brahms

Classical Up Close 4: High on a hill

From high up in Oregon City, an open-air concert lifts spirits with the sounds of Brahms and Strauss and the young percussion composer Andy Akiho

Violinist Chien Tan: when the movement gets swift, the swift get moving. Photo: Joe Cantrell

“I want to take you higher,” Sly and the Family Stone sang way back in 1969, and on Friday night that’s just what Classical Up Close did, ascending the appropriately named Hilltop Road in Oregon City and, on a wide expanse of open lawn amid swing sets and trees, playing the heart out of some sextets by Brahms and Strauss and a quartet of contemporary percussion pieces by the young composer Andy Akiho, who was also one of the musicians, playing steel pan. It was enough to make you want to lift up your eyes unto the hills – and if you had, you’d’ve seen Mt. Hood looming bright and clear to the east.

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Dissonance, tradition, spirit

Rolston String Quartet performs Mozart, Brahms, and R. Murray Schaeffer at Alberta Rose Theater

The twentieth century is the century of the string quartet. While not all great composers of the last century wrote string quartets, the genre became a powerful medium for composers to reveal their deepest emotions and indulge their creativity. The century began with incredibly forward-thinking quartets from Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Arnold Schoenberg. These composers set a precedent leading the way for Shostakovich’s dark humor, Johnston’s microtonality, Carter’s rhythmic experiments and Ferneyhough’s controlled chaos.

Even today, composers such as Caroline Shaw, Philip Glass and John Luther Adams keep this forward-looking spirit alive. As a small ensemble with a wide range and uniform tone color, the string quartet is an ideal medium for composers to test new musical ideas and express their voice in an intimate setting.

Rolston String Quartet performed at Albert Rose Theatre in July as part of Chamber Music Northwest. Photo by Kimmie Fadem.

Of course the string quartet was always an important medium, even from its early days of Haydn and Mozart. I can imagine Hadyn writing his sixty-eight string quartets and keeping himself entertained with syncopation, odd-measured phrases, fancy counterpoint, and other tricks. At some point, composers get bored and can’t help but try something new. This spirit of experimentation has always been present in the genre, from Beethoven’s fantastic late quartets to the most contemporary works. The Rolston String Quartet’s Chamber Music Northwest concert at Alberta Rose Theater on July 3 showed their strength as an ensemble while demonstrating the string quartet’s special compositional spirit.

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