john steinmetz

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.