chamber music northwest

2020 in review: At last, over & out

2020? Perish the thought. The ups, downs, disasters, trends, outrages, and occasional triumphs of Oregon's arts & culture in a tortuous year.

2020? Perish the thought. Good riddance to bad rubbish: We’re gonna wash that year right out of our hair. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Or, as the old curse has it, “may you live in interesting times” – but not quite this interesting, thank you very much.

The Year That Should Not Speak Its Name led pretty much everyone, including all of us here at Oregon ArtsWatch, on a frantic and astonishing chase. It was discombobulating, because for the most part we were chasing in isolation inside the confines of our own homes, like cats in a cardboard box desperately racing after our own tails. Oh, sure, there were those fair-weather walks through the neighborhood, and the masked-up trips to the grocery store. But, really: Things might’ve been new, but they were far from normal.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


Normality, of course, is how the year began. Even optimism. On Jan. 1, 2020, a year ago today, ArtsWatch strode brashly into the Brave New Year with the first dispatch in Vision 2020, an ambitious series of 20 interviews over 20 days with a cross-section of Oregon arts figures who agreed to talk with us about how things looked from their corners of the cultural world, and what they hoped to see in the coming year and decade. They had some terrific insights and ideas, and the series makes for some fascinating reading: From Rachel Barreras-Kleeman’s tale of why she teaches dance to low-income kids on the Coast, to Dañel Malan’s vision of creating bilingual arts through Teatro Milagro, to 18 compelling stories in between, you can find all 20 interviews here. But nobody – least of all those of us at ArtsWatch Central, in our eager editorial innocence – anticipated what was lurking just around the corner.

In January Maya Vivas and Leila Haile talked with Martha Daghlian for ArtsWatch’s “Vision 2020” series about the joys and challenges of running an adventurous art gallery on North Mississippi Avenue featuring work from a wide range of artists who identify as QTPoC (Queer Trans People of Color). Because of the Covid-19 crisis, their Ori Gallery has since shifted to an online presence. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

And how could any of us have? Yes, news reports buried on the inside pages of the newspapers alerted us to some new virus very far away, but it didn’t seem like much to get alarmed about. Then things began to build, until, come March, the virus was all very real, and all over the place, and in spite of a determined right-wing campaign to persuade people that it was all fake news and the disease was a hoax, the world began to shut down.

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Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

Watching music at the end of the longest year

When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Death and recirculation

Nightlights, soundwalks, and snowed-in traditions

I’ve spent a lot of this last month thinking about the idea of tradition, as year’s end and the various solstice-adjacent holidays bring us back to annual traditions. Whether that be certain films or music, family events, or whatever else, there’s this feeling of recirculation, a point of return necessary to bring in the new year. But this year the holidays take on a more somber tone, as we may have to leave some of our favorite traditions behind.

Winter has long symbolized death. The sun–the celestial body that brings forth all life on Earth, the ur-symbol if there ever was one–reaches its lowest point, and days become shortest (in the Northern Hemisphere) on or around the twenty-first. In Portland, the sky becomes overcast for months on end–the same weather that makes the Brits so stereotypically dour. It seems ironic that humans have for millennia celebrated the nadir of this death season. But the inevitability of rebirth in spring is what gives hope for the future.

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Book ’em, Dano. (Online, of course.)

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland Book Festival is virtually yours; art around the state; dance on film; October musical surprise; two remembrances

A BIG SLICK BROCHURE FROM LITERARY ARTS PLOPPED INTO MY MAILBOX a day or two ago, announcing the imminent arrival of this year’s Portland Book Festival (the festival formerly known as Wordstock). The good news is that what has traditionally been a one-day event cramming Taylor Swift-sized crowds into the streets of Portland’s downtown Cultural District will now spawl across two weeks, Nov. 5-21. The expected news is that, of course, all of the events will be online. Portland’s long been a hotbed of live literary celebrations, from poetry slams and open mics in bars to celebrity author talks in bookstores to this great big annual bash that lures the devotees of a solitary artistic passion – reading – into a cultural swarm of conviviality. The necessity of making this year’s festival virtual puts a new twist on the oddity of an extroverted event for introverts, which will now by an introverted event for introverts, simulating extroversion.

Intro- or extro-, it’s a good-looking festival, with more than a hundred authors, a full table of contents of classes and events, and some top-of-the-line featured speakers. Maybe the biggest current-events voice among those will belong to Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which argues that America’s race problem is more accurately a matter of caste, to be compared with India’s caste system and Nazi Germany’s hierarchy of citizens. A key aspect of caste is that people can’t escape the caste into which they were born, meaning that in the United States, the conflation of caste and race both muddies the distinction and makes it all the more indelible. It’s a book that clearly and potently summarizes current research, and gains much of its power from Wilkerson’s impassioned observations and retellings of encounters in her own life. The featured fiction speaker will be Jess Walter, the best-selling novelist who lives in Spokane, author of Beautiful RuinsThe Financial Lives of the Poets, and the new The Cold Millions. And it’s quite wonderful and lovely that Margaret Atwood, the great Canadian writer and author of The Handmaid’s Tale, an essential novel of the 20th century that remains unnervingly pertinent in the 2020s, is being featured in conversation about her poetry. Writers’ worlds are often more complex, and therefore interesting, than their greatest hits.
 



CHARLES GRANT, MOVING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER


Charles Grant collaborates with Jessica Wallenfels to add a vivid sense of movement to his performance in his short play-turned-film “Matter.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

CHARLES GRANT’S MATTER AT HAND. The Portland actor/writer’s new version of his 2017 short play Matter (he now refers to it as Matter 2.0) takes it off the stage and into streamable movie form with the aid of videographer and editor Tamera Lyn, director James Dixon, sound designer Sharath Patel, and lighting designer Thyra Hartshorn. One other crucial collaborator – movement director Jessica Wallenfels, of co-producer (with Portland Playhouse) Many Hats Collaboration, helped Grant create a vivid sense of motion in his solo show, Jamuna Chiarini writes. Chiarini talks with Grant and Wallenfels about how the movement and the script work together to amplify Grant’s story of the constant threat of police brutality and gun violence that Black Americans face. 
 

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Chamber Music NW: never waste a good crisis

Forced to quickly shift from live to virtual performances, the venerable Portland institution achieves surprising intimacy and success

By the middle of March, Chamber Music Northwest’s leaders knew their upcoming summer festival would have to change. The spreading pandemic was clearly going to make the kind of crowded concert halls common in the annual summer festival dangerous at best, illegal at worst. How could the festival, approaching its 50th anniversary, respond? 

I know a lot of folks enjoy classical music performance precisely for the sense of grandeur and occasion and the chance to dress up. But for me, CMNW — except for the performers’ dorky, ill-fitting ‘50s-style white dinner jackets that no one looks good in — has always been about casual informality. From its earliest days with audience members sweating on cushions in a Reed College cafeteria to today’s college and club concert halls, CMNW’s relaxed atmosphere contributes to that feeling of accessibility. How would the festival be able to recapture it on screen instead of in person?  

(L-R) Incoming Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim played Bartok with their predecessor, David Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Like every other festival and performing arts organization, CMNW was entering uncertain territory. But unlike other summer festivals, which mostly happen in July and August, CMNW wanted to stick to its June opening, when performers and listeners would presumably have already blocked out. So it would have no examples to guide its response. “We’d been talking weekly with similar organizations around the country since the pandemic began,” Executive Director Peter Bilotta remembers. “We realized no one had a model for doing this. Being one of the first festivals occurring this summer, we essentially pioneered the model.”

That model turned out to be a surprising success — and it’s influencing other music festivals beyond Oregon.

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Riding the musical merry-go-round

ArtsWatch Weekly: Thanks and farewell to David Shifrin, music virtual & live, news briefs, a gallery sampler, saving public art, left turns

IN A WORLD SO VOLATILE AND ABSURD that the president of the United States declares war on the post office (!), it might seem difficult to find a solid rock of stability, something to cling to with assurance and trust through snow or rain or heat or gloom of night. Yet for forty years David Shifrin has been just such a rock in Oregon: a musical anchor, guiding and safekeeping the estimable Chamber Music Northwest to a creative blend of traditional and contemporary music-making through a combination of grace, good humor, generosity, vision, variety, and a positively swinging clarinet.

David Shifrin, after forty years still caught up in the music. Photo courtesy Chamber Music Northwest

With the wrapping-up of the chamber festival’s virtual summer season, which drew 50,000 listeners worldwide for its 18 streamed concerts, Shifrin is finally passing the torch. Though he’ll continue to perform with Chamber Music Northwest on occasion, he’s passing the festival’s artistic leadership to the married team of pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim. In A hearty encore for David Shifrin, Angela Allen takes a look at Shifrin’s four decades of leadership and talks with several of the musicians who know him best, and to a person admire him. The reviews are in, and from his colleagues as well as the festival’s many fans, they are glowing.

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A hearty encore for David Shifrin

After 40 years, the clarinetist supreme retires as director of Chamber Music Northwest. His colleagues give him a round of applause.

Even the most ardent classical-music enthusiasts may not know several details about celebrated clarinetist David Shifrin, who retired this summer after 40 years as artistic director of Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest.

  • He uses synthetic — not cane — reeds.
  • His distant relative Lalo Schifrin (different spelling), who came to Hollywood from Argentina, persuaded David Shifrin’s parents to buy him a clarinet when David was growing up in Queens, New York. Pianist Schifrin, now 88, composed the theme from Mission Impossible, and David Shifrin, 18 years his junior, decades later commissioned him to compose pieces for the clarinet that ended up on the Aleph Label in 2006, Shifrin Plays Schifrin. The compositions were played at CMNW.
David Shifrin: a song and a smile. Photo courtesy CMNW
  • Hearing Benny Goodman play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and “lots and lots of swing” in the 1956 movie The Benny Goodman Story assured Shifrin that he had picked the right instrument. “I just fell in love with the clarinet,” said Shifrin, who at 13 attended Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Surrounded by serious young players, including violinist sisters Ida and Ani Kavafian (who perform often at Chamber Music Northwest), he convinced himself that to be a musician, “I’d have to work very, very hard, practice and practice, and be the best I could be.” That summer, he thought he’d give the career a shot. He’s never recalibrated his aim.

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