claude debussy

Chamber Music Northwest: music of defiance and transcendence

Concerts of French music implicate sinner, soldier, and savior

Chamber Music Northwest celebrated Bastille Day 2018 with music by two of France’s greatest composers and two of the myriad composers they inspired. The first program featured mostly music by Stravinsky, who spent many of his most creative years in Paris, with a bit of Debussy, Jean Cartan, and Jacques Ibert. The second included more Debussy alongside quartets by New York composer Andy Akiho and Olivier Messiaen. Together, these concerts told a story of faith in defiance of war, hope in defiance of death, love in defiance of fear.

The first concert opened with a clarinet solo, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, performed not by CMNW Artistic Director and clarinetist extraordinaire David Shifrin but instead by one of his students. Seattle Symphony principal Benjamin Lulich’s placid and friendly performance of Stravinsky’s “written-out portraits of improvisation” offered highly detailed melodic contouring and an especially impressive a niente. A small start, but a good one.

Ransom Wilson played Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson

Another solo followed, and our tale of devils and soldiers commenced. Debussy’s famous ode to Pan—1913’s Syrinx—is standard flute repertoire, so it’s not really surprising that Ransom Wilson performed it from memory, but playing off book gave Wilson the chance to stalk the stage and work the crowd with his suggestive J. Peterman eyebrows, invoking the seductively devilish Pan with every cocky gesture.

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March Music Moderne preview: celebrating Debussy

Festival commemorates the creativity and influence of composer Claude Debussy with concerts of his music and new works by Oregon composers

While everyone is checking their brackets for one kind of March Madness (go Ducks!), some of us are equally excited by the return of another crazy rite of spring. March Music Moderne has been on hiatus for while, so it’s even more thrilling to welcome back one of Oregon’s most fascinating music melanges, because it spotlights music you can’t hear at other Oregon classical music concerts, primarily composers who write or wrote music in the modernist tradition. And unlike most overpriced classical music concerts, March Modness is always free, subsidized by Priest (whose wealth lies in his musical generosity rather than negotiable currency) himself.

Actually, though, this edition of MMM superficially resembles Ye Olde Classical Music in at least one way: what I call necromusicophilia, the worship of dead composers. Classical music institutions, desperately needing a news hook to provide an excuse to pay more than usual attention to composers who aren’t going to be releasing any albums of new material or embarking on tours, tend to focus on round number birthdays or, more macabrely, death days.

Claude Debussy, 1908.

For Claude Debussy, that day came exactly 100 years ago Sunday, when the French composer died of cancer during World War I as German shells exploded near his Paris home. But why would the generally mid-20th century March Music Moderne’s three concerts this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, and associated other activities this month, commemorate Debussy’s demise?

One answer may be that it was one of his groundbreaking works, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that turned MMMpresario Bob Priest onto classical music, rescuing him from rock music’s gutters and vaulting him into the palace of — nah, not really. Priest still cherishes Jimi Hendrix, Prince and other rock and pop deities. And as we’ll see, this festival includes far more new music — and by Oregon composers — than old.

But Priest is far from alone in his Debussy devotion. This isn’t the only centennial commemoration of his death happening around the world this year. There are days when he’s my favorite composer too. And it’s a sign of Debussy’s artistic significance and variety that he’s legitimately claimed as a major inspiration by many if not most composers who followed — modernist, post-mod, and otherwise, including one of Priest’s prime mentors, Olivier Messiaen. That’s how rich was his palette — from La Mer’s turbulent seascapes to Children’s Corner’s playful naivete to Pelleas and Melisande’s shadowy moods and so much more. And that’s why Debussy makes an appropriate centerpiece of a modern music festival: not just for his past accomplishments, but also for his future impact, which continues here and now.

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