Bag & Baggage Theater Productions The Vault Hillsboro Oregon

Chamber of Musical Delights

From world premieres to brilliant performances, highlights of July's Chamber Music Northwest Festival.

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Chamber Music Northwest was the first major Portland arts group to go live indoors since the pandemic with its Reflect/Rejoice summer festival June 28 to July 25 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

And boy, did its month of live music— not to mention its streamed concerts continuing through Aug. 31 at CMNW’s At-HOME Summer Festival — make a splash, even if the live audience was vastly reduced from former festivals. Concerts in previous years (not counting 2020, which was not live due to Covid) averaged 450 people. This season’s events were set up for about 150 people, socially distanced in pods, with bleachers removed from the auditorium. July 22’s “Reflecting upon Classics’’ audience hit 229, the festival’s largest, with extra chairs moved in for last-minute ticket-holders. Masks were required and picnics and wine were verboten, but the music was live and alive. The musicians who played it might have been happier than the audience who listened to it. Many had not played since Covid began.

Here are some festival highlights if you missed it – or if you want to catch the streamed At-HOME taped versions:

Chamber Music Northwest’s new co-artistic directors, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, led a highly successful re-entry into indoors concerts. Photo © Pilvax Studio

New and accomplished: CMNW artistic leaders, as of 2020, are the team of Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim. Their joy of playing is infectious, and it showed in their spectacular musicianship throughout the festival. Not only was their programming varied, full of new work, tough pieces, rarely heard composers’ work, and new musicians, but these two can play anything—Chien on piano and Kim on violin. And guess what? Not one Beethoven piece in three weeks of music was to be found. Remember the year that every concert featured Beethoven? I do.

Chien’s versatile playing stretched from a frenetic two-piano-plus-percussion Béla Bartók sonata to a 30-minute lush rendition of Johannes Brahms’ “Trio  No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 87,” which she played with husband Kim on violin and cellist Paul Watkins, taking a break from the Emerson Quartet to join the two. On the final CMNW day, Chien accompanied opera phenom Davóne Tines as he sang excerpts from his “Recital: A Mass,” which included music by Bach, Caroline Shaw, and traditional spirituals reconfigured by TyShawn Sorey. Her beautifully restrained piano-playing made it clear that Tines was the star.

Earl Lee conducts clarinetist David Shifrin, CMNW’s artistic director emeritus, and ensemble in the premiere of David Ludwig’s “Les Adieux for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble,” written for Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson

World premieres: Musicians performed five world premieres this year, including one from Portland composer/violist Kenji Bunch titled “Vesper Flight for Flute and Piano,” commissioned by CMNW flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and performed by O’Connor and pianist Monica Ohuchi, Bunch’s wife and partner in leading Portland’s Fear No Music group. On July 10 and 11, Bunch’s piece preceded  David Ludwig’s 18-minute world premiere, “Les Adieux for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble.” The grandson of pianist Rudolph Serkin, Ludwig wrote the piece for clarinetist David Shifrin, who played it with 15 other musicians, including conductor Earl Lee. Shifrin retired in 2020 as the CMNW artistic director, but he was back for several concerts July 6 through July 10, affectionately called David Shifrin Week. Other world premieres were Marc Neikrug’s 80-minute “A Song for Mahler”; pianist Matan Porat’s witty 20-minute “Piano Quintet,” in which the pushy pianist tries “to infiltrate the quartet,” as Porat explained before playing; and Pierre Jalbert’s 15-minute “Sweet and Doleful Timbres” for guitar and saxophone.

Classical, or jazz? The combo of guitarist Jason Vieaux and saxophonist Tim McAllister was a hit. Photo: Tom Emerson

Guitar and sax? Guitar and saxophone, what a surprise. That combo more often occurs on a jazz stage than in a chamber-music setting. The Jalbert piece paired Jason Vieaux, who has won Grammys for his impeccable classical guitar-playing, with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who after the program had been printed, had to cancel due to a pre-Covid obligation in Europe. Tim McAllister, another Grammy-winner and a member of PRISM Quartet, took Marsalis’ spot and nailed both the Jalbert three-part premiere and Adolf Busch’s “Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet.” He played with the Dover Quartet, a festival regular and always a treat to listen to. In another twist of classical and jazz music, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny composed “Four Points of Light” for Vieaux, which he premiered this year.  

Preludes:  Various short pieces or parts of pieces by J.S. Bach (“Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor” and “Suite for Solo Cello in G Major”), Olivier Messiaen (“Quartet for the End of Time”), Jessie Montgomery (“Peace”) and others began each concert. They were like grace before a meal, one concertgoer said. Quiet and contemplative, they reinforced the first part of the festival theme, “Reflect/Rejoice.” The Preludes were CMNW artistic co-director Chien’s idea. The audience was asked to withhold applause, and once the piece ended, the musician or musicians exited, the lights went down, and the rest of the concert began — the “rejoice” part.

Technology strides: As time moves on so ever goes technology. Not only were concerts recorded and digitized for later streaming through Aug. 31, but an unmanned camera roved onstage. And reading music has changed. Many musicians have switched to reading notes off tablets instead of from sheet music, and to turning pages with foot pedals instead of with hasty hands. Some still turn pages the old way, and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin had a page-turner for Leo Ornstein’s frantic and “overcharged” (as Ornstein said about his work) “Piano Quintet, Op. 92,” which he played July 15 and 16 with the Dover Quartet, a group that doesn’t shy away from ultra-difficult pieces. 

Making a joyful noise: Pianists Gloria Chien (left) and Marc-Andre Hamelin, and percussionists Ayano Kataoka (left) and Ian Rosenbaum get wild and crazy on Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.” Photo: Tom Emerson

Bartók: Pianist Hamelin had yet another human page-turner the following nights, July 17 and July 18, when he performed Béla Bartók’s 28-minute “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.” That piece gets pretty wild and crazy, with the piano itself sounding like percussion. Chien played the second piano with abandon, taking her shoes off to do it. At one point her tablet’s foot pedal stopped working: She gracefully arose from the piano, announced “technical malfunction,” and within minutes was back on stage with a working pedal. The musicians regrouped and began again at a logical place, giving the audience a little impromptu time to take a breath. The pianists and Ayano Kataoka, darting from one piece of oddly shaped percussion to the next, and trading places at times with Ian Rosenbaum on the kettle drums and other percussion, kept the piece moving at breakneck velocity and energy. Bartók wanted pianists and percussionists to face one another and carefully watch each other (this piece is incredibly  tricky, and meters change a lot!). Even if Bartók is not your favorite composer, this performance dropped some jaws. Violinists Kim and Dover Quartet’s Bryan Lee played four short Bartók folk duets before this blockbuster, and proved that Kim is as accomplished as a musician as he is as an artistic leader.

Emphatic: Pianist Gloria Chien accompanies bass-baritone Davóne Tines in a smashing festival finale program. Photo: Tom Emerson

Opera singer Davóne Tines is a presence: Onstage with a stylish suit and no socks, he captivated the audience in his final-day “Recital #1: Mass,” from which he sang excerpts of the liturgy. His robust, rich bass-baritone can soar into the falsetto range. He could fill Notre Dame with his voice. In his mid-30s, he has been taking the opera world by storm, starring in many pieces including Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, in 2019 at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (with Portland Opera’s co-artistic adviser Karen Slack, by the way) and shaping his own powerful repertoire as he did with this recital/Mass. His concert came at the end of the festival, though he sang Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach” the evening before with the Brentano Quartet, the 2021-22  artists-in-residence. That taste of his voice, coupled with his gift for intense emotional communication, led festival-goers to want a full drink, which they got with the 35-minute “Mass” on July 24 and July 25.

Asian-American factor: Seven Lees were listed among the 70 Chamber Music Northwest performers, plus a number of Asian American musicians with names other than Lee, including CMNW co-artistic directors Chien and Kim. This reflects a growing and welcome trend in the traditionally European world of classical music. Certainly, Asian Americans are forming the backbone of many orchestra and chamber ensembles, and along with Black and other musicians are broadening the musical tradition and playing instrumental roles in carrying it into a more expansive future. A few years ago when several of us were talking with orchestra maestro Leonard Slatkin at the 2018 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, he was adamant that classical music would not die anytime soon. Asian-Americans, and Asians, he said, will keep it alive.

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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