peter bilotta

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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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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‘Beyond the Cultural Revolution’ preview: cultural confluence

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary music by composers of Chinese heritage

Two decades ago, Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin, the clarinetist who still leads the Portland festival, had admired a clarinet quintet written for him by Bright Sheng, one of China’s finest composers, who’d moved to the United States in 1982. Shifrin asked Sheng to compose a new music theater piece for CMNW and other classical music presenters.

Inspired by a legend from his native China, Sheng’s The Silver River premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997 and went on to acclaimed performances in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, and beyond.

A scene from Bright Sheng’s opera, “The Silver River” at the John Jay College Theater, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2002. Photo: ©Stephanie Berger.

But not in Portland. Back in the 1990s, CMNW administrators, then accustomed to little more staging than a few chairs, music stands, and maybe a piano, looked at the forces required for Sheng’s opera — singers, dancers, actor, choreographer, stage director, classical chamber ensemble, pipa (the banjo-like Chinese lute), props (eventually including a huge heated water tank in which the actors performed), costumes, et al — and blanched.

“We determined we couldn’t afford to produce something that large,” says current CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta. But it remained on Shifrin’s “bucket list” to bring to CMNW before he retires in 2020. With the organization expanding and diversifying as never before, says Bilotta, “we decided to make the resources available and do it.”

On Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland audiences will at last get to experience the work CMNW helped create — with the composer in town to see it.

CMNW also decided to use The Silver River as the tentpole for a broader celebration of Chinese-influenced music. Beyond the Cultural Revolution comprises seven events happening this Thursday through Sunday, including the two opera performances, coffee with the composer, and premieres of new works commissioned by CMNW from composers of Chinese heritage.

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Cascadia Composers and Third Angle reviews: Northwest inspirations

Oregon composers create music inspired by the sounds of their home

With all the natural beauty that surrounds us, it’s no surprise that so many Oregon artists, including composers, turn to it for inspiration. Two spring concerts showed that despite this common impulse, the state’s natural and other sights and sounds are simply too diverse to sonically stereotype.

In celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Third Angle New Music commissioned three Oregon composers to write new works inspired by nature. It’s a testament to our state’s musical and natural variety that the three pieces performed in April at Third Angle’s Solo Hikes concert in southeast Portland’s Studio 2 @ New Expressive Works came out so utterly different.

As it turned out, the hikes weren’t really solo. Each composer relied heavily on contributions from the performers, and they in turn had help (projections, pre-recorded sounds, the audience) that augmented their instruments. The concert was a reminder that you’re never really alone, in music or in nature.

Marilyn de Oliviera at Third Angle’s ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue came closest to what you’d expect of nature inspired sounds. (Think Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, Debussy, and others who sought to evoke nature’s sights and phenomena through sound painting.) Maybe abetted by the projections of the northern Montana wilderness that inspired it, I could feel the expansiveness of the mountain lake, thrill to the starry sky (evoked by plucked notes), hear the rushing waterfall. To cellist Marilyn de Oliviera (who displayed a lovely, rich tone throughout) and Rusnak’s credit, the piece sounded like an organic whole rather than a succession of programmatic devices.

In fact, the performers, who were deeply involved in the realization of these creations, really deserve equal credit for the success of all three compositions. In Matt Marble’s Arachnomancy, saxophonist John Nastos (plus pre-recorded soundtrack that emitted different electronic textures, from metallic bells to staticky drone) brought a similarly evocative tone and atmosphere, a bit reminiscent of In a Silent Way era Miles Davis’s band or some of Charles Lloyd’s more pastoral passages. Eschewing the complex virtuosity I’ve heard Nastos deploy in jazzier contexts, his long-breathed phrases evoked the orderly beauty of the spider web patterns that inspired it.  I can imagine different interpretations by different instrumentalists with different backgrounds and styles, but this one worked persuasively.

John Nastos at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Even more than Marble’s, Brian McWhorter’s Outside In depends on the performer and the performance. And it’s even more distant from nature sound painting, because it’s a process piece that, unbeknown to the audience, asks the performer to respond to the ambient sounds he’s hearing in the moment. So if someone dropped a program, say, Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno would respond by smacking something that made a similar sound, and incorporate that sound into his repertoire. He entered, sat, and waited.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: New music for old people?

Summer festival's new music and outreach efforts bring a broader audience, but not necessarily a young one.

Open the program book for this year’s Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival, and the first thing you see on the inside front cover is a full-page ad featuring a pair of beaming septuagenarians shilling for Medicare Advantage. No question about it: despite the festival’s ardent efforts to broaden its audience, detailed in our previous post, like most classical music presenters, its core consists of admirable elders who won’t be around to support it in another decade or so.

How can classical music concerts draw broader — and especially younger — audiences? A new study, for example, suggests that “older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.” Presenters who want to attract the broadest audiences therefore must try to create experiences that provide all of the above; those factors don’t sound mutually exclusive.

One obvious place to start is by programming music created during the lifetimes of the audiences you want to attract. Of course, it depends on which music you pick, since much of the listener unfriendly new music of the middle of the last century drove away a good portion of the classical music audience, a blow that presenters still haven’t recovered from, despite the fact that we’ve had at least a couple of generations of composers writing in more accessible styles. And no matter how ear-friendly the sounds, presenting compositions by unfamiliar names (i.e., anyone born after about 1940) risks cutting into the conservative core audience that, though dwindling, still pays most of the bills. It’s a tough dilemma that CMNW is working hard to solve.

Tara Helen O'Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch's "Ralph's Old Records" at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom-Emerson.

Tara Helen O’Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch’s “Ralph’s Old Records” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

As we saw in the previous installment, the annual summer festival’s inaugural New@Noon series provided a valuable injection of new music into a classical music scene desperately in need of rejuvenation. But some of the best new music I heard at CMNW didn’t even appear on that new series. Judging by the enthusiastic response to CMNW’s “regular” July 7 concert at Lincoln Hall concert featuring new music by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and Pulitzer Prize winning New York composer David Lang, even CMNW listeners who came to the to hear Mozart found plenty to enjoy in 21st century American sounds as well. That integration of old music and new points the way to broadening the audience for classical music. And as we’ll see in a conversation with the festival’s director, that’s only one of many lessons this summer’s festival offers for the future of CMNW, chamber music, and classical music in general.

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ArtsWatch News & Notes: Peter Bilotta dives into change at Chamber Music Northwest

The venerable chamber music organization has a new executive who want so speed up its evolution

OCTOBER 7, 2013—Because he grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first time he attended a chamber music concert, Peter Bilotta, the energetic new executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, naturally went to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Even in the early ‘90s, the SPCO programmed pretty adventurously, and this particular concert featured Nigel Kennedy, who had started as a straight-ahead classical violinist and then enthusiastically embraced other forms from klezmer to jazz.

That night Kennedy performed his jazzy, distinctive version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (still the best selling classical music recording of all time), and Bilotta, who had already begun to develop a taste for the more experimental side of music and theater added chamber music to his list.

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined  composer Andy Akiho  onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined composer Andy Akiho onstage at Mississippi Studio./Jim Leisy

Fast forward 20 some years later and stints at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the past eight years as the head of development at the Portland Opera, and Bilotta is in a position to accelerate the evolution of Chamber Music Northwest. And that’s exactly what he says he hopes to do.

“We can’t make any assumptions about our audience, our community, the work we do, or the conventions about how arts organizations should run,” Bilotta said toward the end of our conversation.

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