Last Wednesday was the second of five New@Night concerts for Chamber Music Northwest’s annual summer festival, Arcadiana Unlocked. The venue switched from the Alberta Rose theater of the prior week to the lobby of the Armory (home of Portland Center Stage) in the grungier, cooler part of the Pearl District, near Powell’s and the Whole Foods. The concert program featured two big-name English composers–Judith Weir and Thomas Adès–alongside a late-announced addition of a piece by Reena Esmail.
Going into the show, I assumed the concert would be in one of the theaters, but we instead heard the show in the lobby, which made me a bit suspicious of how the acoustics would be. In moments like this a ton of knowledge from my undergraduate comes flooding back and I can’t help but wince at how the space sounds in my mind. First of all, because sound waves bounce off surfaces at the same angle as the approach (remember your optics from physics 101?), rooms with flat surfaces tend to accumulate more unwanted noise–along with standing waves that resonate within the entire space and throw off the whole balance. Plus, hard surfaces like brick, concrete, hardwood and metal (all of which abound in the neo-industrial Armory lobby) absorb almost no sound waves, compared to soft, porous surfaces like carpet, foam and curtains (all of which abound in recording studios and rehearsal rooms, and even in the neoclassical Schnitz). This all adds up to what could’ve been a booming acoustic nightmare where you couldn’t hear anything over the awful reverberations (a lesson, incidientally, that many wanna-be Portland restaurateurs have yet to learn).
I was pleasantly surprised, however–as was Artistic Director Gloria Chien, she told me after the show. Space is an important consideration for programming concerts, and CMNW made the right decision by filling the Armory lobby with small groups of strings, who really benefit from the added resonance. Try to play, say, Xenakis’s Rebons A, Stockhausen’s Zyklus or really any loud percussion piece in the same space and you’d have to pass out industrial-grade earplugs before the show. The choice to perform in the lobby may also have had something to do with serving drinks and snacks from the bar, rather than any acoustical concerns.
I really enjoy the more casual atmosphere of these New@Night shows: smaller crowds, more intimacy with the performers, reasonably-priced beverages (for Portland at least). Since schmoozing and using my press credentials to talk to people is part of my job, I appreciate how easy it is to just walk up to someone who I may or may not know and say, “Hi, I’m (blank) and I’m with (blank).” I imagine I’m not the only one. They encourage patrons to “COME EARLY to socialize!”–so this was clearly intended from the start. And I happen at exactly the right age to see people my age or younger getting commissions and performances, touring the country, all that. And please note: it’s best to quickly breeze past any feelings of jealousy and go straight to lighting a fire under yourself.
The reason I mention this is that the concert opened with a performance not listed on the program: two students from CMNW’s Young Artists Institute, violinist Nate Strothkamp and cellist Kira Wang. They have a lot in common: both live here in Portland, play in PYP, and will be attending Yale next year.
The piece was Nadiya by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. I thought the performance captured the sound and feeling of a Hindustani Alap (opening section with improvisation over a drone), a testament to both the composer and the performance. To really nail the sound of the raga, the details have to be there: the subtleties of articulation, dynamics, glissandi, and vibrato. I think Strothkamp and Wang did so admirably, and I will be happy to see where they continue from here in their artistic endeavors.
Oregonians will get to hear more of Esmail’s music in person a few times this summer. First is CMNW’s Eastern Inspirations concerts later this month, when Vijay Gupta will be playing Darshan and When the Violin for solo violin. There will be two performances: Sunday at 4 pm in Lincoln Hall, and on Monday at 8 in Kaul Auditorium. Then in August, Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival will feature Esmail’s music as this year’s composer-in-residence.
Bring on the Brits
Up next was Judith Weir’s Unlocked for solo cello, played by Protégé Artist Zlatomir Fung. He had a busy week: the night before he performed a solo concert of Bach, Tania León, Gaspar Cassadó and Dall’abaco (which is just a fantastic program, I have to say).
Unlocked is based on a series of folksongs collected by John and Alan Lomax. You can find many of their transcriptions in a collection called This Singing Country, along with many Library of Congress archives. I tried to find these particular songs before the performance, but didn’t have much luck. So, rather than trying to mentally compare the performance with some pre-conditioned idea of what the original tunes were–decomposing the piece, if you will–I decided to just listen and enjoy the music. The melodies are great and folksy, of course, with some interesting textural choices that made it more interesting than a mere transcription.
I liked the performance quite a bit, but after hearing the detail in Esmail’s raga-influenced piece I wished there had been more leaning into the blue notes. It’s the slight bending of notes into the in-between space between the piano’s twelve discrete pitches, the unreliable vibrato and loose rhythms that give melodies a “bluesy” flavor, and those are things that sheet music doesn’t capture all too well. Blues musicians pick it up through experience and through feel, and I wish Fung had gotten a bit dirtier for some of the songs.
The Viano Quartet’s performance of Adès’ Arcadiana was the highlight of the show. As with Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody last week, I knew this piece sounded familiar: the Parker Quartet performed it for Chamber Music Northwest in April of last year.
Coincidentally perhaps, the musical idea behind Arcadiana is similar to that of Adès’ orchestral piece Asyla: a series of portraits of some other world, a retreat. The piece abounds with a floating, cloud-like sort of texture, with the cello in the same register as the viola and violins, lacking the deep bass and body to create a full, rich tone. But when the cello drops down to its rich C string–in the chorale-like texture of the sixth movement, O Albion–it strikes the listener with more potency. This movement reminded me a lot of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations–which Viano violinist Hao Zhou alluded to before the performance.
They also pointed to some subtle references to Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria, which I did then hear during the performance. I don’t know if I would have caught it had it not been pointed out to me, since it was a brief quotation as part of a bigger texture. I also don’t think knowing that there was a Mozart quotation in Arcadiana improved my listening experience at all; if anything, it just made me wonder “why?” Many of us are all for including little musical easter-eggs for the attentive listener, but in this case it just took me out of the moment a bit.
The stratified textures of these first five movements remind me a lot of Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit– a favorable comparison. The complex textures and extremities of dynamics came across clearly, from the softest moments to the most forceful sforzandi. The Viano Quartet sounds very promising to me, and despite them being the same age as myself I would’ve assumed they were much more experienced from their performance alone. They also clearly don’t take themselves too seriously: we got to sing happy birthday for cellist Tate Zawadiuk with them at the end, and the members I chatted with were friendly.
This week, tonight!
The next New@Night–American Triptych on Wednesday the 13th–will once again be at the Armory. There are three pieces by young or young-ish composers: Partita by Chris Rogerson, Moonshot by CMNW resident composer Alistair Coleman, and Swan Song by David Ludwig (whose Pangæa you may remember from CMNW 2018). The concert will close with the solo cello Partita by Ahmet Adnan Saygun, one of the most well-known and influential Turkish composers of Western classical music. Performing these works are artistic director Soovin Kim on violin; Protégé artists Benjamin Beilman and Anna Lee, also on violin; Zawadiuk and violist Aiden Kane from Viano; Turkish cellist Efe Baltacigil; and pianist Ellen Hwangbo.