nancy allen

Chamber Music Northwest review: Pièces de Résistance

Summer festival opens with Debussyan delights, defiance.


A hundred years ago today, a shot heard around the world killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and within weeks Europe plunged into World War I. Long-simmering resentments and rivalries erupted all over the continent, and its greatest ever flowering of artistic optimism withered and collapsed.

The leading French figure of that flowering, and the first musical modernist, Claude Debussy, who had wrestled with the rampant Wagnerian esthetic of his day, and won, found in himself a streak of fervent patriotism. Though he was too old to go to war, he wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand, “if, to assure victory, they are absolutely in need of another face to bash in, I’ll offer mine without question.”

At first he could not compose, but in the summer of 1915, Debussy was seized with a sudden determination to make a contribution only he could make. In short order this most painstaking of artists nearly doubled his catalog of mature piano music and wrote two chamber sonatas. A third was written over the next two years as he struggled against the cancer that would ultimately kill him. On each, the title page was emblazoned, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

Tara Helen O'Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Tara Helen O’Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The three sonatas, his only so-named essays in what had become a quintessentially German genre, deliberately thrust aside the enemy shades of Haydn and Beethoven to invoke earlier French models. They were his final masterpieces, sadly – three more planned sonatas were never completed. Instead, too weak to be moved, he died in an upstairs bedroom as German shells exploded in the surrounding streets of Paris just months before the armistice.

German music continues to dominate Chamber Music Northwest‘s offerings, like so many classical chamber music festivals. So it seems particularly apropos that in this anniversary year, artistic director David Shifrin chose an all-Debussy concert, including the three sonatas, for the opening salvo. Rounding out the program was the clarinet and piano rhapsody, the great-granddaddy of all contemporary solo flute pieces, Syrinx, and Reed College composer David Schiff’s deft arrangement for clarinet and string quartet, Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. I caught these Tuesday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, and for a short time my always generous appetite for Debussy was well sated.