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Final transfigurations: Bringing CMNW to a close

The summer festival ended with an evocative evening of Strauss and Schoenberg.

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Gloria Chien and Fleur Barron performed song by Richard Strauss at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Gloria Chien and Fleur Barron performed songs by Richard Strauss at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

For its final concert of the season, Chamber Music Northwest uncorked a post-Romantic program with the theme of love and transformation. The program featured works by Richard Strauss and an early tonal masterpiece of Arnold Schoenberg. An appearance by British-Singaporean mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron in a selection of Strauss songs highlighted the evening. The concert is available as an At-Home streamer through August 31.

Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio, opens with an intimate chamber ensemble piece for six musicians rather than the standard overture with the entire orchestra involved. This Sextet succinctly embodies the opera’s central theme–a debate as to whether music or text is more important for any opera–and has become a standard of many chamber music concerts.

CMNW’s ensemble (violinists Daniel Chong and Soovin Kim, violists Jordan Bak and Jessica Bodner, and cellists Alexander Hersh and Deborah Pae) skillfully conveyed the discussion at the heart of the Sextet from Capriccio, superbly exposing the many interwoven harmonic lines. At one point, they broke up the friendly chatter with a furious tremolo as if arguing adamantly amongst themselves. Then they gradually settled down and returned to the calm, amiable air that began the piece.

Violinists Daniel Chong and Soovin Kim, violists Jordan Bak and Jessica Bodner, and cellists Alexander Hersh and Deborah Pae performed at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Violinists Daniel Chong and Soovin Kim, violists Jordan Bak and Jessica Bodner, and cellists Alexander Hersh and Deborah Pae performed at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Strauss began writing art songs (lieder) when he was 18 years old and ended up composing over 200. A primary inspiration for many of them was his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, who sang them in recitals with her husband as the accompanist. His lieder quickly became a mainstay of the recital repertoire, including arrangements that he made for orchestra.

Barron joined pianist and CMNW co-artistic director Gloria Chien to perform four of Strauss’ art songs. They were quite the enchantresses, casting a magical spell with Barron’s rich, powerful, and fabulously expressive voice, and Chien’s immaculate pianism. I could have easily heard four more songs. Heck twelve more.  

All of the lieder dealt with romantic love in a positive, life-affirming way (none of that dark, love-lost stuff). The first of these was Einerlei (Sameness), which Strauss penned in 1918 as part of his Fünf Kleine Lieder (Five Little Songs). Barron sang it with a smile, a wink and a nod, conveying the pleasantness of love that is the same but also always different. Next came Nachtgang (Night Walk) from Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Otto Julius Bierbaum (Three Lieder after poems of Otto Julius Bierbaum), which set a more leisurely pace in relating a moonlit scene of two lovers embracing for a kiss. This was followed by Barron’s proclaiming love’s devotion in Zueignung (Dedication), reserving a climatic forte for the last lines. Still, she saved the best for last, a leisurely and lush Morgen, evoking an idyllic love that revels in a silence beyond words. 

Gloria Chien and Fleur Barron performed song by Richard Strauss at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Gloria Chien and Fleur Barron performed songs by Richard Strauss at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Before Schoenberg delved into his 12-tone works, he wrote a number of compositions that were still more-or-less tonal; perhaps the most famous of these is Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), a highly-wrought string sextet based on the eponymous poem by German expressionist poet Richard Dehmel. In the poem, a couple walk through the woods by moonlight. The woman confesses that she is bearing the child of another man. After a moment of reflection, the man decides to accept her and the child. Under the moonlight, they are transformed and the future for the couple is bright.

Violinists Kim and Chong, violists Bodner and Bak, and cellists Pae and Hersh mined Schoenberg’s early masterpiece for all it was worth. They established an edgy, foreboding mood straight away and then broke it up with dramatic, impassioned surges as if to depict the woman shamefully revealing her situation. The emotional turmoil was palpable with the strings weeping, pleading, and grumbling in a spontaneous way. That seesawed with calmer passages, which suggested that the mood had changed from fearfulness to one of understanding, then gradually acceptance and hope. Tender high notes (violins) were embraced by warm lower notes (cellos) and the conversation-like exchange between the musicians vigorously push ahead before settling down, finally leading to the harmony of domestic bliss.

The Kaul Auditorium audience at the final concert of CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
The Kaul Auditorium audience at the final concert of CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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