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Midsummer evening treats: Five surprises from CMNW 2023

Moments to remember from this year’s festival of chamber music.

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Catalyst Quartet at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Catalyst Quartet at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Due to the relentlessly imaginative programming of Chamber Music Northwest co-artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim, audiences are regularly hearing new music and new artists. Not that Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven are left out, but even instruments rare in the classical repertoire have been featured. Consider the saxophone, the French horn and a ton of percussion – not new instruments, but not often heard at chamber music concerts. 

Chien and Kim have brought more diversity to the 52-year-old festival, not only in terms of hiring more BIPOC musicians, but with respect to adding other musical genres such as jazz and percussion concerts. This summer’s five-week festival from June 24 through July 29 was emphatically more hip than it was in the pre-Chien-Kim days. Here are five surprises or unsung gems that you might have missed during the last two weeks of the festival.

CMNW co-directors Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien with executive director Peter Bilotta at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
CMNW co-directors Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien with executive director Peter Bilotta at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Flown to the Moon

For decades, we heard Tony Bennett–“a tenor who sings like a baritone,” as he called himself, croon with such performers as Lady Gaga and Frank Sinatra, but Bennett stepped off the Earth this year. The Viano Quartet honored his memory and bright multi-octave voice at the July 25 recital at Lincoln Recital Hall with a surprise encore. A fast-moving arrangement by Viano violinist Hao Zhou of “Fly Me to the Moon,” one of Bennett’s and the American Songbook’s standards, had the audience out of their seats and yes, high-fiving.

The indefatigable group did it again at the New@Night Protégés United concert July 26 at the Armory in Portland’s Pearl District. We don’t hear much jazz at CMNW, but when we do – and when such classically-trained musicians as the Vianos play it – the music is an absolute pleasure many times over.

Viano Quartet (L to R: Lucy Wang, Hao Zhou, Tate Zawadiuk, Aiden Kane) at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Viano Quartet (L to R: Lucy Wang, Hao Zhou, Tate Zawadiuk, Aiden Kane) at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Baseball salute

We heard several poems by Oregon writers during this festival. The festival’s theme was Poetry in Music, so the “Poetry Preludes” were an apt warm-up for the music, and yet another stage for poetry to make an impact on the arts.

My favorite poem was not from the poets with the official preludes. It was David Bottoms’ awkwardly titled poem, “Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt.’’ Composer Chris Rogerson, in his mid-30s and back for another time this year with a new composition, put it to music for string quartet and mezzo-soprano. A highlight of the Festival Finale July 27 at the Reser, with a repeat performance July 29 at Kaul Auditorium, the piece was performed by the irrepressible Viano Quartet and mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, who returned for her second season. A nod to fatherhood and baseball, the piece, Rogerson said in his program notes, tried “to capture the elegiac feeling of childhood, as well as the uniquely American nostalgia for the pastime of baseball.” And afterall, it is summertime. 

Fleur Barron and Viano Quartet at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Fleur Barron and Viano Quartet at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

He dedicated his work to his father, with whom Rogerson spent many days throwing the baseball back and forth. Barron, elegant in an angularly cut fuschia dress and high-style high-tops, performed the world premiere with her characteristic expressiveness, and she sang it with more than nostalgia – actually, with a little sadness. Still it was beautiful, and we can forgive Rogerson if his favorite baseball team is the Mets.

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Quickie music

With a nod to our short attention spans, the Catalyst Quartet nailed a timely idea with its “CQ Minute” project. The group commissioned 11 2-minutes-or-fewer pieces by such contemporary composers as Billy Childs, Jessie Montgomery, Andy Akiho, Angelica Negron, Caroline Shaw and Joan Tower. Each composer came up with a piece distinctively different from others on the program, and it was fun to listen to how each filled the flash of time.

Catalyst–which once included Montgomery, who’s now concentrating on composing–served as this year’s CMNW Artists-in-Residence. The group got around to schools, youth orchestras, neighborhoods, and with its CQ Minutes, to the New@Night July 12 concert at the Armory.

Catalyst Quartet (L to R: Karla Donahew Perez, Abi Fayette, Karlos Rodriguez, Paul Laraia) at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Catalyst Quartet (L to R: Karla Donahew Perez, Abi Fayette, Karlos Rodriguez, Paul Laraia) at The Armory for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Gifted pianist

Zitong Wang, the 23-year-old piano phenom, played Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 23 without a scrap of music – not an uncommon feat for many musicians, but still – this was a complex 20-minute piece. In four movements, the sonata had many moods from “free and wild” to “tender,” “vague” and “sorrowful,” according to Scriabin’s notes. He was a sour-tempered snob and hated most other composers’ music, but Wang, who has formidable poise after 10 years of solo concert-playing, obviously did not hate his work.

One of the elite CMNW “Protégé Project” artists–with American-Iranian composer Kian Ravaei, and with Armenian violinist Diana Adamyan who played several pieces with Wang during the festival–Wang was jaw-droppingly intense to watch and to hear.

Zitong Wang at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Zitong Wang at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Zitong Wang at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Zitong Wang at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photos by Tom Emerson.

Saxes and winds

It’s too tough to call the fifth surprise so I’ll make it a tie between the Kenari Saxophone Quartet and WindSync, the wind quintet that included a French horn. CMNW co-artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim never fail to introduce us to unusual groups. Whoever heard of classical saxophonists? They are around!

Last year we heard the scintillating Sinta Quartet of saxes and this year, Kenari, the quartet who pulled off Mischa Zupko’s frenetic Quantum Shift. Zupko’s musical metaphor made electrons of the four members of the quartet “interacting ceaselessly in their subatomic world.” 

Kenari Quartet (L to R: Kyle Baldwin,Gabriel Pique, Corey Dundee, Bob Eason) in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kenari Quartet (L to R: Kyle Baldwin,Gabriel Pique, Corey Dundee, Bob Eason) in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue for CMNW 2023. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kenari Quartet (L to R: Kyle Baldwin, Gabriel Pique, Corey Dundee, Bob Eason) in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue for CMNW 2023. Photos by Shawnte Sims.

WindSync is a group of wind virtuosos (clarinetist Graeme Steele Johnson, a mentee of former CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin; oboist Emily Tsai; flutist Garrett Hudson; bassoonist Rémy Taghavi; and French horn player Annie Hockhalter). The group played in David Serkin Ludwig’s and Katie Ford’s The Anchoress monodrama, which I didn’t hear July 17 (it was canceled July 16).

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But I did hear WindSync play a couple of pieces from memory on a very hot July night, outside in the setting sun at another CMNW event, and it was a midsummer evening treat.

WindSync (L to R: Garrett Hudson, Rémy Taghavi, Anni Hochhalter, Graeme Steele Johnson, Emily Tsai) at Sauvie Island for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
WindSync (L to R: Garrett Hudson, Rémy Taghavi, Anni Hochhalter, Graeme Steele Johnson, Emily Tsai) at Sauvie Island for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
WindSync (L to R: Garrett Hudson, Rémy Taghavi, Anni Hochhalter, Graeme Steele Johnson, Emily Tsai) at Sauvie Island for CMNW 2023. Photos by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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 was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is 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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