A hearty encore for David Shifrin

After 40 years, the clarinetist supreme retires as director of Chamber Music Northwest. His colleagues give him a round of applause.

Even the most ardent classical-music enthusiasts may not know several details about celebrated clarinetist David Shifrin, who retired this summer after 40 years as artistic director of Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest.

  • He uses synthetic — not cane — reeds.
  • His distant relative Lalo Schifrin (different spelling), who came to Hollywood from Argentina, persuaded David Shifrin’s parents to buy him a clarinet when David was growing up in Queens, New York. Pianist Schifrin, now 88, composed the theme from Mission Impossible, and David Shifrin, 18 years his junior, decades later commissioned him to compose pieces for the clarinet that ended up on the Aleph Label in 2006, Shifrin Plays Schifrin. The compositions were played at CMNW.
David Shifrin: a song and a smile. Photo courtesy CMNW
  • Hearing Benny Goodman play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and “lots and lots of swing” in the 1956 movie The Benny Goodman Story assured Shifrin that he had picked the right instrument. “I just fell in love with the clarinet,” said Shifrin, who at 13 attended Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Surrounded by serious young players, including violinist sisters Ida and Ani Kavafian (who perform often at Chamber Music Northwest), he convinced himself that to be a musician, “I’d have to work very, very hard, practice and practice, and be the best I could be.” That summer, he thought he’d give the career a shot. He’s never recalibrated his aim.
  • He has 14-year-old triplets, two of them striving musicians and another a computer wiz. He also has a 26-year-old son who is a football coach. A couple of weeks into retirement from CMNW, he said he plans to spend more time with the triplets, continue to play his MoBA cocobolo-wood clarinet for various concerts – some at CMNW – and keep teaching at Yale University School of Music.
Shifrin, caught up in the music. Photo courtesy CMNW

If  these details have escaped you, you likely know that he is one of three wind players to win the Avery Fisher Prize, established in 1974 to recognize outstanding soloists, and that he was given an honorary membership in the International Clarinet Society in 2014 for lifetime achievement. As a young man he won the top prizes at the Munich and Geneva international competitions, which helped to launch his career.

 His accolades are so manifold that there’s not space to include them.

Besides, he’s more interested in talking about the time during the 2019 festival when more than 100 clarinetists—pros, proteges and students from all over the world—played a raucous finale of Vivaldi, Edgar, Mahler and Sousa on Portland’s Park Blocks to end a week of clarinet collaboration. “I’ll never forget it,” he said, playfully referring to the event as “Clarinet Geek Week.”

Many CMNW concert-goers thought the clarinet festival, on his bucket list for years, celebrated Shifrin’s retirement. Instead, this summer’s virtual concerts, which sent him digging through archives, marked the end of his Chamber Music Northwest tenure. “It was quite a nostalgic journey if a great deal of work,” he said, to organize the 2020 festival. “It was a shock to be in a position to replace something that we’ve done for almost 50 years (CMNW started in 1971 under Sergiu Luca), but everybody is doing that, adapting to the changes the virus has brought.”

As it turned out,  the 2020 online festival pulled in 50,000 people — the most ever to hear its music — for 18 live streaming concerts, said festival Executive Director Peter Bilotta, “and David led the charge.”

David Shifrin, early edition. Photo courtesy CMNW

On the last festival evening, July 26, Shifrin soloed on American composer David Serkin Ludwig’s swan song to Shifrin. It’s called Berakah, which means “blessing” in Hebrew, and Ludwig—the grandson of pianist Rudolf Serkin— introduced his composition by saying that “David is a blessing for his incredible musicianship.”

Eleven string musicians played the final Tchaikovsky “Serenade for Strings in C Major,” and then a video of longtime CMNW musicians – several of whom have performed in many of the 40 Shifrin festivals – bid him farewell online. All Shifrin had to say, brushing away a tear, was, “You got me.”

This year, pianist Gloria Chien and husband/violinist Soovin Kim are taking over the festival’s artistic leadership: They’ve planned a virtual season for next year. Both former CMNW protégées and performers, they have run chamber music events including the 12-year-old Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, Vt., and Chien’s String Theory in Chattanooga, Tenn., one of the top  festivals in the United States’ southeast. Shifrin helped launch Chien’s first String Theory in 2009 by agreeing to play, much to Chien’s enthusiastic surprise.

The couple were chosen after a two-year international search that drew about 60 applicants. They almost forgot to apply because the birth of their son, Ryne, coincided with the application deadline. But they did, and were chosen by a search committee (Shifrin was a consultant). Kim, a teacher at New England Conservatory, says that he and Chien hope to stress young people’s musical education and carry on Shifrin’s legacy. Chamber Music Northwest,  Kim adds, is “among the most important chamber music organizations of the last 50 years. It is a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity to build on its legacy and help to shape the cultural landscape of Portland for another generation.”

Violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien: The married musicians succeed Shifrin as festival artistic directors. Photo courtesy CMNW

Shifrin has faith that the Boston-based couple, parents of two boys, will “brilliantly meet the challenges” of the festival’s future: “Either one alone would have been a great choice. Together, they are a powerhouse team. They do so much great work without seeming that they are strained or stressed. I have utmost confidence leaving CMNW in their hands.”

In her virtual farewell, Chien told Shifrin: “We’ll take care of the house you built.” 

***

 A  well-loved leader

What has made Shifrin such a beloved leader of the year-round program with its flagship summer season that has burgeoned into a prestigious, well-attended festival? A number of Shifrin’s music colleagues answered, many of whom have known and played with him for decades. The most consistently mentioned characteristic, in concert with his artistic vision and superior musicianship, was his generosity.


GENEROSITY 


Executive Director Peter Bilotta, speaking to a festival crowd. Photo courtesy CMNW

“That’s it. Generosity. For four decades David has shared his passion, his enthusiasm, his friendship and himself with so many audience members, so many musicians, so many composers, so many young emerging artists. He’s been a constant mentor, teacher, collaborator, advocate and supporter of others to help CMNW and the whole field of American chamber music grow from a kernel of an idea 50 years ago to an incredibly exciting, vibrant and thriving art form.”

— Peter Bilotta, CMNW executive director


VISION AND COLLABORATION


Violist Steven Tenenbom. Photo courtesy CMNW

He has “the combination of a very strong artistic vision and the willingness to ask for suggestions from others. So many people today are micro-managers, unwilling to reach out. David has no musical detractors because there is nothing to detract. … He is a mensch.”

Steven Tenenbom, violist and Orion String Quartet member who premiered several contemporary works, such as those by Aaron Jay Kernis and Marc Neikrug, at CMNW. He has been playing with CMNW since 1988.


MUSICIANSHIP


“My dad [the renowned bassist Edgar Meyer] has been in my ear to make sure that I pay attention to David’s mastery of phrasing. He has an uncommon beautiful fineness of control that made an impression on my dad.” 

— George Meyer, 27, violinist/violist and composer 

 “I would say that I have been most inspired by David’s playing, and among other things, it was a joy to play Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt Trio’ with him. He has a natural elegance in his music-making. I have certainly learned a lot from that.” 

—- Steven Tenenbom, violist, Orion String Quartet and OPUS ONE member, and golf pal of Shifrin’s, after years of convincing Shifrin that he might like the sport.


KNOWLEDGE & EXPANSION OF THE REPERTOIRE


Cellist Peter Wiley. Photo courtesy CMNW

 “First and foremost is his exceptional musicianship. He has a knowledge  of the repertoire and connections to great musicians worldwide. His creative programming is key.”

 — Peter Wiley, cellist, who met Shifrin when Wiley was 13 and Shifrin five years older as students at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was a member of Guarneri Quartet (2001-2009) and Beaux Arts Trio (1987-1998), and principal cellist at Cincinnati Symphony at the age of 20. He has played often with Shifrin at CMNW since 1990.

Shifrin expanded the clarinet repertoire through commissions to Stephen Albert, Bright Sheng, William Bolcom, Ellen Zwilich, David Schiff, Bruce Adolphe, Lalo Schifrin and many others.


VARIED PROGRAMMING 


Valerie Coleman of Imani Winds. Photo courtesy CMNW

“He is a master of taking us on a journey while making us feel safe at the same time. I am among those who know and trust David’s artistic vision, which has led audiences to being introduced to not only other women composers such as Hannah Lash and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, but wind ensembles and percussionists like Andy Akiho.”

 —-Valerie Coleman, flutist, founder of Imani Winds quintet, and composer of “Shotgun Houses,” commissioned by Shifrin. 


EDUCATOR


“I have seen CMNW develop and grow for 30 years. The festival has expanded its reaches throughout the region, offered opportunities for younger artists to gain experience and be mentored, and developed an audience second to none—all indications of an artistic director, and a team, that has energy and vision.”

— Peter Wiley, cellist 

 Shifrin started the protege program about 12 years ago, and as he says,  “We formalized something that happened naturally with cross-pollination, inspiration, mutual admiration, and an opportunity to give young musicians who have finished schooling to play with luminaries.” 

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City had a similar program since the mid-’90s. Shifrin led CMLC from 1992 to 2004, and still plays with them.

George Meyer, the young violinist who graduated from Juilliard and Harvard, has played several of his own compositions at Chamber Music Northwest. “It’s splendidly encouraging as a composer to be handed the reins. … The quality of David’s character — his generosity  — clearly forms an important part of what we are able to learn from him.” 

Imani Winds, founded by Valerie Coleman, was a recent festival protege group. “David and Bruce Adolphe were the ones who first believed in us. For David to give us a shot in performing at CMNW one year proved transformational. … A word from David went a long way—more than he knows. … I can honestly say that if ever there were a training ground for future artistic directors, I have learned from the very best in him.”

—-Valerie Coleman, Imani Winds, professor at Frost School of Music, University of Miami and director of its chamber music  department, named 2020 Classical Woman of the Year by Performance Today.


OPEN-MINDEDNESS


“He integrated jazz into the classical repertoire, commissioning and premiering dozens of jazz-based composers, including Portland’s David Schiff and Darrell Grant. He has commissioned more than 100 new works from composers ranging from Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom to emerging young composers [George Meyer, Valerie Coleman, Katie Agocs, and David Ludwig] who are giving a new voice to chamber music.”

 —Peter Bilotta, CMNW Executive Director

Shifrin also incorporated into the programming other arts like opera and dance groups, such as Portland’s BodyVox.


DIVERSITY OF VOICES


“One never feels any element of tokenism, as it is all about the journey through music and the enrichment it brings. CMNW has always included people of color in the right way, and never for diversity’s sake.”

—-Valerie Coleman, Imani Winds founder and composer

Shifrin said that despite his striving to represent BIPOC, women, and less represented musicians, “it’s not enough” — and hopes new artistic directors Chien and Kim will strive to strengthen and widen inclusion.


FINALLY, HIS GOOD NATURE


George Meyer, violinist and composer

“When I first met David, my dad [Edgar Meyer] and I were just driving into downtown Portland and spotted him across the way. We stayed in our car and all three of us yelled friendly salutations and other nice things for a few minutes.”

George Meyer, violinist/violist and composer

“David has always worked from the angle of pulling out of you what was already there but muted or hidden, and needed to shine, dig deeper and sing more. I tremendously enjoyed performing the Brandenburg concerti and Janacek’s Mladi with him. … Working with David is such a joy. It always  comes with a savvy wit and a wink designed to make the entire ensemble chuckle. I am smiling as I write this.”

—Valerie Coleman, Imani Winds founder and composer


About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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