pius cheung

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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Beta Percussion Institute: crossroads of performance and composition

New concert series and seminars spotlight contemporary percussion music

The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, usually empty and quiet during the dog days of summer, is about to become a vibrant soundscape of performers and composers attending the first Beta Percussion International Institute August 4-10 — and you can listen in.

UO Percussion Studio. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The week-long program, organized by artistic director Pius Cheung and co-director Eriko Daimo, focuses on both performance and composing, or arranging, music for percussion. “I noticed a surge of performer/composers in the past decade and I wanted this seminar to be a place for people to feel free to share their works, or begin their journey in writing,” Cheung, who teaches percussion on the UO music school faculty, told Artswatch. “The primary objective is not to turn percussionists into composers, but … for performers to play with the insight and understanding of a composer.”

The Institute has attracted participants from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Philippines, Austria, and a dozen American states. In Eugene they will be attending work sessions to explore, experiment, and make revisions in their music along the way. The program includes clinics addressing practice techniques, memorization and creative analysis, master classes with faculty, and hands-on workshops exploring topics such as improvisation and composing. Individual students will also have private lessons with guest faculty. UO instructor of percussion Sean Wagoner serves as Director of Operations. The next Institute is proposed for 2020.

“Art is always evolving, as it is a reflection of everything around us, past, present and future,” Cheung notes. “Therefore, in a certain sense, art/music is always going to be in the ‘beta testing’ stage.”

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