david shifrin

Chamber of Musical Delights

From world premieres to brilliant performances, Angela Allen looks back on highlights of July's Chamber Music Northwest Festival

Chamber Music Northwest was the first major Portland arts group to go live indoors since the pandemic with its Reflect/Rejoice summer festival June 28 to July 25 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

And boy, did its month of live music— not to mention its streamed concerts continuing through Aug. 31 at CMNW’s At-HOME Summer Festival — make a splash, even if the live audience was vastly reduced from former festivals. Concerts in previous years (not counting 2020, which was not live due to Covid) averaged 450 people. This season’s events were set up for about 150 people, socially distanced in pods, with bleachers removed from the auditorium. July 22’s “Reflecting upon Classics’’ audience hit 229, the festival’s largest, with extra chairs moved in for last-minute ticket-holders. Masks were required and picnics and wine were verboten, but the music was live and alive. The musicians who played it might have been happier than the audience who listened to it. Many had not played since Covid began.

Here are some festival highlights if you missed it – or if you want to catch the streamed At-HOME taped versions:

Chamber Music Northwest’s new co-artistic directors, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, led a highly successful re-entry into indoors concerts. Photo © Pilvax Studio

New and accomplished: CMNW artistic leaders, as of 2020, are the team of Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim. Their joy of playing is infectious, and it showed in their spectacular musicianship throughout the festival. Not only was their programming varied, full of new work, tough pieces, rarely heard composers’ work, and new musicians, but these two can play anything—Chien on piano and Kim on violin. And guess what? Not one Beethoven piece in three weeks of music was to be found. Remember the year that every concert featured Beethoven? I do.

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At CMNW, an ever-flowing ‘Spring’

Earl Lee conducts a brilliant chamber version of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" that will also be available to view from home

Orchestra maestro Leonard Slatkin tells a story about Appalachian Spring and its composer Aaron Copland, who was deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s in 1987. Several people were visiting him in his home in Peekskill, N.Y., and suddenly Copland, who had been unresponsive, rose out of his chair,  walked to the piano and played six notes. Those notes comprise the two chords that form the backbone of his best known piece. It was as if to say, Slatkin remarked before conducting the Detroit Symphony in a  2014 performance of Appalachian Spring, that Copland wanted to  convey that “I am still here” — or maybe, “that’s what I want you to remember of me.”

It is the chime of those final chords, at the end of the often-performed American suite, that sums up conductor Earl Lee’s favorite part.

Earl Lee conducting the chamber version of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photo: Tom Emerson

Lee, who is also a renowned cellist, led 13 chamber musicians in a magical Appalachian Spring July 8 and 9 at Chamber Music Northwest’s performance at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. (It’ll also be available to view from home via videostream, July 22-Aug. 31.) The familiar 20-minute piece could have been lost in the midst of unofficial David Shifrin Week. The beloved clarinetist was back on stage playing in several concerts after retiring in 2020 as CMNW’s 40-year artistic director, and the audience was happy to hear him playing his instrument. 

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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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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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MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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