Chamber Music Northwest review: variable variations

Festival concerts feature a serious American sextet, romantic Russian music, and some sillier selections


After July 2’s gypsy light-heartedness amid an onstage world of tuxedos and concert gowns, Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival went one better on July 4 in Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall, into the realm of outright, unashamed silliness: Bohuslav Martinu’s  Suite from La revue de cuisine, with its witty evocation of dancers impersonating kitchen utensils, and William Walton’s Façade, with Edith Sitwell’s whimsical nonsense verse.

R-L: David Shifrin, Julie Feves, Jeffrey Work, Gloria Chien, Dmitri Atapine and Arnaud Sussmann played Martinu and Bolcom at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

A third piece, a world premiere by William Bolcom (b. 1938), who was present with his wife, the singer and native Portlander Joan Morris, that found itself between Martinu’s and Walton’s shenanigans, had nothing to do with this. In its six movements, for the unusual consort of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano, all playing in the multitonal, eclectic style that has ruled contemporary music in recent years, Sextet is SERIOUS. As the composer says, referring to a piece he had written previously, “When the CMNW commission came this last year I’d thought of writing a second Summer Divertimento but could not summon up the carefree tone of the 1973 piece. Things are more fraught now.”

Similarly, in his remarks before the piece began, Bolcom alluded to the present day as anything but carefree. Whether this was a reference to the current president and his influence is open to question, although some in the audience nodded knowingly. But clearly Bolcom meant Sextet to be in some way a “statement,” or at least a statement of his mood in these “fraught” days.

The three-minute opening movement Pastorale is anything but; edgy and nervous, it is thoroughly urban in its texture and mood. Then, after a three-minute march and a two-minute Nocturne, we encounter Catastrophe, a rhythmic, bestial outburst reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed by extreme stillness and then again the outburst. This leads us into the heart of the piece, the fifth movement’s Variation and Theme, based on a Christian hymn called “Lift Ev‘ry Voice and Sing,” with its conventional harmonies, which is the only truly hopeful section of the piece. Sextet then ends with a one-minute Coda. Coming after the Martinu, it was a breath of musical modernism: not atonal, not relentlessly dissonant, earnest and often quietly expressive. Written for the same instruments and players as Martinu’s piece, it provided an illustration of how dissimilar an ensemble can sound playing music of different styles and moods.

Composer William Bolcom spoke at the concert premiere of his ‘Sextet’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

William Walton (1902-1983) wrote the music to Façade: An Entertainment in 1922 while under the influence of the Sitwells, a literary family all of whose members — brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, sister Edith — dabbled in the arts. Adopted into their London family while still a teenager, Walton was eager to please and enjoyed pitching in to write pastiches of current and antique dance music (fox trot, tarantella, country dance) mixed with references to well-known tunes, among them Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

The music is extremely light-hearted and charming in its way, but the meat of Façade is in the nonsense lyrics written by Edith Sitwell. In 21 poems, she combines facetious rhymes (“In a borealic iceberg came Victoria; / She knew Prince Albert’s tall memorial…”) with outrageous juxtapositions (“a pig-tailed ocean”) and a seemingly hallucinogenic sort of free association that is so odd and entertaining that it almost achieves the status of art. When recited properly, in a posh British accent and with all the accents in the right (that is, wrong) places, it can be hilarious, if overlong at 43 minutes.

In this CMNW concert, the reciters were Bolcom and Morris, and although they obviously relished their nonsense, the piece didn’t really work with American accents and without the many subtle raisings or lowerings of the voice, conveying attitude, that an English actor would bring to this doggerel. The result was a bit of a slog, although alleviated by the text printed in a program insert and also by the instrumentalists’ expressions and expressiveness. David Shifrin on clarinet and bass clarinet and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen on alto saxophone were especially fun to watch.

Taken as a whole, this concert, despite the presence of Bolcom’s piece, was a kind of “time-out,” a break for the players from the rigors of “serious” performance, and also a break for the CMNW festival audience.

Russian Variations

A second “variations” concert two days later, on July 6 in Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, promised Variations on a Russian Theme. Two pieces by Tchaikovsky — his String Quartet No. 1 from 1871 and his Serenade for Strings, written ten years later — were the big pieces on the program.

A third selection, a set of ten variations for string quartet written by ten different Russian composers, began the concert in entertaining fashion. The Variations on a Russian Theme for String Quartet were assembled in 1899 as a thank-you to Russian philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev, who had in 1885 founded a publishing company to feature Russian music and begun a long series of weekly Friday performances and sight-readings at his home. The composers, who came to share the name “Les Vendredis” (vendredi is “Friday” in French), each took a short tuneful theme composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and wrote a brief variation on it. This provided a very wide range of treatments, all of them in late 19th-century Romantic musical language, from an extremely energetic piece by Nikolai Artsybushev (1858-1937), to a surprising legato from Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), a many-faceted and very strong contribution from Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), and Rimsky-Korsakov’s own variation, charming in its prevalent pizzicato.

Also impressive were a lovely soft canon by Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914) and the only variation in a minor key, by the Latvian composer Joseph Wihtol (1863-1948), which morphed into the major in a sort of barcarolle. A string quartet of CMNW musicians — violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Rebecca Anderson, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and cellist Dmitri Atapine  — ran this set of miniatures as if they’d been playing together for years.

Calidore String Quartet played Tchaikovsky at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

This delightful piece, very seldom programmed, made for a gentle introduction to Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet and also to the Calidore Quartet, a very fine young group who have been mentored for some time by the Emerson String Quartet. Violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi gave a nuanced and very sensitive reading of Tchaikovsky’s piece, in which the second-movement Andante cantabile (“moderately fast, in a singing style”) has become a hit on its own for its exquisite melody based on a Russian folksong called “Vanya Sat on the Sofa.” The Calidores played it to a tee, with loving care. The closing of the fast and cheerful fourth movement brought the four players a raucous, shouting ovation, richly deserved.

Tchaikovsky’s popular Serenade for Strings was a particular favorite of the composer’s. Here, CMNW’s “string orchestra” consisted of the quartet who had played the earlier Variations plus the Calidore Quartet, with the addition of violinists Bella Hristova and Soovin Kim and double bassist Curtis Daily: a total of eleven players. All demonstrated great skill and conviction; the pairs of violists and cellists played especially well together.

Arnuad Sussmann, Rebecca Anderson, Bella Hristova joined the Calidore String Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

But Tchaikovsky’s piece produced only a fraction of the impact it might have. The composer had written in his score that “the larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes.” Tchaikovsky understood well that his broad, sweeping themes, especially in the first-movement Pezzo in forma di Sonatina and the second-movement waltz, needed more than a chamber ensemble to achieve their ideal effects. Eleven players, even players as good as the CMNW personnel, do not constitute an orchestra, and so this concert closer, although cordial enough in its familiarity, was a little disappointing.

Recommended recordings

• Martinu
Holst Sinfonietta (Naxos 8.572485), 2009).

• Bolcom: no recording — world premiere

• Walton
British Music Collection — Britten & Walton, English Opera Group Ensemble; Edith Sitwell, narrator (Decca 4688012), 1953.

• Variations on a Russian Theme
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky conducting (Naxos 8.553928), 1996.

• Tchaikovsky String Quartet
Tchaikovsky: The String Quartets & Souvenir de Florence, Borodin Quartet (Urania WS121321), 1950.

• Tchaikovsky Serenade
String Serenades, New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, Paavo Berglund conducting (BIS BISCD243), 1989.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions in Portland-area retirement communities.

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