Last Wednesday was the first of four New@Night concerts for this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. This is the only show at the Alberta Rose Theater for the entire festival, with many concerts migrating to the grungy Armory lobby or the suburban outpost of the Reser Center in Beaverton.
Maybe as an homage to last year’s Seven Pillars show at the Alberta Rose, Andy Akiho’s music hummed quietly on the speakers as patrons walked in and took their seats.
The concert opened with a performance by umama womana, a trio of composer-performers with Han Lash on Harp, Valerie Coleman on flute and Nokothula Ngwenyama on viola: Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles. Lash’s music, as they themself note, owes a lot to the Debussy Trio of the same instrumentation. They don’t need to worry about any anxiety of influence, however. Three Shades Without Angles boasts impressive textural variation guided by harp arpeggios spanning the whole breadth of the instrument. The harmonies built upon the acoustic scale and steady 8th notes drive the music forward like clockwork.
You can sense the connection between the three members of umama womana in this piece: their playing was tight and fluid. Each member of the group had a piece on the night’s program, which opened the concert and the whole New@Night series wonderfully and was perfect for setting the vibe.
I was happy to see two additions to the program, since the printed roster seemed so short. The first of which was Wild Grass by Zhou Long, named for the poem by influential Chinese poet Lu Xun. There seemed to be a big daoist influence on the poem, based on the excerpt we saw projected, musing on humanity’s connection with nature, life and death. It’s hard to say that a piece of music exhibits those daoist qualities, but Long’s Wild Grass left a lot of empty space between notes, letting each phrase speak on its own and reminding me of the poetry of the Dao De Jing.
Edward Arron’s incredible cello performance was a highlight of the night. The word “breathtaking” is a huge cliche, but during Wild Grass the audience was so enraptured you could literally hear people breathing on the other side of the room. You could even hear the air swirling above you. It was a poetic performance, giving weight and significance to every swell, every microtonal inflection and every gesture.
The centerpiece of the program was the String Trio by R. Murray Schafer, who passed away recently (read my Artswatch obituary of him here). CMNW artistic director Soovin Kim revealed in his pre-performance commentary that he actually encouraged the commissioning of this piece back in 2009, as Schafer is one of his favorite composers.
Schafer’s trio shows the same amount of creativity and depth of color as any of his string quartets, which are probably his most well-cherished works. The Mahler quotation near the end–from the “Adagio” of the unfinished Tenth Symphony–was a nice touch. It was a stunning performance, full of vivacious energy bursting into tender F major melodies. Arron returned on cello alongside violinist Jessica Lee and violist Hanna Lee.
You may be wondering, “wait, this concert is playing an R. Murray Schafer piece that isn’t the one for flute, viola and harp that is perfect for umama womana?” Well, they are playing it this coming Sunday and Monday (at Kaul and Lincoln Hall respectively), alongside their own works and music by Kodály and Rachmaninoff. Also, don’t be such a smart-aleck.
Valerie Coleman came out again, with Jessica Lee and Arron, for her Maombi Asante. It was upbeat and motile, driven forward by pizzicato cello ostinati that provided a foundation for Coleman’s flute solos. There were also bluesy inflections all over the place, which I’m always happy to hear in a classical music setting.
This would’ve made a great closing piece, but then we got an encore of Ngewenyama’s Rising–a full multimedia production, featuring Ngwenyama playing over a layered, pre-recorded violin tape a la Reich’s Electric Counterpoint while also filtering her violin through a big multi-effects unit.
The accompanying film featured dancing by a Zimbabwean dancer with choreography that aligned tightly with the rhythms and gestures of Ngwenyama’s score. Overall a solid end to the evening, ending with the more up-tempo pieces and leaving the headier stuff for the middle.
The remaining New@Night concerts are all in the lobby of the Armory in downtown Portland near Powell’s. It’s a tight but beautiful space with surprisingly decent acoustics. Next week’s concert features clarinetist Anthony McGill–principal for the New York Phil–playing music by Adolphus Hailstork and James Lee III, alongside pianist Stewart Goodyear performing his own Piano Sonata and the CMNW Artists-in-Residence Catalyst Quartet playing eleven miniature string quartets by a bunch of names you’ve heard before and a bunch more you will know soon.