When Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien were hired in 2020 as Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic co-directors, they didn’t imagine that 2022 would be the year they could show their stuff, due to Covid restrictions that limited live concerts.
This summer’s festival unveiled their brilliance, even if attendance was down from pre-Covid years. The married musician couple began a youth program, the Young Artist Institute, hosting 15 high school string players from around the country who were given full scholarships and played enthusiastically about Portland. Kim and Chien varied the five weeks of concerts with hidden gems and new music, world premieres and singers. They spotlighted percussion and saxophones, not only strings, piano, and such winds as clarinets and flutes. And they invited rising young musicians—a new group every week who were as good as their predecessors and followers. Things were very good in the 40 years of clarinetist David Shifrin’s CMNW leadership, but they sounded even better this summer.
The powerhouse artistic directors are top musicians as well as leaders, and they got a workout during the festival. Chien can play anything on the piano, and accompanied such artists as Tchaikovsky International Competition gold-medal cellist Zlatomir Fung in a gorgeous Reinhold Gliere piece, and the next night played Erich Korngold’s 32-minute Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15 with the young Viano String Quartet. Violinist Kim soloed on several pieces, including two world premieres: Portland composer David Schiff’s Vineyard Rhythms and Chris Rogerson’s Meditation for Violin and Saxophone Quartet, and he filled in a couple of times when musicians fell sick. Chien and Kim were indefatigable.
I didn’t attend every event, but I heard 13 concerts from June 27 to July 31, and I was rarely disappointed. Here’s a brief look at the festival.
As engaging as the festival was this year, a lot of seats stayed empty during its five weeks at such places at Reed’s Kaul Auditorium, The Reser in Beaverton and the smaller Lincoln Hall at Portland State University.
One-third fewer people from normal years attended. About 6,800 concertgoers came to concerts this summer; the usual count, pre-Covid, was 11,000. CMNW Executive Director Peter Bilotta predicted the decline a couple of years ago when Covid hit. “It’s not just us. It’s universal across festivals and symphonies. We figured we’d lose a third.”
But he’s optimistic despite the toll the virus has taken, that “things will come back, slowly. It will take three to five years to get back. This isn’t the kind of thing that turns around immediately. Covid has taken a real psychological toll.”
At-home subscriptions have declined also. During the fall and winter, there were 300; the summer, only 150. “People are getting back to life as normal. And those who are coming to live concerts aren’t streaming.” (The five livestream concerts of this year’s At-Home series are available through the 31st).
The good news is that audiences keep refreshing themselves with younger concert-goers. When “new old” people reach 45 or 50—after they don’t have to track down a babysitter or catch up on career- or family-sleep loss—they start to attend, Bilotta said. CMNW surveys have consistently shown that one-third of audiences have been buying tickets for less than five years, so audiences are constantly replenishing themselves rather than dying off.
Besides, not everyone is ready to leave the music behind that he, she or they listened to in high school, Bilotta said. Studies show that 80 percent of folks continue to listen to tunes of their teens throughout their lives. “Only 20 percent are exploratory, and those same people continue to seek out classical and complex music.”
When they’ve listened to enough of the high school stuff they might check out Brahms. “And then world premieres, new music, contemporary opera, just like experienced listeners do.”
Premieres and Portland’s David Schiff
Five premieres emerged during the five weeks, and headlining them was Portland composer David Schiff’s Vineyard Rhythms about an Oregon vineyard’s changing seasons. Sokol Blosser Winery owner Susan Sokol Blosser commissioned the piece in honor of her late violinist mother.
Performed by a nonet–four violins, two violas, two cellos and a stand-up bass–the piece was conducted by Eugene Symphony maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong, who directed Schiff’s Prefontaine in June at the Eugene Symphony. Schiff’s was the only festival piece with a conductor, and Lecce-Chong kept the 15-minute work’s three very different movements moving, helping the musicians to nail Schiff’s many textures (this work is complicated and required a lot of practice!). Kim played solo violin, opening the piece with the vigorous “Hawk” movement that personified the bird of prey’s strength and persistence. Whenever Kim plays, the music climbs another level. The nonet featured a new crop of well-rehearsed top-notch string players; the premiere debuted on July 28, the last week of the festival, and almost every week a new group of high-caliber musicians played. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite.
Other premieres included 23-year-old protege composer Alistair Coleman’s Broadacre City for Flute Quintet, featuring festival regular Tara Helen O’Connor, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s fantasy city (read my profile on Coleman here). He did a scintillating arrangement of George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue for the Sinta Saxophone Quartet during the festival’s final stretch on July 24 and 25. See that Sinta Sax Oregon Arts Watch review here.
Chris Rogerson’s Meditation for Violin and Saxophone Quartet reflecting the composer’s long trek through Afghanistan that traced Marco Polo’s 13th-century travels, added more beauty to the Sinta Saxophone Quartet’s tight and bright concert in late July.
Fang Man’s poetic Partridge Sky, sung in Mandarin by showstopper multi-lingual mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, accompanied by pianist and CMNW artistic co-director Chien, who makes everyone sound good and even better if they happen to be Barron, brought the audience to its feet in the festival’s final week.
The polished Brentano Quartet and veteran soprano Dawn Upshaw performed Melinda Wagner’s “monodrama” of Dido Reimagined, a West Coast premiere. The quartet and Upshaw’s execution were technically superb; the music, not so much. Stephanie Fleischmann wrote the libretto, which was a lot more poetic than the awkward music.
New venues and hidden gems
Though not every seat throughout several venues was filled this year, concert-goers gained more diversity (and leg room) with the opening of The Reser in Beaverton. The Armory, or the lobby to the Portland Center Stage in the Pearl, was aimed at bringing in newer younger crowds who love cocktail hour. It was as informal as the Alberta Rose Theatre, which hosted Fear No Music’s Kenji Bunch and pianist/ FOM partner Monica Ohuchi, who played despite a sprained ankle. Bunch’s 2010 Demon Barber, a nod to the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” is a lot of fun with horror-show accents. In that late June concert, we saw longtime CMNW cellist Fred Sherry perform four of Bela Bartok’s folk dances with world-class artist Sophie Shao and her Hieronymus Amati cello, c. 1700, on loan to her.
Even for hardcore classical and contemporary-classical music-lovers, surprises and little heard jewels weren’t hard to find throughout the adventurous programming.
Among them, in no particular order: Little-known Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 21, played by former CMNW artistic director David Shifrin; Cuban composer Tania Leon’s 1983 Four Pieces for Solo Cello that 23-year-old protege Zlatomir Fung played in a wonderful recital; Russian composer Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 in which Kim stepped in to play violin with cellists Fung and Peter Strumpf and violist Nicholas Cords, all of whom pulled off an unusual instrumentation that proved transcendent; David Ludwig’s (a mentor of young composer Chris Rogerson) Schubert-influenced Swan Song that violinist Benjamin Beilman performed with pianist Ellen Hwangbo; Henry Cowell’s 1952 Set of Five, HC. 779, played by Beilman and Hwangbo and sparked by Ian Rosenbaum’s percussion in a piece that combined Western and Eastern ideas, techniques and instruments; prodigy and protege violinist Anna Lee’s rendition of Francis Poulenc’s 1942 Sonata for Violin and Piano FP. 119, which Lee performed with Portland pianist Yoko Greeney, and Lee’s performance of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” arranged by Jascha Heifetz. OK, that one is familiar, but her interpretation and execution were spectacular.
Andy Akiho’s sold-out 80-minute Seven Pillars percussion and lighting extravaganza was one way to experience extraordinary sounds with the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Sandbox Percussion quartet of classically trained rhythm-keepers. (A bunch of tickets sold at the last minute, which seems to be the trend in ticket movement these days.) Percussion in Akiho’s and the Sandbox guys’ world includes more than drums, marimbas, vibes, chimes and cymbals. Consider whiskey bottles, a plastic-covered cigar box, and a pewter pitcher as part of the instrumental line-up, the last two of which Akiho added shortly before the July 19 performance at Alberta Rose Theatre.
I turned into a diehard percussion fan a few days before hearing the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated Akiho work. At the “Colors of Debussy & Crumb” concert on July 14 at The Reser, more than 120 pieces of percussion glittered on stage for George Crumb’s piece, which was part of his American Songbook II series, A Journey Beyond Time. (Crumb died this year at 92.) This volume featured his Songs of Despair and Hope: A Cycle of Afro-American Spirituals, which baritone Kenneth Overton sang soulfully. Hwangbo, who navigated a number of difficult pieces, including ones she played with virtuoso violinist Beilman earlier in the festival, accompanied Overton on piano. The four agile Sandbox Percussion guys, darting from instrument to instrument, pushed the 42-minute piece into the stratosphere. Ian Rosenbaum played a Home Depot hand-saw, among other percussion instruments, and yes, Crumb wanted something like that lowly tool in the sonic landscape. Crumb gave highly specific instructions for each instrument, Rosenbaum told me by email.
Every single thing that was on stage was of his design! I don’t think he had all of these percussion instruments on hand when he wrote this piece, but I do think that he experienced their sounds at one point in his life or another. Not only is he specific about which instrument we use, but also how it is meant to be played—i.e., play this cymbal by scraping it with a coin, bow this tam-tam, etc. Now, of course, every individual percussion instrument is different–this cymbal is not the same as that cymbal. So part of the process is our imagining the sound world that we think Crumb was going for, and then doing what we can technically and musically to achieve that desired result. These pieces are a real study in color—how all of these wonderful sounds can meld together to create the atmosphere.