Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival continued at the brand-new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton on July 13, with a concert entitled Uncovered Voices (the same program was also performed at Kaul Auditorium). The venue was truly impressive. Modern but not imposing, expansive and yet intimate, it seamlessly integrated both the urban and the natural: entering from a street in a clean and quiet suburban downtown core, I heard ducks and geese calling gently in the adjacent wetlands. The calming verdure was immediately accessible both from a courtyard outside and from immense picture windows inside. (As a bird nerd, I give giant kudos to The Reser for having the little dots on those windows to help prevent bird strikes). Though I had never been there before it was comfortable, a little like coming home somehow. The center felt elegant; much like Coco Chanel’s little black dress, I don’t think it will be going out of style.
There was a change in the programming, as composer/performer Stewart Goodyear’s commissioned work The Torment of Marsyas was not yet quite complete. This was disappointing at first, although it was hard to feel too let down after the later performance of his composition Panorama.
Portland composer Deena T. Grossman’s snowy egret, january messenger opened the evening (read ArtsWatch profiles of Grossman here and here). Amelia Lukas played the solo bass flute for this work that was written while the composer was living in Japan. The composer wrote that it was inspired by “white egrets stand[ing] in the water among the brilliant green new shoots of rice plants,” and so this programmatic work was indeed redolent with powerful imagery.
The work was composed in the style of Honkyoku, a type of music for shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) from the Edo period. I was impressed by Lukas’s chops, and her ability to imitate a very different instrument than the one she was playing. Very breathy in imitation of the shakuhachi, Lukas’s playing in the lower register was electrifying–lightning-quick scale runs that ended on long, lonely notes way down at the bottom. Ambient and evocative, I could almost see the ghost-white egrets dancing in the rain, bright yellow socks at the end of coal black legs whirling amongst the greenery.
Alma, by Tania Léon with Lukas on flute and Goodyear playing piano, was a radical change of direction. Lukas’s rapid shifting between registers featured dazzling stop-and-go arpeggios. The piece was like two people talking simultaneously about the same thing at the same time, but each with something different to say, until occasionally they find themselves agreeing with one another. The unisons were demanding—the rhythmic ideas therein were tricky, so any deviation, however minute by either player, would’ve stood out—and yet all was perfect. Lukas played some husky basso flutter-tonguing and then the conversation ended like a rain shower stopping as suddenly as it started.
The first lengthy work of the night, Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata in F Minor featured clarinetist Anthony McGill, with Gloria Chien on piano. As soon as McGill began playing, the old saw about “not enough ‘o’s in smooth” immediately came to mind. Projecting an air of completely untroubled energy, Chien’s staccato accompaniment provided a nice counterpoint. Chien is a truly marvelous pianist—sensitive and brilliant, completely in sync with whomever she’s playing with. Emotionally the opening movement was all over the place—stentorian pronouncements from McGill followed by playful answers from Chien.
At the beginning of the second “Andante,” McGill played a low note that reverberated off the very floor in a fantastic effect as he swayed, lost in the wistfulness of this dreamy movement. The “Juba: Allegro” was a dance between equals; Chien’s remarkably even playing in this sort of rubato waltz provided the perfect bedrock from which McGill could expound his themes with joyful, pompous grace. As the finale opened and they came to the top of a magnificent crescendo with a sudden piano that sounded like a question, Chien and McGill delivered all one could want of swooning Romanticism without ever getting in the way of intense, crisp clarity of phrasing.
One more short work before the intermission, Goodyear’s Panorama just about made up for the disappointment of not getting to hear the world premiere of his new work. Panorama was a feast of intense rhythmic energy—at points it was like a manic ragtime, Goodyear’s left hand ripping out a stride-style worthy of Fats Waller. Galloping calypso melodies, grumbling staccato in the bass, this was moto perpetuo—restless and hungry, and yet taking a moment toward the end to drift into pensiveness. This was not virtuosity just for its own sake, it was just flat-out good, exciting music, bursting with fresh ideas built on familiar styles.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp Minor (Op. 10) comprised the second half of the evening. It was noted beforehand that it was at the Royal College of Music where the youthful Coleridge-Taylor was informed that “no subsequent clarinet quintets could be written without reflecting Brahms’s influence.“ Certainly as un-Brahms-ian as one could want, it opened with fortissimo plucked strings and launched forward into lyricism from there. McGill was joined by the Catalyst Quartet: Karla Donehew Perez and Aby Fayette on violin, Paul Laraia on viola, and Karlos Rodriguez on cello.
The “Allegro energico” featured an impassioned serenade from Perez on the low registers of the instrument, invoking a viola-esque timbre. Full-bodied clarinet came singing up from the depths of the string texture like a breaching whale exploding into sunlight, and Rodriguez’s sensitive echo from the pizzicato cello was just another one of many delights. The second movement opened like a spiritual, the strings a choir to the soulful soloist of the clarinet. The strings were masterful at standing back and providing accompaniment when necessary, allowing a pianissimo clarinet to be heard in all its subtlety. There was almost a giddy quality in parts that felt like it would have been easy to get wrong, had not the players been able to completely inhabit the music.
The interpretation was spot-on, as the nuances were lost on no one. As the “Scherzo” began, the gaiety was infectious. For CMNW audiences who are used to a very high standard of clarinet playing indeed, McGill’s mellifluous, rounded and spectacular evenness of tone was simply incredible to hear. The quiet sections in the finale were fascinating, almost understated. Each performer inhabited this work, allowing its nature–the ebullience of a gifted young composer–to be made manifest. The performers really leaned into the disparity of tension between the agitato and the sudden-slowing in tempo, and as McGill whispered the sweetest mezzo-staccato scales imaginable, it showcased yet again the dizzying variety of timbres possible from this instrument, and McGill’s ability to tap into them all.