Evanna Chiew

Chamber Music Northwest review: New music showcase

Festival’s New@Noon series spotlights contemporary compositions

Is chamber music only for old people? Anyone who attends chamber music concerts in Oregon and takes a look at the audience’s relatively advanced age must be filled with both admiration and worry. Admiration for so many senior Oregonians who continue to pursue the pleasure of live music making, which at its best offers thrills no recording can match. And concern about the question: when a good portion of that audience is no longer able to make it to shows in a few years, who will support live chamber music in Oregon? Pollyannas postulate that the chamber music audience is always old, and that today’s youngsters will repopulate the seats when they’ve attained sufficient income and leisure time to do so, but informed observers like Greg Sandow say the data don’t back that claim, that the classical music audience is demonstrably older than it was three or four generations ago. And the fact that so many classical music presenters are trying all sorts of gimmicks to lure younger audiences suggests that they recognize the looming demographic disaster.

To its credit, Chamber Music Northwest has been trying hard to avoid it. A few years ago, the venerable Portland presenting series started its Protege Project, which brought younger performers to town — twenty and thirty-somethings who represent some of the cream of the rising crop of younger classical musicians, many of them students of CMNW’s veteran core — and set them loose in the festival’s informal Club Concerts in indie rock clubs and in the festival’s other shows.

But while the age demographic onstage grew younger, for the first years at least, the heads in the seats remained stubbornly gray and white. While it was gratifying to see CMNW’s surprisingly adventurous older audience members gamely venturing out to new venues, the early results (and my own anecdotal observations) didn’t show a dramatic drop in the age of attendees. Last year, the festival moved some shows from a ritzy private school far from Portland’s urban action to Portland State University’s splendid Lincoln Hall downtown, a venue easier for urban hipsters to reach.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson's String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

The Jasper String Quartet performs Chris Rogerson’s String Quartet No. 1 at Chamber Music Northwest.

And CMNW continues to rise to the challenge. In introducing several of this summer’s concerts — and not just those devoted primarily to recent music — executive director Peter Bilotta made a point of emphasizing the festival’s commitment to new music, including this summer’s seven premieres. CMNW puts its money where his mouth is too, since it commissioned — that is, paid composers to write — several of them.

This summer’s 45th annual festival, which concluded at the end of last month, introduced yet another attempt at rejuvenation: longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin conceived the New@Noon series, which, along with sounding all 21st century hip with that twitterific @ symbol, presented three concerts of music by living composers at noon on Fridays at Lincoln Hall. How did it work? We’ll take a look at the shows in this story, and draw some conclusions in part two.


Chamber Music Northwest review: Voluptuous voice and viola

Violist Neubauer and singer Chiew make a potent pairing.


First things first. Unless you have a particular aversion to mezzo-sopranos or the music of Maurice Ravel, go hear Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Artist Evanna Chiew sing his cycle Madagascan Songs (Chansons madécasses) tonight at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Not only will you hear a rarely performed late Ravel masterpiece – forget Bolero– you’ll hear it sung by what may be the perfect voice for it. I haven’t heard any previews, but Chiew has the precision to meld thrillingly with its sometimes crunchy chords, and yet a warmth which should make the sweeter sections of the work glow.

Maybe because this is Portland, otherwise known as Beervana, “malty” is the adjective that popped into my head at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall last night as I heard Chiew singing three youthful, almost impressionistic songs by the early 20th century British composer Frank Bridge, plus elegiac songs by Jules Massenet and pioneering Russian composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky. Sweet but substantial, and toasty warm all the way down. And yet how often, with voices described as “warm,” does each note seem smeared with the goo of poorly shaped vibrato? None of that with Chiew. With vibrato or without, there was never any doubt where she was singing.

Singer Evanna Chiew also performed last week in Chamber Music Northwest's New@Noon series with clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Singer Evanna Chiew also performed last week in Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon series with clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Nor was she by any means the only performer giving such delight. The concert theme was “Celebrating the Viola,” in particular the viola of longtime CMNW stalwart Paul Neubauer. All five songs included viola as well as piano, and Neubauer’s radiant tone created an intimately balanced partnership with Chiew’s voice. Neubauer started the concert out front with Franz Schubert’s tuneful “Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano” D. 821, which these days is usually played in viola transcription since the arpeggione is long extinct. It was an expert and engaging performance, but what stayed with me were not the tunes so much as the slow brooding middle movement, in particular a passage where the viola supplied a dark bass line to pianistic arabesques above. The piano is a powerful instrument, but Neubauer showed the viola can stand up to it and more.

He needed a willing piano partner to make the point, and he had one in the acclaimed young Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who also did the honors in the evening’s finale, Robert Schumann’s riotous and ground-breaking Piano Quintet op. 44. Barnatan proved to be great addition to CMNW’s piano roster. Not only was his balance with the strings well-judged at all volume levels and his execution nearly flawless, he also seemed in rapt communication with the other players and radiated a joy in performance that was infectious.

Thus he joined perfectly with ever-genial cellist Fred Sherry, who has entranced festival -goers for years with his consummate artistry in this respect. Not that the more pensive string players, Neubauer and violinists Daniel Phillips and Nikki Chooi, came up short. Neubauer had his moments in the sun in this work too, and shone even against such formidable sonic forces. There’s no need to emote like pop stars, but this isn’t the recording studio. People are watching, and a little extra obvious passion can make a real difference. Especially in this work, which for all its drive and invention sometimes falls into cookie-cutter phrases, a characteristic weakness of Schumann’s. With everybody on stage obviously (or at least apparently) having the time of their lives, we in the audience will have too good a time to notice.

Which brings me back to Evanna Chiew. I have to admit I was so wrapped up in her voice that I don’t have a clear memory of her stage manner, but that’s a good thing. I have a pet peeve about the standard, nearly meaningless gestures so common at vocal recitals, and I would surely have remembered those. She’s a natural. Go hear her tonight.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, mostly of what are typically called “art songs.” He believes the best art songs can stand next to any symphony or string quartet as the highest expression of the composer’s art.