Oregon Cultural Trust

In the reeds: Oboist Frank Rosenwein and David Shifrin perform Marc Neikrug and Leonard Bernstein for Chamber Music Northwest

CMNW keeps things fresh as its Beethoven-themed 2024 Summer Festival opens.

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David Shifrin performed Leonard Bernstein's "Clarinet Concerto" at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.
David Shifrin performed Leonard Bernstein’s “Clarinet Concerto” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival is hitting middle age, but you wouldn’t know it. Now in its 54th season, CMNW has been undergoing a significant rejuvenation with a lineup of fresh faces supported by a new crop of top-tier musicians and its Protégé Project for young professionals. But it doesn’t stop there. In 2022, CMNW’s artistic co-directors, pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim, added the Young Artist Institute, which brings teenagers from around the world for a three weeks intense study with a stellar faculty. There are also community concerts, pop-up concerts, open rehearsals, and other events that combine to make the five week festival (June 27 to July 28) a real extravaganza. 

Along with the new faces, CMNW has programmed more and more contemporary works. Almost every concert offers at least one new composition, with several events like the New@Night series exclusively devoted to new pieces. That doesn’t mean that standard, beloved repertoire is ignored. Works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky, and others from the firmament of classical music are there. And, of course, there’s Beethoven.

The overarching theme for the 2024 CMNW Summer Festival is “The Beethoven Effect.” So the festival will explore some of Beethoven’s chamber music and how his music has influenced and continues to influence other composers. You might hear something Beethoven-ish in the new works that CMNW has commissioned or co-commissioned from John Luther Adams, Joan Tower, Stewart Goodyear, Jörg Widmann and others. Hearing a U.S. premiere or a world premiere is one of the many treats that CMNW offers.

Sometimes a thematic idea doesn’t quite work with a selection on the program. That was the case with Marc Neikrug’s Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts. As Kim said in his introduction (July 1) at Kaul, the Neikrug piece didn’t really fit with Beethoven’s sound. That was understandable since CMNW had co-commissioned the piece a year or more beforehand, and the performance represented its West Coast premiere. 

Marc Neikrug's "Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts" at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Paul Neubauer, Alexander Hersh, Frank Rosenwein). Photo by Tom Emerson.
Marc Neikrug’s “Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts” at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Paul Neubauer, Alexander Hersh, Frank Rosenwein). Photo by Tom Emerson.

Performed by oboist Frank Rosenwein, violinist Bella Hristova, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Alexander Hersh, the Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts began with a pensive fog of notes from the strings while Rosenwein walked a highwire with his oboe. Later Rosenwein created flurry of sounds that suggested a bird chirping above the drone of the strings as if the oboe was an outlier in the conversation. After a mournful bout from the strings, the oboe joined in and lifted the mood in a way that everyone seemed to converse together, but that moment of ebullience vanished and the piece returned to the opening pensiveness and mysteriousness.

As warm applause welcomed Neikrug to the stage, I was still scratching my head trying to find the emotional core of what I just heard. Perhaps the composer meant to reflect the tenuousness of relationships or life itself. If so, he succeeded.

Marc Neikrug's "Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts" at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Paul Neubauer, Alexander Hersh, Frank Rosenwein, and the composer). Photo by Tom Emerson.
Marc Neikrug’s “Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts” at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Paul Neubauer, Alexander Hersh, Frank Rosenwein, and the composer). Photo by Tom Emerson.

Such ponderings were brought to a rest with Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, which Hristova, cellist Peter Stumpf, and pianist Alessio Bax expressed with elan.  There was a passage in the first movement – when the ensemble was going full tilt – in which the piano overwhelmed the cello – but that was only a quibble in a sublime performance. Hristova and Stumpf especially excelled with a cantabile sonority in their duetted passages. A standing ovation ensued after the rousing finale.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Concerto, which opened the concert, received an incisive performance with Shifrin leading an ensemble that included percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, pianist Monica Ohuchi, violinists Hristova and Sunmi Chang, cellist Hersh, and bassist Bernat. Consisting of just two movements the piece started right away as if in mid stride with an angular style that contained some dissonance. The second movement had a lyrical quality similar to Copland’s ballet music but then melodic phrases that hinted at West Side Story crept in.

Shifrin’s uncanny ability to shift quickly and smoothly from low notes to really high ones and not punch anything was astounding. His sound could always be heard above the ensemble, which made the performance memorable. 

Leonard Bernstein's "Clarinet Concerto" at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Sunmi Chang, Paul Neubauer, Monica Ohuchi, David Shifrin, Alexander Hersh, Ian Rosenbaum). Photo by Tom Emerson.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Clarinet Concerto” at Chamber Music Northwest (L to R: Bella Hristova, Sunmi Chang, Paul Neubauer, Monica Ohuchi, David Shifrin, Alexander Hersh, Ian Rosenbaum). Photo by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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