chamber music northwest

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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Music Notes: gone virtual

With so many performances going online, our news roundup follows suit with video and audio from Oregon musicians

With so many performances going online, our news roundup follows suit with video and audio from Oregon musicians for your home streaming enjoyment

Since we’re all streaming instead of attending these days, this latest edition of our irregular music news roundup accordingly boasts lots of  recent music related video and audio treats to tune into while we impatiently await the return of live music. And it’s replete with announcements of upcoming music seasons gone virtual. Since for the most part we can’t actually be there, we’ll just have to be square — or actually (checks screen dimensions) rectangular.

Double Dash offered a behind-the-scenes peek at the improvisational creative process.

However, live music is creeping back in occasional, socially distanced performances featuring a few musicians and spaced-out audience members. Last time, we told you about the Driveway Jazz Series (streamable socially distanced outdoor performances by top Portland jazz artists held in front of a bungalow in Southeast Portland, which continues every Friday at 4 pm), Boom Arts’s parking lot shows, and Eugene Symphony/Delgani Quartet cellist Eric Alterman’s solo recitals (featuring his own music and J.S. Bach’s) in a Eugene park. Now comes news that pianist Hunter Noack’s In a Landscape project and the Oregon Garden have each found ways to bring the music back to live. 

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Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage. Plus: polka-dot square, Black & classical, a big gift.

FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.
 

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

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Virtual Festivals

Oregon festivals keep the music spreading online and in other virus-resistant ways

Summer is festival season in Oregon music, and last month, we noted how several major Oregon summer festivals were making the transition from onstage to online. The parade continues in July and August, beginning with what’s always the major musical event of Independence Day weekend. As ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks explained in Blues Minus the Waterfront, Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival is shifting its annual July 4 show from one large stream — the bank of the Willamette River — to a mostly virtual one. The fest will stream highlights of past festivals on KOIN 6 over the air and online July 4, and on KBOO 90.7 FM and online July 4&5. But happily, the festival has also managed to safely add a live component. Instead of grooving to the blues in big, virus-friendly crowds, Blues Fest Bandwagon brings performances to select driveways, cul-de-sacs, and front porches in the Portland metro area Friday and Saturday.

Amenta Abioto performs at Pavement on July 18.

That’s not the only show to venture out to non traditional outdoor spaces for distanced live performance. On July 18, Risk/Reward Festival and Portland’s Boom Arts theater company present Pavement: pop-up performances in a public parking lot on Portland’s Central Eastside. Where? Excellent question, and to find the answer, and see and hear music by Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi, Portland Opera, and Amenta Abioto, plus some of the city’s top dance and theater artists, you’ll need a ticket. All these free streams we’ve enjoyed are a treat, but artists still need to eat and pay rent.

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I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

The Bad News

•  To the surprise of no one but the disappointment of many, Portland Opera announced the postponement of the first two operas of its 2020/21 season, necessitated by Oregon’s pandemic-provoked prohibition on large public gatherings through at least September. I suppose we can all live without Tosca for awhile, since she seems to spring back to life every few months in endless resurrections/recyclings, but it really stings to have to wait longer for the Oregon premiere of a chamber opera by an actual living composer, Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s 1991 Frida, about the eventful life of the great Mexican painter. Both powerful women should appear on Portland stages sometime next year, with exact dates to be announced later. Meanwhile, enjoy this video of Portland Opera Resident Artist Camille Sherman singing Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” from the balcony of the company’s building on the Willamette River.

• Another seasonal opera source, Portland SummerFest, also announced the cancellation of its Opera in the Park, a consequence of Portland Parks & Recreation’s pandemic-induced cancellation of all summer activities in city parks.

• After the cancellation of the Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest’s live performances, another — and much newer — summer classical music institution is on hold. In a Landscape, which happens outside at various scenic Oregon natural venues, would seem a good candidate for the kind of physical distancing needed to safely attend, but “concerns about travel and crowd limitations, along with the risk of exposure for our audience and crew” have induced impresario/pianist Hunter Noack to hold off on this summer’s series, with hopes of possible resumption of a few performances.

•  Another Oregon classical music institution, Musica Maestrale, announced the indefinite suspension of its concert plans, pending some level of certainty about the resumption of live Oregon musical performance. During the meanwhilst, founder/lutenist Hideki Yamaya has, like many other performers, been scouring the Renaissance/Baroque organization’s video archives and posting past performances on YouTube

• The Newport Symphony is taking a similar tack for its annual Independence Day show, replacing live performance with a radio broadcast of an encore performance on KNPT and KYTE at 4 pm July 4, followed by a 7-10 pm posting on the orchestra’s website.

• Given the almost complete cancellation of live music this year, it’s not surprising that American Public Radio has also canceled its weekly live radio show, Live from Here, hosted by Portland mandolinist/ singer/ composer Chris Thile. The ebullient successor to A Prairie Home Companion reached 2.6 million listeners per week over 600 public radio stations, but “while this news fills me with sadness, I understand the decision,” Thile told Billboard, “ as my extraordinary teammates and I conceived of Live From Here as a celebration of live, collaborative audible art, and there’s just no telling when it could be that again.” The silver lining might be more time for Thile to make music, like his just released album with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, and with other projects like his Punch Brothers band.

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell

The Good News

On Sunday, the Oregon Symphony inaugurates a free weekly online series. The seven-part Essential Sounds spotlights “people who are holding our community together during this time of crisis,” the orchestra’s press release explains. “Over the course of this free, seven-part series created by Oregon Symphony Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane and director Holcombe Waller, you will experience dozens of heartfelt musical performances, each accompanied by stirring imagery inspired by the stories of essential workers in a particular sector. You will hear stories like that of an Oregon Symphony percussionist, whose cousin went from frontline healthcare worker to COVID patient – and his musical dedication to her.”

Special guests include Portland songwriters Storm Large and Amenta Abioto, and recurring segments like “Composers in Quarantine Making Dinner” spotlight how prominent contemporary American composers like Nico Muhly, Jessie Montgomery, and Missy Mazzoli are responding artistically to the pandemic.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman

• The Oregon Symphony is also premiering Symphony Storytime, an original video series designed for kids seven and under. Each episode presents a children’s story narrated by a master storyteller, with accompaniment by an OSO musician performing the book’s “soundtrack,” as well as a lesson about the instrument featured in the episode. Nine English episodes and four Spanish episodes will be released on June 25, July 2, and July 9.

Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong has added a Thursday night live show, featuring talks with other musicians, to the orchestra’s educational Musical Mondays stream.

• Portland’s Big Mouth Society is hosting weekly online community salons Tuesdays at 6 pm, featuring music, spoken word content and “heartfelt conversation.”

 • Live jazz is scarce these days, but Driveway Jazz Series, a socially distanced outdoor jazz series, is bringing top musicians like singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Darrell Grant to a driveway in front of a bungalow in Southeast Portland, and streamed out to the universe.

Portland Baroque Orchestra is planning to stream its entire next season, reserving the possibility of returning to live audience productions if virus and authorities permit. And it’s also going to use its spiffy streaming technology to allow other Portland artists to do the same.

•  One more Oregon classical music institution holds out enough hope that the music will resume to extend the contract of its artistic director. Eugene’s Oregon Mozart Players announced that Kelly Kuo will remain as artistic director and conductor through the 2023-2024 season.

Kelly Kuo re-ups with Oregon Mozart Players.

•  Though Sunriver Music Festival has suspended its August concert series, it’s still planning to stage its annual Young Artists Scholarship Concert in late August, and to award $35,000 to classical music students for next school  year. The organization has reopened its offices and plans further announcements about upcoming performances soon.

• Fueled by strong reviews, Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana’s new CD , The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, topped the Billboard classical charts for three weeks during its 15-week run there. You can watch a documentary about the making of the world’s first vocal album to be recorded entirely in live virtual acoustics, as well as video from the original live concert, at the group’s website.

•  Many ArtsWatch readers have enjoyed performances at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, including Newmark Theater, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the rest. They and other visitor venues found themselves with lots of unconsumed food and beverages for canceled events. So Metro, the regional planning organization that runs the venues, donated those perishables to groups that are feeding hungry Oregonians. The donations “have helped in providing 11,549 meals to our houseless guests here at the mission and for our search and rescue program,” said Lori Quinney, Union Gospel Mission food service director.

• Portland pianist Michael Allen Harrison has long staged an annual benefit concert and other programs to boost music accessibility to children of all economic backgrounds. Harrison’s July 25 Play It Forward virtual fundraiser supports no-cost music lessons and instruments for Portland youth by delivering to donors homes a music-filled “supper club” featuring live music, dinner and wine pairings.

• Two Portland-based music organizations, Chamber Music Northwest ($20,000) and My Voice Music ($15,000) were among the 14 Oregon arts recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts this month. And Cappella Romana just scored a a $68,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the work of Cappella Romana’s music director and founder, Dr. Alexander Lingas, who will lead a team of scholars to produce a volume of medieval Byzantine chants from the Greek monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. He’ll also conduct research to create “Christmas 1400: A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court,” a new concert program of Byzantine and Latin music, slated to be performed in 2021.

• George Floyd was many things: family man, religious man, athlete, friend, victim of homicidal racist police state violence, maybe symbol of long overdue change. But he was also a musician. In the wake of his murder and the national protest movement it sparked, even more than usual, we need to hear from artists of color. Eureka Ensemble has compiled a useful guide to African American composers and organizations that offers “ links to either a) music by Black American composers created as a counter to the racism they faced; or b) information about Black-led/Black-founded groups working towards inclusion and equality.” Music from Other Minds offers a more contemporary oriented playlist of Black composers here.

Musicians aren’t the only performers stifled by the virus crisis, but music is no doubt providing solace to them too. Of course, Oregon’s top major professional team boasts a bona fide professional artist, rapper Dame DOLLA, in its starting lineup, and along with being a good dad to his young son and joining a protest against racist police violence across Portland’s Burnside Bridge, he’s been laying down some tracks — including this one speaking directly about the continuing racist outrages perpetrated against African Americans.

Another perennial NBA All Star, Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who grew up in Oregon while his dad Mychal patrolled the painted area for those same Portland Trail Blazers, is recuperating from injury and presumably getting through this season’s virus-enforced hiatus with the help of meditation, nature sounds (of course), and classical music. We await a study that would provide arts advocates ammunition by documenting a causal relationship between listening to, say, Chopin, and sinking three point shots at an alarming rate. 

•  Those of us who miss the chance to hear live musical theater like opera and musicals can sympathize with a pair of Oregon Broadway music fans who made a parody video of show tunes they loved (from Frozen to Sweeney Todd to Hamilton and more) – rewritten about life during quarantine. Actor/singer Julia Belanova and writer/director Joel Kwartler ask that if you enjoy their video “please consider a donation to the actors fund.”

Have some more news about Oregon music that ArtsWatch readers should know? Let us know in the comments section below, or email music@orartswatch.org. Meanwhile, enjoy a little serendipitous patriotic musical harmony from Portland State University, whose graduation ceremony fell victim to the virus. But that didn’t stop the music, thanks to a Portland Opera singer and a PSU grad student.

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