The relationship between poetry and music goes way way back. In ancient Greece, poems were sung, accompanied by a lyre. The oldest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Shijing, consisted of songs. From those beginnings, the intertwining of poetry and music has continued up to the present day, making their connection cause for celebration at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival with its 2023 theme, Poetry in Music. Several concerts will begin with a poem read by a poet in response to the music on that program. Wordsmiths like Kim Stafford, Daniela Naomi Molnar, Katie Ford, Alicia Jo Rabins, and S. Renee Mitchell have been tapped for specific programs.
“So much instrumental music is directly written about poetry or inspired by specific poems,” said violinist Soovin Kim, who shares the artistic directorship of CMNW with his wife, pianist Gloria Chien. “It is amazing how much terminology we share in describing the two genres. One stimulates the other over the course of centuries. Both Gloria and I are fans of lieder and art songs, and that’s just one way in which poetry and music are blended.”
Starting this weekend, listeners can indulge themselves in the many ways that poetry and music have influenced and continue to influence each other. Over the course of five weeks, CMNW’s festival unleashes 47 music events at 17 different locations with a cornucopia of stellar performers, including well-known veterans, artists making their festival debuts, young professionals, protégés, and ultra-talented teenagers who are participating in the Young Artist Institute (read more about last year’s YAI here).
Overseeing the juggernaut of a schedule must make things extremely challenging for its artistic directors.
“One of the privileges of running a festival like this is that there are so many possibilities,” said Chien. “We can dream about all these different facets and elements that can be transformative in the community and in these young artists’ lives, but it is an incredible experience to have so much support from the board, staff, the community, and the artists. Our schedule of rehearsals and performances is like putting together a big puzzle, there are master classes, pop up concerts, and many different venues, including the brand new SoundsTruck NW. But we kind of want it all!”
“And we have our five-year-old son with us too!” exclaimed Kim.
“It’s great that there are two of us!” laughed Chien.
Here’s a survey of the festival with its multiple offerings.
With 30 recordings, nine Grammy Awards, three Gramophone Awards, and accolades too numerous to mention, the venerable Emersons are heading down the back stretch of their final season. On July 6 they have performances of string quartets by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Béla Bartók, plus Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with David Shifrin. They will follow that on July 8 with Beethoven’s daunting String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 and team up with Chien for Schumann’s rousing Piano Quintet.
“The final concerts of the Emerson Quartet are extra special,” noted Chien. “They have had a long relationship with the festival. Everyone can remember where they heard the Emersons for the first time. I am pinching myself and dreading it because I don’t want it to be over.”
Opening and closing concerts with Fleur Barron
Mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron will help to kick off the festival (June 24 and 25), singing Brahms’ Zwei Gesänge and the world premiere of Kian Ravaei’s Gulistan, which combines Western and Middle Eastern styles (read Alice Hardesty’s interview with Barron here). Also on the program are Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola No. 2 and Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2.
The closing program (July 27 and 29) will feature Barron in Charles Ives’ 114 Songs and a newly commissioned work by Chris Rogerson entitled Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt. The Viano Quartet will perform Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 (The American) and be joined by pianist Anton Nel in Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor.
“The Beach Piano Quintet has been gaining ground in recent years,” remarked Kim. “It’s being played more often, and I think that it will take its place in the pantheon of great piano quintets someday.”
If you can’t hear Barron at those concerts, you can attend the concert on June 29th when she does selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song). That concert includes Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major for Violin and Piano plus Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor.
Monodrama centerpiece – The Anchoress
Perhaps the most striking work in the festival (July 16 and 17) is The Anchoress by David Ludwig, which involves a string quartet with piano, saxophone quartet, woodwind quintet, and voice. Ludwig wrote it for soprano Hyunah Yu, who will be featured in the performance. Set to words by poet Katie Ford, this monodrama reflects the thoughts and visions of a woman who has chosen extreme monastic-like confinement in a quest for spiritual perfection and illumination.
“I’ve talked with Katie about her poetry set to music and how it made her think of the same poem differently,” said Kim. “She finds how composers set her work to music very fascinating, and she has collaborated with David a number of times.”
Also on the program is Mischa Zupko’s Quantum Shift for saxophone quartet and Florence Price’s Piano Quintet in A minor.
Fred Child and Wang Jie
Longtime host of Performance Today, Fred Child, will narrate the quirky and satirical Blame the Obituary for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Wang Jie (July 23 and 24). Child, by the way, grew up in Portland, attended Oregon State University, and is married to Jie.
Also on tap for this concert is the Piano Sonata No. 3 by Alexander Scriabin, Three Armenian Folk Songs for Violin and Piano by Komitas Vardapet, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Richard Strauss.
Notable festival debuts
Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips will make her festival debut (July 2 and 3) singing William Bolcom’s Let Evening Come and Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock).
Superstar Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, appears in concert with pianist-composer Steward Goodyear on July 12 in the New@Night series.
The ensemble Third Sound will play Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (July 20 and 21) in a program that also features Jennifer Higdon’s Smash, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G Major, and his Piano Concerto No. 12.
Familiar but different
The composer collective of flutist Valerie Coleman, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and harpist Han Lash will give the West Coast premiere of umama womama (July 9 and 10). Longtime CMNW fans will remember all three from previous years–perhaps most especially 2017 (read more about that here, here, and here).
The Catalyst Quartet continues its UNCOVERED project to reveal important works by composers sidelined because of their race or gender (July 13 and 15). On the program (alongside Brahms): Oregon composer Deena Grossman, Cuban-American composer Tania León, pianist-composer Stewart Goodyear (also performing), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Read Angela Allen’s review of Catalyst’s performance for CMNW this April right here.
Up-and-coming performers and the protégés
Violinists Benjamin Beilman and Alexi Kenney, cellist Zlatomir Fung, and the Viano Quartet are some of the exceptional young artists returning to the festival. Even younger are the new protégés: composer Kian Ravaei, pianist Zitong Wang, and violinist Diana Adamyan.
Young Artist Institute
The YAI program began last year. This year, sixteen high school age string students will participate. CMNW patrons have covered all tuition and room and board costs.
“I know that when I was growing up, these wonderful summer programs were prohibitively expensive,” recalled Kim. “It was very difficult for me to attend. So we at Chamber Music Northwest wanted to take away that barrier. These are sixteen of the finest young string players in the world – some come from abroad. The experience last year was the most meaningful project that I have ever been involved with. The passion, the engagement, and the sheer artistry – it’s inspiring for the faculty. So going forward, it will be fun to watch this group evolve.”
The panoply of events at CMNW’s Festival provides ample opportunities for you to experience the power of music as poetry and poetry as music. That will surely help to elevate your summer.
Complete festival schedule, program listings, ticket information, livestream details, and more are available at CMNW.org.