james Lee III

Fall Chamber Music: Fresh approaches

Friends of Chamber Music, Portland5 Centers for the Arts, and others vary the usual formula for small group classical music

Death to chamber music! Oops, I mean death to “chamber music.” The music can be great, but the name can sound off-putting and archaic to music lovers who aren’t already part of the classical music insiders club. If we just called string quartets, piano trios, and the rest “bands” like all those other ensembles that make music, it might feel more welcoming to outsiders. Because despite its reputation for stuffiness, some chamber musicians — that is, classical small bands — are producing some of most innovative sounds — and ways of presenting of them — in music today. This fall concert season that just ended provided several examples.

New Music

This fall, classical small bands seemed to add more 21st century music than usual to their programs. The new Montrose Trio’s October 4 concert, which also devoted about a third of the show to a contemporary work — even better, a premiere, and still better, a co-commission from the presenter, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music. Of course, local  new music ensembles like FearNoMusic, the Mousai (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Tristan Bliss) and Third Angle (reviewed for ArtsWatch by Jeff Winslow) regularly include new music in their shows, but they tend to draw niche audiences interested in new music, unlike these touring ensembles such as the Montrose and the Calder Quartet, whose December FOCM performances included one piece each night by leading contemporary composers Andrew Norman and Thomas Ades, in programs that each featured one composer from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music brought the Montrose Trio to Portland. Photo: John Green.

The single performance of Temple Visions was the only new work by a composer of our time among those the trio played over three nights in Portland and Eugene, but Michigan composer James Lee III’s intensely dramatic trio definitely deserved its place among the classics by Haydn, Mendelssohn, et al. The trio (pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinist Martin Beaver, cellist Clive Greensmith) gave a high-tension performance of Lee’s taut composition, navigating its choppy jump cuts with focused precision and earning raucous applause.

I’d call the commission, FOCM’s second ever in its nearly eight-decade long history, an unqualified success, and I wish more presenting organizations would invest more often in the creation of new music. They’re co-commissioning another new work for the Pacifica Quartet from Bang on a Can’s Julia Wolfe, an excellent choice, but I hope FOCM and other Oregon presenters will also commission new music by Oregon composers. Wolfe doesn’t lack commissioning opportunities, especially since winning this year’s his year’s Pulitzer Prize for music, but plenty of Oregon composers deserve the support (and national exposure of their music if played around the world by a major ensemble like Pacifica Quartet) from this Oregon classical music institution. More important, Oregon audiences deserve the chance to hear the music of our own creators played by top notch classical small combos. Our presenting organizations should be at least as eager to support Oregon composers as those from New York.

Extra-musical Enhancements

A string quartet plays music by Haydn in front of a projected image of a sunrise over a rocky beach. A horn-rimmed, bearded professor sits on the stage apron, until he rises and begins to lecture the audience at Portland’s Newmark Theatre about biology.

Welcome to another development in chamber music’s evolution. Along with including new music on programs, some bands are augmenting their concerts with non musical contributions. In November, for example, Third Angle New Music resumed its mix of words and music and a few weeks later, the Mousai deftly garnished their “Vignettes” concert with concise theatrical touches. The Fry Street Quartet went several steps further in the October 15 Newmark performance, not only including a newly commissioned work, but also making that music part of a larger creation that transcended music and even art.

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