sasha cooke

The Amphion Quartet plays the Someday Lounge.

Early Sunday evening, July 24, the gentle final notes of Gustav Mahler’s valedictory symphony, “The Song of the Earth,” faded into the rafters at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, sounding an apt farewell to Chamber Music Northwest founder Sergiu Luca, who died in December. Though the violinist hadn’t been part of the festival he founded in 1971 for three decades, this tribute concert coincided with a summer rejuvenation of his creation and other Portland classical music institutions, as if to say, this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

The evidence of transition was everywhere on stage, but during the concert honoring Luca, it was best represented by  the magnificent young singer, Sasha Cooke, already a star in the making. She delivered moving, convincing performances of music by very different composers, Ravel and Mahler, as she had done a few nights earlier with Brahms and Chausson. Cooke was one of a dozen or more 20-somethings on stage for Luca’s farewell, most of them members of CMNW’s Protégé Project, now in its second year. The project brings rising young musicians to town for performances, a residency and various outreach programs. Except for a few special events, the Protégé-only concerts took place on Sunday afternoons at venues better known for hosting indie rock bands, and the musicians also participated in teaching and various outreach activities.

Taken together, this summer’s major classical events — CMNW (especially the half dozen Protégé concerts), Portland Piano International’s new music-oriented week-long July festival, and the Oregon Bach Festival’s new push into Portland — added up to a real sea change in Portland classical music. Arriving after the Oregon Symphony’s triumphant May Carnegie Hall performance (named best concert of the year by no less than New Yorkercritic Alex Ross), this summer blossoming has brought a real transfiguration in the city’s classical scene — a sense that even some of our old guard, mainstream institutions are at last gazing firmly forward into the 21st century, bringing in new repertoire, new faces, and newly adventurous spirit to once predictable programs.

What’s even more remarkable is that much of this transformation was wrought not by visionary newcomers, but rather by three of the city’s most experienced arts administrators: CMNW artistic and executive directors David Shifrin and Linda Magee, and PPI’s Harold Gray, all of whom have been on the job for more than three decades.

This summer demonstrated that despite the gloomy tidings of bankruptcies, aging audiences, and fossilized repertoire in many provinces of the crumbling classical music domain, we’re in the midst an exciting time for fans of Portland classical and post-classical music — perhaps the most thrilling since all of those institutions arrived in the 1970s, when today’s aging CMNW veterans were themselves eager twenty- and thirty-somethings.

The Protégé Project, which began promisingly last year with a (mostly) different batch of youthful talent, was conceived by Shifrin, who has connections to top young players through his Yale teaching position and his central role in the New York classical music firmament, and Magee, who brought it to alternative venues. (Here’s a thorough exploration of last year’s program.) Classical music organizations around the country are scrambling to find new audiences before the old ones expire. Some (including a few in this very city) try superficial gimmicks or marketing approaches. Others — loath to alienate their current, aging subscriber base by fiddling with the formula — make only grudging gestures toward contemporaneity, much less the future.

To its credit, CMNW, perhaps alarmed by the sea of grey- and white-haired heads that dominate its audiences, looked to reinvigorate its four-decade-old festival with an infusion of young blood and fresh musical talent, and not just the official Protégés. This summer’s festival proved that approach to be a smashing success. The young performers, of course, benefited from facing a wide variety of challenges — from dodgy acoustics to occasionally awkward, often charming stage remarks — and audiences in CMNW’s safe, nurturing atmosphere. But the biggest winners were Portland music lovers, young and old.

The first rumblings that things were going to be different this year erupted at the first Protégé concert at the Someday Lounge. Displaying admirable versatility, the Amphion Quartet excelled in string quartets from three different eras: witty in early Classical Mozart, fervid in Romantic Schumann, blistering in modernist Bartok (during which one patron keeled over; she revived after medical personnel arrived to assist).

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