I WENT TO THE OPENING NIGHT OF CHAMBER MUSIC NORTHWEST‘S SUMMER SEASON on Monday – in my pajamas, at my desk, on my computer screen. CMNW’s always had a relaxed dress code, for the audience, anyway, but this was taking things to extremes. Then again, we’re all taking things to extremes these days, reinventing wheels we thought had been spinning extremely well, thank you very much, except that then the rules changed, and here we are in Pandemic Land, playing a makeshift game and hoping for the best.
As makeshifts go, this one was quite good: three excellent performances by three fine quartets, with good sound quality and some brief chats interspersed with the music. It wasn’t the same as sitting in the concert hall, yet an undeniable excitement came across the electrical surge of what we used to call the Information Superhighway – a sense of triumph that, against daunting odds, this thing was working. While many other performing groups were shut down and worrying about their futures, for CMNW the show was going on. As of noon Tuesday, with 12 hours still to go before the opening concert was taken down, close to 2,200 people from Oregon and around the world had tuned in to see and hear.
Chamber Music Northwest and I have been on friendly terms for more than forty of its fifty years. We go back to the early days, when the violinist Sergiu Luca was still running the show, and concerts were in a large non-air-conditioned indoor commons on the Reed College campus, where on a high-humidity summer evening much of the audience sat cross-legged on the floor and the musicians might be accompanied by a fluttering undertone of flapping programs fanning up a breeze. A cozy conviviality ruled, and a sometimes fragile separation between performers and audience. Sweltering room or not, right there was where we wanted to be, listening to great music performed by people who knew how to perform it well. It was our Paradise of the moment.
THE FESTIVAL’S ONLY GROWN SINCE THEN, expanding its reach, blending adventurous and challenging contemporary music with its classics, introducing young and exciting performers to its lineup of established stars. This fiftieth season was to be the crowning glory for clarinetist David Shifrin, who took over from Luca in 1981 and has been the festival’s artistic director ever since: Next season he hands the job over to the wife-and-husband team of pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim. This is still Shifrin’s final bow before retiring, but in a far different format than he or anyone at CMNW had expected: Because of pandemic restrictions the entire season will be online, in a series of free concerts that began Monday evening and will continue with new programs every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday through July 26.
In the process of getting to this season’s summer concerts CMNW made some bold decisions. First, it paid all of its contracted musicians for the summer festival half of their fees, up front, even though they won’t be performing live. The artists are “the heart of our art form,” Executive Director Peter Bilotta told me during a Tuesday telephone interview – “and we want them to come back next season.” Unlike a huge number of arts groups, where furloughs or layoffs have been the norm, CMNW has kept its entire staff on payroll. And it decided to make its online concerts free.
“I think it’s been a good gamble,” Bilotta said. Friends and supporters have stepped up to help cover costs. Many subscribers have turned their ticket fees into donations. And although the company is waiting to learn about Covid relief funding and some grant money, the nature of its art form makes it nimbler and more adaptable than larger-scale and often much more expensive forms such as opera and symphonic music. Besides, the company has a history of careful budgeting that’s put it in much better shape than a lot of other cultural organizations – it’s in its “39th or 40th consecutive year of finishing in the black,” Bilotta said. “And every year we’ve squirreled away the surplus” to help weather an emergency. That remarkable streak of years in the black could well end in 2020, depending on how fundraising goes. But the company has put itself in a good position.
ON MONDAY’S OPENING PROGRAM, Eugene Drucker, violinist in the Emerson Quartet, spoke briefly from his home in New York about the group’s 2009 performance, picked up for this program, of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” from String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 – “a mournful, introspective work” that, he suggested, seems suited to our current times. Barber wrote this music in 1936, when much of the world was mired in the Great Depression, the drums of war were sounding, and the future seemed fearfully uncertain. Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20, Drucker added, on which the Emerson and the young Calidore Quartet joined forces, is a joyous piece –” joyful not in a superficial way but in a deep vein of expression,” and the two ensembles, joining to form an octet, bring out the joy beautifully. On the third piece, Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115, clarinetist Shifrin joined the Guarneri Quartet in a rich and moving interpretation.
WHAT’S MADE THIS FESTIVAL SO SPECIAL for so many people for so many years? As Bilotta noted, it’s all about the musicians and the music. And it’s about the thrill of confronting new music – but also of the continuing consequence of great music from the past, which claims its place in the soul of contemporary culture. I spent the summer of 2004 on something of a dream assignment, covering CMNW’s summer festival from the inside: going to all the concerts and a lot of rehearsals, talking with the musicians, watching them as they worked with students, sorting out the makings of a major festival.
In one piece that summer I wrote about a concert by Imani Winds that included some Ligeti and Gounod and “the extreme congeniality of Mozart’s Serenade in E-Flat Major for Winds, a piece so intricately and elegantly crafted that it seems at once lighter than air and as sturdy as a cathedral. … (t)his serenade simply floated. Mozart could write music of almost heartbreaking depth … But much of his most memorable work exudes the gift of lightness, the ability to raise listeners into that rarest of states, happiness. In his serenade, Mozart writes balances without the need for checks. There is a vision of Utopia in this musical world of surging, complementary voices, a Utopia of intellectual fulfillment and emotional concord.
“Does it matter that his music was written to assure a self-satisfied ruling class of the rightness and inevitability of its position and privilege? Like the great paintings created for the pleasure of ravaging emperors, it’s become democratized. It still lives, and it lives for everyone. Its meanings and reach expand. Like the American Bill of Rights, what was meant for the few becomes the lifeblood of the many. And so, inside this trifle, a Utopia of sound, a suggestion in moving air of what might be. May I suggest that Mozart, at his finest, remains a hope of humankind?”
Such a wonder, in these tumultuous times, seems well worth paying attention to. Or, as Tomas Svoboda, the Czech American composer who is a musical eminence in Portland and whose Sonata for Clarinet and Piano also was featured in that 2004 season, told me then: “Music could be truthful. Music could be emotionally exactly what you want to say.”
ON FALLING STATUES AND A RISING MURAL
THAT NOISE YOU HEAR AS OREGON AND THE NATION ENTER A FIFTH WEEK OF PROTESTS in the wake of the killing of George Floyd is the sound of statues toppling, plop-plop-plop. Among the first to fall were several across the South that memorialized generals of the Confederacy as heroes – most of the monuments erected years after the Civil War as white Southerners sought to reassert their supremacy and romanticize the Antebellum South. (Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy through most of the war, is still arguing about what to do with a monument to Robert E. Lee.)
What began as a protest over the killing in Minneapolis on May 25 of a Black man by a white policeman has rapidly expanded into a grassroots forum on race and class in America. In the process, public art – or certain kinds of public art – has come under intense scrutiny. Much of the destruction and removal has been the fruition of long-simmering unhappiness over the stories that public monuments tell about the history and character of the nation. What is heroic? Who is memorialized? Whose voices get to shape history? Do our monuments institutionalize a myth of white supremacy, and if they do, why should they remain? (New York Times art critic Holland Carter, for one, has a few suggestions.)
In New York, the American Museum of Natural History has announced plans to remove a long-controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback from its entrance. The problem isn’t Roosevelt, but the two other figures in the monument – one African and one Indigenous; both in downtrodden, subservient poses. A similar controversy is simmering in Boston and Washington, D.C. over twin public monuments that feature Abraham Lincoln reaching his hand out to a freed slave kneeling on the ground before the president.
Several removals have been more spontaneous. In Portland they’ve included the toppling of statues of George Washington on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and Thomas Jefferson in front of Jefferson High School in North Portland – both presidents and Founding Fathers, and both also slaveholders. The fact that the Portland high school most associated with Black students is named for a slaveholder has been a point of contention for decades.
As the culture shifts, its symbols of self-identity shift, too. You can see some of the results that have risen spontaneously during the protests in the form of fresh murals memorializing George Floyd and Black rights, often painted on plywood covering commercial windows in the nation’s cities. And in Northeast Portland, you can see an icon for a new age on the corner of 47th Avenue and Fremont Street, on the outdoor wall of Amalfi’s Restaurant, where a week ago the artist Mundo installed a large mural titled Strong Beautiful Woman. The mural is an updated version of the famous “Rosie the Riveter” image used to celebrate the skills of women factory workers during World War II. Mundo’s 21st century Rosie is strong of bicep and boldly Black, a can-do symbol of assertive equality for a time that needs all the can-do symbols it can get.
“This artwork is to celebrate strong women of color,” Mundo says on his website. “There is a deep need for positive black representation here in Portland.” And Amalfi’s is a very good place to join the celebration. Its third-generation owner, Kiauna Floyd, as Jordan Hernandez writes in a recent profile for Travel Portland, is a strong POC entrepreneur who happens to be the creative force behind a traditional Italian American restaurant. “Being seen as a woman and a person of color is what inspires me to set an example for aspiring restaurateurs who can relate,” she tells Hernandez. “I hold myself with a high regard and carry this torch with past, present and future in mind.”
In the meantime, anyone walking or driving past 47th and Fremont can’t help but notice the bright new mural and take in, at least implicitly, the painting’s cultural message for a modern age. It’s, well, Riveting.
FIVE GOOD STORIES FROM AROUND & ABOUT OREGON
LEANING INTO THE LOCKDOWN. From the Oregon Symphony’s adventurous new online series Essential Sounds to an array of shutdowns to a Billboard chart-topper for Cappella Romana, Brett Campbell rounds up the good, the bad, and the creatively adaptable in Oregon music news.
SUMMER STREAMS. While they can’t meet in person, Campbell reports, Oregon’s musicians and audiences are plugging into a series of streamed concerts, both live and from the vaults. Chamber Music Northwest and Eugene’s Oregon Bach Festival are leading the way, but there are plenty of other sounds in Streamland, too.
RESOURCEFULNESS & RESILIENCE: THESIS SHOWS IN A PANDEMIC. “(A) newly minted class of fine art and craft students is setting out into the world,” Brianna Miller writes. “The timing couldn’t be better – we need their hope, creativity, resiliency, and ingenuity now more than ever. Equally, the timing couldn’t be worse – nearly all of their final in-person thesis shows were cancelled because of Covid-19 related closures.” Enter the Internet, and new creative opportunities for a new generation.
AN ART-FELT THANK YOU. No garden party? No problem, Lori Tobias writes. With the help of its artists, Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts gets creative in the face of the pandemic and rethinks its biggest fundraiser of the year.
MONTAGE, FAREWELL. IT’S BEEN SWELL. A Portland legend of late-night dining swagger – and the occasional lunch in the naked light of day, “which is a little like basking in the sun with the Vampire Lestat” – serves its last gator bite. A sweet goodbye to a joint supreme.
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