ian david rosenbaum

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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Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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