imani winds

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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Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage. Plus: polka-dot square, Black & classical, a big gift.

FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.
 

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

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Oregon Music 2018: looking outward

Socially engaged sounds, multimedia productions, and other trends in 2018 Oregon music

Last year’s music roundup first looked homeward. ArtsWatch’s 2017 music coverage focused, as we have from the outset, on our state’s creative culture: music conceived and composed in Oregon. We touched a lot of other bases, too of course, and homegrown music remained a touchstone our 2018 coverage and this recap.

But as with other Oregon artists this year, Oregon music increasingly gazed outward — and often askance — at our nation’s continuing descent into turmoil, division, lies, and political corruption, starting right at the top and oozing down. Therefore, so did much of our music coverage. So we’ll start with what ArtsWatch’s David Bates called…

“Socially Engaged” sounds

Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic and choir Resonance Ensemble devoted entire seasons to contemporary classical music that responds to today’s social issues.

Resonance Ensemble preview: questions of faith
Choral organization’s ‘Souls’ concert is part of a season-long musical exploration of timely social concerns
Brett Campbell, February 23

‘Bodies’ review: Pride is a verb
Resonance Ensemble’s Pride Week concert commemorates LGBTQIA community’s struggles and celebrates its creativity.
Matthew Andrews, August 14

Resonance Ensemble

Resonance Ensemble: amplifying ‘Hidden Voices’
Vocal ensemble’s collaborative concert features musical responses to experiences marked by racism and resistance.
Matthew Andrews, November 17

Fear No Music: music of migration and more
New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development.
Matthew Andrews, December 10

New music ensemble Fear No Music

Other classical music organizations also presented issue-oriented new music.

Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs
Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers
Matthew Andrews, January 9

Lawrence Brownlee preview: a journey
In a Friends of Chamber Music recital, the celebrated tenor sings a Romantic classic and a new, timely composition about America’s most pressing crisis
Damien Geter, April 2

Shredding it at “Pass the Mic” camp.

Portland Meets Portland
The innovative “Pass the Mic” summer music camp pairing music pros and young refugees and immigrants will give a free concert Friday.
Friderike Heuer, July 14

David Ludwig: telling the earth’s story through music
Composer’s Chamber Music Northwest commission inspired by ancient Earth, threat of extinction from human-caused climate change.
Matthew Andrews, July 27

Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit
Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, ’emergency shelter intake form’ humanizes homelessness.
Interview by Matthew Andrews, August 28

Multimedia

Besides addressing today’s social issues, another trend among some classical music organizations in 2018 was updating their presentations by augmenting music with other art forms such as theater, literature, visual arts, and more. At ArtsWatch, we try to provide constructive feedback on how these often experimental productions worked, so we can help risk-taking artists move forward into unexplored territories — without leaving the audience behind.

Fin de Cinema’s “Beauty and the Beast”: spirit of discovery
Latest mix of classic film and Portland contemporary music captures Cocteau creation’s mix of beauty and grit.
Douglas Detrick, January 23

Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Cappella PYP, Portland State choirs, and In Mulieribus perform Richard Einhorn’s ‘Voices of Light’ during a screening of Dreyer’s film Friday.

‘Voices of Light’ preview: trial by fire
Camerata PYP, In Mulieribus, Portland State University choirs perform Richard Einhorn’s popular oratorio ‘Voices of Light’ with Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’
Brett Campbell, January 25

“Tesla” lab report
Harmonic Laboratory’s ambitious experimental multimedia performance produces mixed results.
Brett Campbell, February 6

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Imani Winds: unapologetically bold

Adventurous ensemble’s residency at Chamber Music Northwest culminates in accessible, original music that embraces change and American culture

What’s special about Imani Winds, besides their overall badassery as a woodwind quintet, is that the group boasts two composers—horn player Jeff Scott and flutist Valerie Coleman. Although Coleman is taking a break from performing with the group, her presence (physical and spiritual) added considerably to the joy the group brought to their recently concluded residency with Chamber Music Northwest.

Over the last year and a half, the quintet performed a whole slew of bold, intimate concerts around Portland, in the usual venues (Lincoln Hall, Kaul Auditorium) as well as less conventional spots like Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Revolution Hall, and the OMSI Planetarium. They’ve even routinely hosted an instrument petting zoo, where children can come play with the group’s flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

Imani Winds: Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-18 artists in residence

The group also got better from the beginning of their residency to the end, as their usual repertoire (arrangements of Rite of Spring and The Planets, commissioned works by Simon Shaheen and Reena Esmail) gradually gave way to a lovely collaboration with local dance troupe BodyVox in April: a delirious evening of film and dance set to arrangements of Chopin and Brahms (and Scott’s Homage to Duke), Imani performing right there on stage with all the dancers. Finally we came to this summer’s festival and the large-scale compositions they were all talking about last year: Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane and Coleman’s Muhammad Ali portrait Shot Gun Houses.

After all that, I was sorry to see them go.

Great Scott

Imani has always had several Jeff Scott compositions in its repertoire, but his Passion for Bach and Coltrane—premiered a few years back and performed at Kaul Auditorium on July 5th—marked the apotheosis of his time as a composer during the group’s CMNW residency. His other compositions have been good, sure (last year’s performance of his “Titilayo” in Whitsell Auditorium being a high point), but this was something else altogether, a real highlight of the entire fest.

Sadly, it’s relatively rare for important music to also be good music, and it’s especially rare for referential music to have any real originality, but Scott handled his interpolations of Bach and Coltrane with grace, confidence, and a unique compositional voice which seems to have matured just in the couple years since I started listening to him. I felt his original music was the Passion’s best feature, the more overt references functioning mainly as contextualizing brackets and launching points for the pure joy of playing with other people’s music—a joy that classical musicians can sometimes lose sight of, since they’re almost always playing other people’s music.

Composer Jeff Scott and poet A.B. Spellman chat during pre-concert CMNW Musical Conversation. Photo: Judy Blankenship

“I wanted to combine the two arts I love the most: classical music and jazz,” Scott said in a pre-concert talk with poet A.B. Spellman. Bach and Coltrane made an ideal meeting point, as both were engaged with the search “for oneness with spirituality.” Though Spellman had doubts about classical and jazz meldings, saying they are “very seldom accomplished, though many have tried,” he praised Scott’s music, saying the composer “does both forms with integrity, with a bona fide jazz trio and two classical groups.”

The two classical groups were Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet, and the bona fide jazz trio consisted of pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith (all but Imani playing their CMNW premieres). The poet himself was on stage too, nestled in with the band, reading his poetry, weaving it in and out of the music. “Through beauty, past knowledge, here I am, Dear John, back at the beginning, better.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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MusicWatch Weekly: festivalpalooza!

Festivals erupt this week in Oregon with Makrokosmos, Oregon Bach Festival, Astoria Music Festival, Salem World Beat Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, PianoPushPlay and more

Acclaimed piano duo Stephanie & Saar once again return to Northwest Portland’s Vestas building Thursday to collaborate with Portland Percussion Group and other Portland performers in a five-hour marathon show. This time, the Makrokosmos Project 4: Dadapalooza program features one of the mid-20th century’s groundbreaking works: John Cage’s justly celebrated Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Even listeners befuddled by Cage’s later detour into aleatoric (chance) music can appreciate the restrained, mysterious beauty the composer conjured from his modifications of the piano’s strings and hammers.

Stephanie & Saar performed with Portland Percussion Group last year at Makrokosmos.

The cheerfully overstuffed extravaganza also includes another 20th century classic: the third Makrokosmos composition by project patron saint and Pulitzer Prize winner George Crumb: Music for a Summer Evening, written in 1974 for two amplified pianos and percussion, plus new music by Gregory Hutter, Karen Tanaka, Portland’s Texu Kim (the Portland composer’s dazzling 300+ MicroVariations on a Bach Theme, one of my favorite local discoveries this year) Wang Jie and more. It’s the kind of event where you can wander in and out as you please, sample food and wine, the better to sample unfamiliar yet often enticing music of our time. Search our site for our extensive previous coverage to get an idea of what it’s like.

A piece that would have fit snugly into Dadapalooza would have been George Antheil’s 1924 Ballet Mecanique, whose sirens, airplane propellers, percussion-laced orchestra player piano, and crazy rhythms — scandalized Paris, sparked riots, delighted surrealists and avant gardists, and made the young American composer’s reputation as the Bad Boy of Music, which became the apt title of his autobiography. After returning to America, he wrote an advice column (!), collaborated with actress Hedy Lamarr on the technology that much later made wi-fi possible (for which he was short-shrifted in last year’s documentary Bombshell) and mostly wrote film music.

But recently, Portland violinist and Antheil scholar Hannah Leland learned about some previously unknown music from the mid-1940s that Antheil wrote for a German-American violinist friend. With her pianist partner Aimee Fincher, their Duo Odéon (named after the Paris street where Antheil, who died in 1959, lived above Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore) recorded a splendid new Sono Luminus album of that music and more. Their album release party at Portland’s Santé Bar, 411 Northwest Park Avenue, features Antheil’s exuberant, virtuosic mid-century music from their ebullient new recording Specter — think sassy Prokofiev with an American twist. The bar is creating two craft cocktails, the Odéon and Specter, for the occasion.

PianoPushPlay’s annual free kickoff event at the Portland Art museum courtyard brings together ten donated pianos that have been wonderfully weirded out by local artists, and they’re played by various local pianists (classical, jazz, pop) and even random passersby who sign up. They keep them out in the courtyard for anyone to play as they walk by, and at summer’s end they’re auctioned off and donated to local  schools, community centers etc. Paste the name into the OAW search field to read our previous coverage.

Pianopushplay founder Megan McGeorge poses next to a piano she donated to the cause at last summer’s opening event.

Saxophonic Sequels, Festival Fever

“It cries, sighs and dreams,” wrote Berlioz. “It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.” The French romantic composer was talking about the then-newly invented saxophone. We had an outbreak of sax attacks a couple weeks back and now the saxes return Wednesday night with Chamber Music Northwest’s musical-theatrical show Adolphe Sax and the Creation of the Saxophone at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The latest in CMNW’s recent run of theater about music, this one features actor Harold Dixon, the dynamic young Kenari Saxophone Quartet, and a story with live music about Sax’s life and instrument.

Kenari Quartet performs at Chamber Music Northwest

Kenari plays recent pieces for sax quartet by Corey Dundee (inspired by the young composer’s struggle with depression) and John Leszczynski plus a viola solo by the great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and a duo by Daniel Temkin (inspired by a childhood memory box) on Friday’s New@Noon concert at PSU, which also has a viola solo and violin duo.

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MusicWatch Weekly: new sounds from Oregon

This week’s Oregon music schedule boasts numerous new works by today’s composers from the Northwest, Midwest and beyond, mixed in with classics from across the ages and oceans

Big Horn Brass, a baker’s dozen of brass players and two percussionists, feature brassy new music by Cascadia Composers Greg Steinke, Jan Mittelstaedt, John Billota, Greg Bartholomew, and fellow Northwest composer Anthony DiLorenzo at their Saturday night concert at Beaverton’s St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Some other guys named Debussy, Bach and Puccini will provide filler.

New Oregon music by Eugene composer Paul Safar is also on the program when Eugene’s excellent Delgani String Quartet goes all homicidal Friday at Portland’s and Saturday at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The program features music inspired by murder, with theatrical readings from literary works that inspired them interpolated by actor Rickie Birran of Man of Words Theatre Company. Janacek and Shostakovich will be represented too. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Speaking of new music by Oregon composers, read Gary’s ArtsWatch preview of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s new composition commissioned by Rogue Valley Symphony, which the orchestra performs this weekend in Medford and Grants Pass. Beethoven is the closing act.

Estelí Gomez sings new music by University of Oregon composers at  Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

There’s even newer Oregon music for voice Sunday at the Oregon Composers Forum’s Sunday concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. The superb soprano Esteli Gomez, one of the singers in Grammy winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble, returns to sing new music by UO composers.

Joe Kye performs at Portland State Friday.

That same night, Portland based, Korea-born songwriter-composer and looping violinist Joe Kye plays his engaging, often autobiographical songs at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Shades of Sufjan Stevens and his albums inspired by American states! Does a symphony called “Portland” and named after Oregon’s largest city qualify as Oregon music — if it wasn’t written by an Oregonian? Decide for yourself at the University of Portland’s free concert featuring Erich Stem’s orchestral work Tuesday night at Buckley Auditorium. His website bio says nothing about where Stem resides or was born, but Indiana seems a likely suspect. The piece is part of Stem’s project called America By: A Symphonic Tour, which includes a collection of commissioned works from across the country, “each work reflecting the unique qualities and history of a specific location.”

New American Sounds

One of the most frequently performed and commissioned composers of choral music, Minnesota’s Jake Runestad, seem poised to follow Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre as a choral music star, and he’s also written several operas and other works. On Saturday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Choral Arts Ensemble and Linn-Benton Community College Chamber Choir team up to present the Music of Jake Runestad, the first major opportunity for Portland to get a healthy sampling of his heartfelt songs and broad, audience-friendly musical range.

Bells toll in Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’s new, half-hour orchestral composition, Sonorous Earth (an evolution of her earlier Resounding Earth), which Eugene Symphony performs Thursday at the Hult Center to complete her artistic residency there. Each of its four-movements also uses techniques associated with the major composers who made percussion the defining sound of 20th century classical music: Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Partch and Oregon’s own Lou Harrison.

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