Daniel Phillips

At CMNW, great musicians handled Andrew Norman’s ‘Gran Turismo’

String pyrotechnics lit up the Fourth of July for Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival


“Higher! Louder! Faster!”

That’s how 36-year-old composer Andrew Norman describes the “emphatic trajectory” of his 2004 “Gran Turismo.” Eight violinists played this violins-on-speed piece as part of Chamber Music Northwest’s “The Power of Strings” concert Fourth of July weekend (July 3 and 4) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

The audience seemed to enjoy the ride, and if I didn’t concur entirely, at least I appreciated its wit.

Two groups of world-renowned violinist siblings—Ani and Ida Kavafian and Daniel and Todd Phillips—were part of this astoundingly accomplished group who, at quicksilver pace, exchanged rising and falling phrasing (imagine race cars circling a track), contentious string conversations, and swift-and-swifter tempos. And yes, at times for me, it conveyed a kind of screeching atonality similar to trying to start a stubborn engine.

Chamber Music Northwest's Power of Strings concert featured many summer festival regulars/Photo by Tom Emerson

Chamber Music Northwest’s Power of Strings concert featured many summer festival regulars/Photo by Tom Emerson

Certainly this piece “needed” to be played in Portland, after grand reviews from important critics praising it for its “Chaplinesque humor” (LA Times) “staggering imagination” (Boston Globe), and “daring juxtapositions and dazzling colors” (New York Times). Inspired by a car-racing video game and visual rhythm in Futurist paintings, such as in Giacomo Balla’s 1913-14 speeding-car paintings, Norman’s work was thankfully delivered to us by very good violinists: la crème de la crème. This piece could turn painful with less accomplished musicians.