peter schickele

MusicWatch Weekly: clarinets cut loose!

Chamber Music Northwest blows into town with windy festival-within-a-festival. Meanwhile, woe unto thee: you just missed Makrokosmos V.

“Good afternoon! I’m David Shifrin, and I play the clarinet!” A big roomful of laughing clarinetists goes “woooo!” and welcomes the Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall for the first of the festival’s five New@Noon concerts. It’s the last Friday in June, it’s breezy and just uncomfortably warm enough, and we’re up here in the Performance Hall—instead of down in the recital hall by the statue in the basement, where the New@Noon shows are usually held—because of that roomful of clarinetists. “We have a hundred clarinetists here,” Shifrin said, a gigantic smile on his face, “and it’s a joyous occasion.”

David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.
David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

Earlier that week

Last Friday, I told you all about the lovely afternoon and evening you could have down at Reed College the following Monday. CMNW’s all-Mozart opening concert was as purply as promised: a warm breezy day, a cool evening, and all the Mozart you could stand—culminating in the delirious birdsong laden romp through the countryside which was Shifrin and Protégé Project Artists Rolston String Quartet ripping through the majory-as-cherry-pie Clarinet Quintet in A Major.

The best music of the evening, though, didn’t feature clarinets much at all: the Notturni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, and Three Basset Horns. This combination, when it held steady (two of the basset hornists occasionally switched to plain vanilla Bb clarinets), was so extraordinarily luscious it made me want to hear everything arranged this way. Nottorni, cantatas, arias, art songs, requiems, whole operas, all of it.

Extra points to soprano Vanessa Isiguen and mezzo Hannah Penn (the latter fresh off two runs of Laura Kaminsky’s As One) for supporting both each other and baritone Zachary Lenox, all while blending with the weirdo horns, selling the hell out of Mozart’s sweet, smeary, summery harmonies, and just generally kicking ass.


Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

On a single May weekend, two Portland orchestras tried different approaches to renewing a venerable musical form

“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.


Chamber Music Northwest review: Comedy in Context

Peter Schickele and Igudesman & Joo's classical music comedy get summer festival all joked up.


At a certain moment in a famous comedy sketch by musical humorist PDQ Bach’s 1712 Overture, the tune “Yankee Doodle” suddenly appears, and the audience laughs almost every time, as they did in Portland last month when the fictional PDQ’s alter ego and creator Peter Schickele played a recording of that musical spoof on Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture during his presentation on humor in music at Chamber Music Northwest on July 19. Then Schickele played the famous opening chord progression of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, which sends chills down the opera connoisseur’s spine — but Schickele put the tune into a totally incongruous tango. Again, much of the audience giggled, but not as many this time. Nor did my 15 year-old son Joshua, who doesn’t know the tragic and depressing plot exploited by Wagner and parodied by PDQ Bach. Upon hearing this and other musical quotes given by Schickele, Josh told me “I knew these were funny, but I didn’t know the music so I didn’t totally get it.”

Peter Schickele (l) watches from his throne as Chamber Music Northwest musicians perform at his 80th birthday concert at Portland's Gerding Theatre.

Peter Schickele (l) watches from his throne as Chamber Music Northwest musicians perform at his 80th birthday concert at Portland’s Gerding Theatre.

Context, context context is the mantra of musical humor, said Peter Schickele in his CMNW lecture on musical humor. Schickele recounted a story of performing a mashup including Stephen Foster songs in London and no one laughing, because the English audience didn’t know this quintessentially American music and therefore didn’t get the jokes.  Similarly, the Tristan joke fell flat for Josh because he didn’t have the context to understand why it was funny. Both Schickele’s own performances in his PDQ Bach guise, and the July 20 CMNW concert featuring A Little Nightmare Music by the classical music comedy team of Igudesman & Joo, showed how performers’ ability to match joke to context ultimately determines how funny their shows will be — or won’t. I had a great time at both events, yet even so, I saw the professionals struggling with something that’s of high concern in my own show: How to relate to a new and wider audience who may need us to provide a different kind of context, or different kinds of humor that fit their own context, which may be different from that of classical music insiders.


Chamber Music Northwest reviews: Pros and Proteges

Seasoned veterans and rising stars bring elegance and energy to classics


The Emerson Quartet is always popular with Chamber Music Northwest audiences, and this year was no exception, with both shows sold out. It’s easy to understand why. They don’t engage in theatrics or other behavior worrisome to CMNW’s core demographic, nor do they play up the darker sides of their repertory, but they do deliver some of the most elegant, lovingly detailed performances around. I caught them on July 11 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, where they played the first of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s landmark “Haydn” string quartets, K. 387, a late Mozart string quintet (K. 614) with the able partnership of Paul Neubauer’s viola, and Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet.

 Emerson String Quartet played Mozart & Ravel at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson

Emerson String Quartet played music by Mozart and Ravel at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets are a celebration of the growing friendship between the composer and Joseph Haydn, who established the string quartet in its preeminent position in the world of classical music. They are also an homage to the older composer, one which Mozart, who was capable of tossing off a masterpiece in days, worked on carefully for over three years. The result is one of the pinnacles of the string quartet repertory, and the Emerson was in their element performing the first quartet, sometimes subtitled “Spring.” It flows and bubbles along, allowing listeners to either abandon their cares to it as on a fine spring day, or revel in its abundant compositional subtleties. The group provided all that could be desired for either kind of listening. Its finely-honed sound filled Kaul well, possibly aided by the group adopting soloist positions, all performing standing up except for the cellist.