MusicWatch Weekly: clarinets cut loose!

Chamber Music Northwest blows into town with windy festival-within-a-festival. Meanwhile, woe unto thee: you just missed Makrokosmos V.

“Good afternoon! I’m David Shifrin, and I play the clarinet!” A big roomful of laughing clarinetists goes “woooo!” and welcomes the Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall for the first of the festival’s five New@Noon concerts. It’s the last Friday in June, it’s breezy and just uncomfortably warm enough, and we’re up here in the Performance Hall—instead of down in the recital hall by the statue in the basement, where the New@Noon shows are usually held—because of that roomful of clarinetists. “We have a hundred clarinetists here,” Shifrin said, a gigantic smile on his face, “and it’s a joyous occasion.”

David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.
David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

Earlier that week

Last Friday, I told you all about the lovely afternoon and evening you could have down at Reed College the following Monday. CMNW’s all-Mozart opening concert was as purply as promised: a warm breezy day, a cool evening, and all the Mozart you could stand—culminating in the delirious birdsong laden romp through the countryside which was Shifrin and Protégé Project Artists Rolston String Quartet ripping through the majory-as-cherry-pie Clarinet Quintet in A Major.

The best music of the evening, though, didn’t feature clarinets much at all: the Notturni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, and Three Basset Horns. This combination, when it held steady (two of the basset hornists occasionally switched to plain vanilla Bb clarinets), was so extraordinarily luscious it made me want to hear everything arranged this way. Nottorni, cantatas, arias, art songs, requiems, whole operas, all of it.

Extra points to soprano Vanessa Isiguen and mezzo Hannah Penn (the latter fresh off two runs of Laura Kaminsky’s As One) for supporting both each other and baritone Zachary Lenox, all while blending with the weirdo horns, selling the hell out of Mozart’s sweet, smeary, summery harmonies, and just generally kicking ass.

Singers Zachary Lenox, Hannah Penn, and Vanessa Isiguen, and basset horn players Todd Kuhn, James Shields, and Richard Hawkins perform Mozart at CMNW. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Singers Zachary Lenox, Hannah Penn, and Vanessa Isiguen, and basset horn players Todd Kuhn, James Shields, and Richard Hawkins perform Mozart at CMNW. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Before the concert, while the majority of what would turn out to be a packed house was still out on the lawn picnicking, Robert McBride was inside with a handful of us Music Nuts doing a Vaudeville routine with Shif.

McBride, in clarinet t-shirt: “David, do you have a clarinet t-shirt?”
Shifrin, after a very long pause: “No.” Another long pause. “My daughter does!”
McBride: “You are playing the most famous work of the evening, the quintet.”
Shifrin: “Yes—I did give that to myself!”
McBride: “Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do? Besides retire?”
Shifrin, with a big grin: “I’d really love to be part of a one-hundred clarinet choir.”
McBride: “You’ve never played with that many clarinets?”
Shifrin: “Well, not all at once.”

That’s exactly what they’re doing this weekend. On Monday Shifrin told McBride and the little pre-show crowd a story he would repeat later for the full house, about a donor who, upon learning of Shifrin’s impending retirement from CMNW, asked what he wanted to do to close his four-decade run. That conversation led to what Shifrin called “a festival within a festival,” a celebration of clarinets and clarinet music and clarinetists, a string of masterclasses and competitions and concerts featuring all kinds of music old and new.

As long as everyone’s here, Shifrin figured, might as well get em all together for some truly massive clarinet music. Tomorrow (Saturday, June 29), 1-2 pm, those hundred clarinetists—the Colossal Clarinet Choir—perform in the PSU Park Blocks outside Lincoln Hall, right by the Saturday Farmer’s Market. That evening, back down at Reed, it’s Clarinet Critical Mass—without question the most exciting of these various clarinet shows for me personally. It’s not quite a hundred clarinets, sure, but it’s more than a few: we start with Steve Reich’s funky New York Counterpoint for ten clarinets, and it gets better from there. Monochrome, a 1974 composition by PDQ Bach scholar Peter Schickele, calls for nine.

The show also includes arrangements of Piazzolla’s ever-popular Libertango and Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, both for an ensemble of seven (including soloist and Libertango arranger Seunghee Lee); a commissioned world premiere of Italian clarinetist/composer Michele Mangani’s Dance Variations on Themes of Mozart, composed for an octet that extends from the high Eb clarinet down to the low contrabass clarinet (played here by composer and Oregon Symphony principal James Shields); and concludes with thirty clarinetists performing Guido Six’s arrangement of that most infamous of Bach creations, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, also known as the beginning of Fantasia.

Clarinetist/composer/conductor Michele Mangani.
Clarinetist/composer/conductor Michele Mangani.

Newer than new

There’s newish stuff on that concert, sure (extra points for Reich, Schickele, and even Villa-Lobos—and points for the commission too, even if Italy is pretty far from the Northwest), but today’s noon concert was the week’s more substantial new music offering. The first performer was announced, by Shifrin, from the stage: composer/clarinetist/teacher Boja Kragulj. Her technology already in place, Kragulj came out with her clarinet and briefly explained the history and function of the microphones and effects loops she uses to create her bizarrely beautiful music, saying that over time this performance-composition tool has “morphed into a pedagogical tool.” The two microphones to either side, wires running to a laptop and audio interface, were straightforward enough; I wanted a better look at the clamshell rig she was using to apply some sort of portable Pauline Oliveros type natural reverb to a third mic (later revealed when stagehands rotated the clamshell), into which she played and sang long tones and bubbling arpeggios, a slow, gracious, Harrisonesque melody with quick ornaments, floating in a shimmering field of hallucinatory acoustic time dilations.

Clarinetist/composer/teacher Boja Kragulj performed at CMNW.
Clarinetist/composer/teacher Boja Kragulj performed at CMNW.

The creative combo of easy, portable tech and human expressivity reminded me a lot of local favorite Dolphin Midwives (Sage Fisher), a harpist-singer-composer who does similar things with voice, acoustic instrument, and looping devices. The hybrid paid off well at CMNW this afternoon. Kragulj’s semi-improvised, delay-saturated, melodically-layered music was the freshest and most vivid thing I heard all day, the highlight of a concert rich with a lot of other very impressive clarinet music and some distinctly unpastoral playing from the Rolston crew on Libby Larsen’s astonishing BURN. Everyone there seemed to be loving all of it—the room shimmered with that excited, appreciative buzz that always crackles through highly informed and engaged audiences listening to their peers and mentors show off.

I have a soft spot for composer/performers like Kragulj and Ashley William Smith, the latter of whom is known for writing extremely demanding music for his own considerable talents, integrating circular breathing, multiphonics, and other modern techniques into a distinctive performatively compositional voice, all fully on display this afternoon while premiering his composition Shifrin.

But you’ll hear all about the music from new Arts Watch contributor Charles Rose after the festival. Mainly I just wanted you to know about the clarinetist with the delay rig right away.

There’s plenty more going on with CMNW this weekend. The clarinet celebration concludes Monday at Reed (note Sunday at PSU is nearly sold out), with Young Artist Competition winner Sam Boutris performing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto alongside Rolston, a bunch of the CMNW regulars, and members of Portland Youth Philharmonic conducted by David Hattner.

And there’s some exciting new and newish music next week, including Shifrin playing Bartók and Calidore String Quartet’s Northwest premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays—but we’ll tell you all about all of that Monday, in our July preview.

The Calidore String Quartet perfromed Caroline Shaw's 'Entr'acte' at Chamber Music Northwest in 2018. Photo by Tom Emerson.
The Calidore String Quartet performed Caroline Shaw’s ‘Entr’acte’ at Chamber Music Northwest in 2018. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Take a walk

As I was reading Brett Campbell’s interview with Makrokosmos Project founders Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, I came across this line from Ahuvia:

The conversation always seems to be about how people’s attention spans are shrinking. I’m not convinced by that argument. If you create the correct experience, you can hold their attention. We’re both runners and hikers, and there’s something about having something be long enough to create a real critical mass that creates a different kind of experience. We wanted to create a curated marathon.

Predictably, this got me to thinking about Guy Debord and his Theory of the Dèrive, and the happy accidents that come from embracing the chaos of long urban hikes. Probably not the nature hikes Ho and Ahuvia have in mind when they leave New York City for our lovely forest-with-a-city-in-it. But it’s certainly the sort of hikes—and attendant happy accidents—you get used to if you like the strains of music that get made late at night in this town.

One night several years back—it was when Portland still had bowling alleys—my bandmates and I took a long post-practice mosey through dark forested streets down to Closed Forever Lanes for drinks and a few games. As we walked in we heard the loudest, thorniest, gnarliest of metal, coming from—no kidding—a full live band, stacked amps and double kick drums and all, turned up to 11 on a little stage astride two or three lanes in the middle of the room. And it was nasty metal, too, wrathful and intelligent and uncompromising, the pure shit, the kind of thing I didn’t think existed in Portland anymore. So we stayed and rolled for thirty or forty frames of this potent stuff and came out feeling raw and cleansed.

That’s what it felt like last night walking in on the intrepid, inimitable Pyxis String Quartet playing George Crumb’s gnarly, wrathful, uncompromising Black Angels in the lobby of the vanilla-white Vestas building at NW 14th and Everett. Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”—an alarming 1970 musical screed against the war in Vietnam which provided the bit of oyster grit around which Kronos Quartet coagulated—modestly and misleadingly claims to be scored for “electric string quartet” but is in actuality a monstrosity of deconstructed chants and songs and drones and noises and large helpings of frankly gorgeous music, all of it performed, on this rainy night, by an ensemble comprised of Portland’s best string quartet (there, we’ve admitted it) making sounds on a wide variety of instruments, some of which include strings.

Pyxis Quartet performed George Crumb's Black Angels at Makrokosmos Project V.
Pyxis Quartet performed George Crumb’s Black Angels at Makrokosmos Project V.

A pair of tam-tams (the kind of big, flat, untuned gongs used in most orchestras) hung behind violinist Greg Ewer and cellist Marylin de Oliveira, who both got up every so often to strike them or evoke screeching, warbling harmonics using their bows. Everybody chanted numbers periodically—sinister whisper counting, not cute Einstein on a Beach counting. Maracas periodically stirred, dusty rattlesnakes in a clean lobby full of sleepy New Music Nuts.

Ewer, along with violist Charles Noble and violinist Ron Blessinger, also had wine glasses partly full of water on little tables in front of them, all marked with pitches (“C#,” “B”), like they’re getting ready for dinner at Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig’s house.

Those tuned wine glasses provided the one-day festival’s most enduring, haunting moment—the “God Music” movement—an outrageously beautiful recurring theme on bowed glasses, bizarre chord sequences across which de Oliveira played a melancholy, morbid cello line with a creepy, broken theremin panache. The fine balance and blend and the subtle separations between parts, and the way everyone articulated all this eldritch math music together so precisely, with apparently no need to even look at each other—it all got me thinking about hearing this lot do the same thing with Reich and Glass back when I fell for them in the first place. And it’s got me crazy for next May, when they’ll play Gabriella Smith’s difficult, poppy Carrot Revolution (heard at CMNW two summers back) and Andy Akiho’s quintet for strings and piano, Prospects of a Misplaced Year.

Oh, and the rest of Makrokosmos V was stellar—by turns pensive and contemplative (Takemitsu), outrageous and catchy (Frank), and above all superbly played and well-suited to a rainy June afternoon. We’ll tell you all about it in a couple weeks, after we’ve recovered.

This weekend

Oregon Bach Festival starts up again this weekend in Eugene, with the usual assortment of old and new musicks gathered around the titular Baroque master and the “classical music” tradition that may as well bear his name, this difficult-to-characterize “classical music” thing we all love and can’t define. What if we just call it “Bachmusik” and be done?

Anyways, some highlights this weekend include Mozart’s Requiem and Symphony 29 (tonight), Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre’s Legends of Coyote (Saturday morning), Portland Cello Project’s innovative Bach-Radiohead-Coltrane thingamajig (Saturday evening), an all-Handel concert (Sunday afternoon—right after church!) and the Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance with “the Hendrix of the recorder,” Matthias Maute (Monday evening).

That’s just the first four days, and that’s not even everything. See Brett Campbell’s preview to read about the whole festival.

If locally-grown jazz is your thing, you’d better head to downtown Portland’s Central Library on SW 10th for Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s free performance of From Maxville to Vanport at 3 pm on June 30 (well hey! that’s right after that colossal clarinet choir at the farmer’s market, and it’s right down the street). The library’s Collins Gallery hosts the multimedia concert work, with music by PGCE band-leader Ezra Weiss, words from Resonance Ensemble poet-in-residence S. Renee Mitchell, video by Kalimah Abioto, and vocals by Marilyn Keller. Read Brett Campell’s Oregon Arts Watch feature here.

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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Your review of the Pyxis Quartet made me wonder how many SQs are currently active in PDX?

    I came up with:

    + Pyxis
    + Mousai Remix
    + Arnica
    + Fear No Music (sometimes from within their roster)

    Are there others that I’m forgetting?

    • That’s a good question Bob. Just off the top of my head, I’d say Arco-PDX constitutes an augmented string quartet (and I could see them taking on Black Angels!), and Delgani performs here frequently enough I’m tempted to claim them.

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