW’s final Protege Project concert Wednesday, which opened with three composers admired for their sense of it. In one of Mozart’s earliest excellent pieces, the bubbly Divertimento in D K. 136, the Amphion Quartet (augmented by bassist Rex Surany) demonstrated just how much they’d grown as ensemble players since arriving at CMNW last year, playing the composer’s youthful gem with all the verve and vitality you’d want. Trumpeter Tom Bergeron, trombonist Richard Harris, and hornist William Purvis cheekily used deadpan phrasing and wry facial expressions to enhance Francis Poulenc’s cheerfully brassy sonata for that odd combo, and Amphion quartet cellist Mihai Marica and Surany grinned their way through a duo by Rossini.
Bergeron and percussionist Candy Chiu sparkled in the world premiere of -intuition) (Expectation,
a staccato new work for trumpet and marimba by Andy Akiho, then Astor Piazzolla’s evocative Cafe 1930. Nonpareil bassist Edgar Meyer and his 20 year old son George, a violinist and composer, played an oldie of Edgar’s and a couple of compositions by George, then the Amphions returned for the tuneful, Coplandish first movement of Edgar’s popular String Quintet. The youthful energy and sheer delight evinced by these musicians, who were probably playing much of this music for the first time, plus Alberta Rose’s less formal setting, made this one of the festival’s most delightful evenings.
CMNW’s youth movement continued with last week’s concert by Time for Three, featuring a trio of young orchestra musicians who met as Curtis Institute of Music students. What a relief from the 1940s-era century white dinner jackets and stodgy presentation of most other CMNW — indeed most classical — performances. Unlike too many other classical ensembles, the young trio seemed to understand that there was another element in the hall besides themselves and their instruments — namely, an audience. And they paid attention to connecting with it, like any good band would outside classical music. The trio’s set proceeded smartly, eschewing the long pauses between works commonly endured in classical concerts. They swayed and danced with the music’s rhythms, snapping, strumming and plucking their strings, grinning with what appeared to be real joy in playing music, even parodied a few rock star moves. They traded the cheesy white jackets and music stands for subtle but effective lighting changes, and each member talked warmly to — and joked with — the audience about the music every few songs, helping listeners understand where various pieces came from and building a relationship with them. The threesome sounded spontaneous, conveyed a real sense of fun, seemed to really care about how the audience experienced the music, and actually seemed to like each other. The atmosphere was consequently much more relaxed and enjoyable than they typical Church of Classical Music atmosphere.
None of this would have mattered much if their music hadn’t been so engaging and played so adeptly. Their covers of pop works from Bill Monroe to the Beatles (a sweet version of “Blackbird”) to Leonard Cohen, and Imogene Heap ultimately proved less interesting than their bluegrassy originals, especially Philly Phunk. And they weren’t above medleying Brahms’s most famous Hungarian Dance (“the rest of them are crap!” one said cheekily) with “Hava Nagila” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” The only dud was the overplayed encore, “Ashokan Farewell,” which I kept expecting them to goof with.
As they noted from the stage, classical music performances have long incorporated folk and pop music, so Time for Three is merely continuing, or maybe reviving, a vital tradition from the time before classical music became too often museum music. When was the last time you heard rhythmic clapping, demanding an encore, at the end of a chamber music concert?
Not to say that the traditional CMNW concerts haven’t provided compelling moments. An old favorite, oboist Alan Vogel, provided his usual lovely fluency in several works on Monday and Tuesday, including a fun, jazzy little overture for reed instruments commissioned by CMNW from Reed College professor David Schiff to honor the centenary of its home, Reed College. (His colleagues Shifrin and Julie Feves did fine, too.) They joined Purvis and Wosner (who played his piano part more like a concerto soloist than an equal member of the ensemble, which may have been the composer’s intention) in Beethoven’s Mozartean Piano and Winds Quintet. I have to say that Vogel’s creamy oboe sang more sweetly than Kelly Markgraf’s occasionally obdurate baritone in a pair of J.S. Bach’s greatest vocal showcases.
But the centerpiece of the concert, and one of the best performances of the festival, came in Dvorak’s great String Quintet op. 77, which I wish were played as often as some of the other famous classical quintets by Schubert, Schumann et al. CMNW regulars Ani Kavafian, Theodore Arm, Yura Lee, and Fred Sherry, along with Edgar Meyer, performed with appropriate ardency, particularly in the ultimately exultant opening movement. As other groups sometimes do, the ensemble restored the lovely Notturno that (Dvorak wound up cutting from the piece (even though it had inspired him to write the piece in the first place, in order to reclaim that movement from an abandoned earlier quartet). That lovely slow movement, which the Oregon Symphony played, in a string orchestra arrangement, in its season finale last month, balances the entire work by providing a moment of repose between two energetic opening movements, in symmetry with the later slow movement that featured Sherry’s singing cello lines (freed from their usual grounding duties by the presence of Meyer’s bass). The players also rode Dvorak’s dance rhythms through the memorable finale.
CMNW concludes this weekend with two of the potentially most attractive concerts of the series, starring the great Danish recorder master Michala Petri — the Yo Yo Ma of that wind instrument (or rather instruments, since it comes in various ranges), which played a surprisingly prominent role as a solo vehicle in the Baroque era than later. She’ll join some equally accomplished veteran players (CMNW regulars Fred Sherry on cello, oboist Alan Vogel, who has experience in this repertoire through his long tenure at the Oregon Bach Festival, Wosner on harpsichord) plus some of the CMNW proteges in two concerts of music by the greatest Baroque composers (J.S. Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi), less well known contemporaries, and, anachronistically, Mozart.
Alas, unlike, say, Portland Baroque Orchestra, they’ll be playing on modern, not period instruments and tunings, raising the perennial question: is it better to hear that music performed in ways that omit some of the real beauty of their original incarnations, or limit it strictly to authentic performance specialists, thus depriving many listeners who don’t frequent those historically informed concerts of live exposure to some of history’s finest music? Modern musicians willing and able to adopt authentic Baroque playing styles can partially compensate for the inevitable distorted balances, heavier textures, and other anachronisms imposed by modern instruments (though not for the original tunings, which make a substantial difference in the sound), so it’ll be interesting to hear how CMNW’s crack players handle this issue.
There’s more Baroque and later music at the Abbey Bach Festival, which closes Friday at the picturesque Benedictine monastery near Salem. At 6 pm, Portland’s superb Cappella Romana will sing Baroque and Classical repertoire from Russia, and at 8, pianist Stéphane Lemelin and violinist Laurence Kayaleh play music by Bach, Brahms, and Fritz Kreisler. After this weekend, live classical music will be scarcer in Oregon for a spell, but never fear: there’s more to come this summer.