Celebrating Schiff

Reed College pays tribute to the veteran Portland composer and music professor, who's retiring from its faculty, in two concerts of his music this week

Famed classical clarinetist David Shifrin recently commissioned Portland composer David Schiff to write a new piece for him to play at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 summer festival. After Schiff began working on it, he asked Shifrin if he had any suggestions.

Shifrin pondered. Schiff is a legendarily versatile composer whose past work has touched on everything from jazz to French Impressionism to klezmer, so Shifrin had a vast potential palette to choose from, ranging across several centuries and cultures. “I’d like,” the clarinetist replied, “a Baroque aria.”

“I already started it,” Schiff said. “We’re on the same wavelength.”

David Schiff speaks at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival.

No wonder. Shifrin and Schiff have been partners in music since shortly after the Bronx-born composer came to Portland to teach at Reed College in 1980. The following summer, he discovered CMNW and showed some of his scores to Shifrin, who had just begun his 40-year tenure as director. He asked Schiff to adapt music from his opera Gimpel the Fool into an instrumental chamber music work, and programmed it for the 1982 festival. It’s since become Schiff’s most-performed piece.

Shifrin and other CMNW colleagues will play it again Thursday in an all-Schiff concert commemorating both Schiff’s retirement from Reed this spring after 38 years, and Shifrin’s upcoming retirement as CMNW artistic director. Reed will also honor Schiff with a Tuesday concert of his music featuring Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.

Oregon’s best-known living classical composer, and probably the American composer most accomplished at creating viable hybrids of classical music and jazz, Schiff is also one of the country’s major composers of Jewish music for classical forces. His music has been performed and recorded by major orchestras and ensembles around the country. And he’s a highly regarded writer about music, in both scholarly books and popular periodicals like The Atlantic and The New York Times. Read my 2015 ArtsWatch profile for more on Schiff’s background and influences.

Academic Advantage

His relationship with Portland has benefited all concerned. “I think he’s had a really great career as a professor at Reed and having that as a home base,” Shifrin says. “I don’t know that being in another location would have been more beneficial to him as a composer.” The college gave Schiff the security of a tenured academic position and opportunities to develop his craft.

“Reed has been supportive of my teaching but also my writing,” including allowing his composing to count toward the research requirement demanded of all tenure-seeking faculty. The college’s paid sabbaticals provided crucial uninterrupted time to compose, and he says Reed also helped him attend performances and rehearsals of his music. And his students provided constant creative stimulation. “They’re engaged, they ask interesting questions and say interesting things,” he says. “That makes it fun to teach. I’ve never had to spend a second in a Reed class motivating anyone. My students arrive motivated.”

In turn, Schiff’s ability to explain music in clear and entertaining terms has made him a popular lecturer at Reed — and not just to music majors. Last term, he taught a course exploring the concept of rhythm in various musical genres throughout history and around the world. Only one of the students was a classical musician. And this month he delivered a kind of farewell lecture about Duke Ellington to the freshman Humanities seminar.

David Shifrin and David Schiff onstage at CMNW’s 2016 Summer Festival.

Meanwhile, CMNW provided a rare reliable outlet for Schiff’s original music that he compares to that enjoyed by prolific 18th century master Joseph Haydn, who was employed and housed by a wealthy, music loving Austrian prince who funded his orchestra and compositions. “Haydn had Esterházy and I had Chamber Music Northwest, where I could develop as a composer,” Schiff says. “Not only did they commission and perform my music, but David Shifrin let me do whatever I wanted,” even if it involved unusual instruments like saxophone or techniques like jazzy improvisation.

The admiration is mutual. “Over the years I’ve gone to him with all kinds of crazy plans,” Shifrin says, including arranging music by Danish composer Carl Nielsen for a Scandinavian-themed festival, George Gershwin, and Claude Debussy for CMNW’s players. “He’s always been up to the challenge. He’s become more or less our de facto composer in residence,” as well as “the culinary scout” of Portland restaurants for CMNW’s visiting New York regulars. Schiff has also composed music for the Oregon Symphony, Third Angle New Music, FearNoMusic, and other Oregon music institutions.

“When I first met him he was more oriented toward the [atonal] techniques of his teacher Elliott Carter,” Shifrin explains. “Carter encouraged him to find his own voice and he did. I think he’s gotten more and more comfortable with his own voice, which is multifaceted. He’s drawn on music he loves, like Jewish liturgical music, Duke Ellington, klezmer, Irish folk music, Debussy and Ravel.”

Shifrin identifies consistent characteristics throughout his Schiff’s wildly eclectic music. “He has a good ear for color and orchestrations,” the clarinetist says. “The different influences are filtered and coalesced through his ability to make them consistent, well-constructed, well-orchestrated, well-suited to the instruments he writes for.”

Schiff’s reputation extends beyond Portland. “I think he’s widely regarded and recognized for being an excellent composer and great musical thinker,” adds Shifrin, who has been at the center of New York’s classical music scene for decades, including directing the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “But on the other hand, I don’t think he’s widely recognized enough. I do wish more people would play his music. It’s played all over the world. He is right up there in terms of quality of his music and ability to appeal to both musicians and audiences.”

Chamber Music Northwest premieres Reed College professor David Schiff’s new composition in July.

Shifrin also admires Schiff’s skill at arranging music, from his own to Ellington’s to Debussy’s, and the composer’s humble willingness to continue learning, including taking courses in conducting, which he’ll do at the April 25 concert with the Reed orchestra. It’s one of the shows concluding Schiff’s Reed career, which feature “pieces I wanted to hear, performed by players I wanted to hear,” Schiff says.

Concert Celebrations

Tuesday’s concert features works about peace and love — “both pieces express ideas important to me,” Schiff says. Reed College’s Collegium Musicum chamber choir sings Peace, which sets texts from the biblical Book of Isaiah in Hebrew and English, including the famous verses about beating swords into plowshares. All About Love, premiered at Chamber Music Northwest for five players and two singers, sets texts by gay and straight men and women spanning 700 years, starting with Petrarch and ending with the great 20th century American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Schiff later fleshed it out by adding percussion, accordion and guitar for a New York performance, and FearNoMusic performs that version performed here. He calls one movement “my little Proust opera, where I got Proust down to 10 minutes.” The show also includes a pair of renowned New York vocal soloists, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn and tenor Thomas Glenn.

David Schiff, working with members of FearNoMusic.

Chinn returns with veteran CMNW musicians for Thursday’s concert in music from Schiff’s 1997 opera  Vashti, or The Whole Megillah, a feminist retelling of the Old Testament Book of Esther from the perspective of the disobedient first wife of the King of Persia. It’s what’s known as a Purim-shpiel, a reading and modern commentary on Esther traditionally performed at the Jewish festival of Purim.

The concert also features Songs from Adolescence, which Schiff calls “the turning point — everything in my music came together, including the rock element, the jazz element, klezmer” and classical techniques like counterpoint. The show closes with that very first Schiff composition performed at CMNW in 1982 — the Divertimento from Gimpel the Fool.

As for that new Chamber Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Ensemble , Shifrin and CMNW colleagues will premiere it in a July 6 concert at this summer’s festival at Reed. Along with the Baroque aria movement, another is in bossa nova style, and the third is a klezmer showcase — a typically eclectic Schiff / Shifrin collaboration and a fitting culmination to four decades of one of the most productive partnerships any classical composer has ever enjoyed with a colleague, a college, and a music festival. “One of the pleasures of working with [Shifrin] is he can do anything,” Schiff says. “Over the years I’ve found I can throw any challenge at him — klezmer, jazzy music — and he can do it all.”

Schiff hopes to write five more chamber concertos to reach the traditional baroque set of six (as in Bach’s Brandenburgs and many others). He’d love to finally see one of his operas get a full staging by a major opera company — his biggest frustration as a composer. And he wants to continue writing solo piano pieces for young “not very advanced” pianists, a project he began last year with Portland Piano International. “My model for the first six is Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words,” he explains. “They made me fall in love with music when I was six years old.” As one chapter of revealing the magic of music to future generations ends for Schiff, another is just getting underway.

Love Songs, 8 pm Tuesday, April 23, and Shifrin and Friends Play Schiff, 8 pm Thursday, April 25, both at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, 3203 Southeast Woodstock, Portland. Free admission to both concerts. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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