Chamber Music Northwest preview: women’s work

Portland's annual summer classical music festival throws the spotlight on female composers past and present

by ANGELA ALLEN

Since 1971, Chamber Music Northwest has brought world-class musicians and a deep (mostly) classical repertoire to Portland’s summer-hungry listeners. This year marks the first that women composers take center stage during the five-week festival from June 26 through July 30.

It’s about time. About a quarter of the programing, including lectures, rehearsals and concerts, is devoted to women composers.

There is “a fairly equal number of men and women composing great music today,” said longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin. Over the years, CMNW has occasionally presented pieces by leading female composers including Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, Valerie Coleman and Portland State University’s Bonnie Miksch. But this season, artists will play works by more than a handful of women.

Composer Kati Agócs.

Women composers from the 12th century (Hildegard von Bingen) through today headline concerts and lectures. This summer’s program includes 19th and early 20th century music by Clara Schumann, Fannie Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, while Hannah Lash, Tower, Zwilich, Coleman, Gabriella Smith, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Caroline Shaw, Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, Gabriela Lena Frank and Kati Agócs fill out the contemporary roster. Some will speak on a 2 p.m. panel July 15 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium where they’ll discuss their works and the challenges involved in gaining attention and respect in today’s music world.

“It will take another generation or two before we establish something analogous to literary women’s canon in music composition,” Agócs emailed from Boston where she lives and teaches composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “There are many fierce women working now, but it will be a long road. Commissioning new works and mentoring young women are ways to bring about a female canon in music.”

Agócs collaborated in 2010 with Shifrin and the Chamber Music Society at New York’s Lincoln Center. Drawing on such composers as Olivier Messiaen, Igor Stravinsky and J.S. Bach in her work, she wowed Shifrin with her Immutable Dreams.

“She has a voice of her own,” he said earlier this summer. “She is able to create dreamlike soundscapes, exciting tonal development, and clear architectural structure in her music.”

So Shifrin commissioned Agócs to write a piece for this summer’s festival, and insisted that she orchestrate it any way she wished Her 14-minute Queen of Hearts, which debuts July 13 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, is based on a chaconne (a repeating chord pattern as an underpinning — think of J.S. Bach’s famous Partita for Violin No. 2). “Everything that Bach does is so deeply spiritual, even when he is not trying to write religious music,” Agócs said. “It is awe-inspiring and deeply humbling to wake up every day and to have that as a model.”

Claremont Trio

The premiere will be performed by the New York City-based all female Claremont Trio — pianist Andrea Lam and twin sisters violinist Emily Bruskin and cellist Julia Bruskin. Though Agócs and the trio members studied at New York’s Juilliard School in the late 1990s, they have never before worked together. When Agócs, who sings sacred music and composes on the piano, discovered that the Claremont would be premiering her work, she “imagined them playing while I was writing it, and this influenced both the sound and the concept.”

Protégés and Premieres

The festival speaks to far more than classics and established musicians — there are 64 individual performers and eight ensembles —  or even a theme like women composers. It champions premieres and features Protegés, and will do so this season with a number of firsts. The Other Mozart about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, dramatizes the child prodigy, keyboard virtuoso and composer whom history blew off as much as it embraced her sibling. The off-Broadway piece acted by Sylvia Milo unfolds on July 11 at  PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

The Other Mozart – Trailer from Sylvia Milo on Vimeo.

The Imani Winds quintet, which will inherit Emerson String Quartet’s artists-in-residence position, joins the Dover Quartet to perform Protégé composer Daniel Schlosberg’s world premiere based on music from David Lynch’s newly rebooted cult drama TV series Twin Peaks and fellow Protégé composer Chris Rogerson’s Thirty Thousand Days July 24 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium and again July 25 at Lincoln Performance Hall.

Adding to the musical mix is a smattering of jazz, tango and opera overtures. To end the festival, traditionalists and Bach-lovers have a chance to listen to the beloved Brandenburg Concertos July 29 and 30, with Shifrin, in his 40th year as festival musician (and 37th as artistic director), playing his clarinet on the stage among fellow artists he brings to Portland.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

The festival’s 33 concerts require tickets, but 27 free events (master classes, open rehearsals and talks) are open to the public. Mainstage concerts continue at Reed College in southeast Portland on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays and at downtown Portland’s PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on Tuesdays and Sundays. Wednesday concerts will be in north Portland at Alberta Rose Theatre. The New at Noon series at PSU and events in such spots as the University of Portland and Portland Art Museum fill out the festival.

A change this year: Evening concerts begin at 7:30 p.m, instead of at 8 p.m, with the box office opening 1.5 hours before concerts. Dinner at Reed College on the lawn, part of the summer tradition, begins at 5:30 p.m and pre-concert Musical Conversations on Mondays and Tuesdays start at 6:30 p.m. For the entire schedule and ticket prices, check out this link. And follow ArtsWatch’s Tuesday news posts for weekly previews of all the CMNW concerts.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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