tara helen o’connor

Chamber of Musical Delights

From world premieres to brilliant performances, Angela Allen looks back on highlights of July's Chamber Music Northwest Festival

Chamber Music Northwest was the first major Portland arts group to go live indoors since the pandemic with its Reflect/Rejoice summer festival June 28 to July 25 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

And boy, did its month of live music— not to mention its streamed concerts continuing through Aug. 31 at CMNW’s At-HOME Summer Festival — make a splash, even if the live audience was vastly reduced from former festivals. Concerts in previous years (not counting 2020, which was not live due to Covid) averaged 450 people. This season’s events were set up for about 150 people, socially distanced in pods, with bleachers removed from the auditorium. July 22’s “Reflecting upon Classics’’ audience hit 229, the festival’s largest, with extra chairs moved in for last-minute ticket-holders. Masks were required and picnics and wine were verboten, but the music was live and alive. The musicians who played it might have been happier than the audience who listened to it. Many had not played since Covid began.

Here are some festival highlights if you missed it – or if you want to catch the streamed At-HOME taped versions:

Chamber Music Northwest’s new co-artistic directors, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, led a highly successful re-entry into indoors concerts. Photo © Pilvax Studio

New and accomplished: CMNW artistic leaders, as of 2020, are the team of Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim. Their joy of playing is infectious, and it showed in their spectacular musicianship throughout the festival. Not only was their programming varied, full of new work, tough pieces, rarely heard composers’ work, and new musicians, but these two can play anything—Chien on piano and Kim on violin. And guess what? Not one Beethoven piece in three weeks of music was to be found. Remember the year that every concert featured Beethoven? I do.

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At CMNW, an ever-flowing ‘Spring’

Earl Lee conducts a brilliant chamber version of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" that will also be available to view from home

Orchestra maestro Leonard Slatkin tells a story about Appalachian Spring and its composer Aaron Copland, who was deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s in 1987. Several people were visiting him in his home in Peekskill, N.Y., and suddenly Copland, who had been unresponsive, rose out of his chair,  walked to the piano and played six notes. Those notes comprise the two chords that form the backbone of his best known piece. It was as if to say, Slatkin remarked before conducting the Detroit Symphony in a  2014 performance of Appalachian Spring, that Copland wanted to  convey that “I am still here” — or maybe, “that’s what I want you to remember of me.”

It is the chime of those final chords, at the end of the often-performed American suite, that sums up conductor Earl Lee’s favorite part.

Earl Lee conducting the chamber version of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photo: Tom Emerson

Lee, who is also a renowned cellist, led 13 chamber musicians in a magical Appalachian Spring July 8 and 9 at Chamber Music Northwest’s performance at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. (It’ll also be available to view from home via videostream, July 22-Aug. 31.) The familiar 20-minute piece could have been lost in the midst of unofficial David Shifrin Week. The beloved clarinetist was back on stage playing in several concerts after retiring in 2020 as CMNW’s 40-year artistic director, and the audience was happy to hear him playing his instrument. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: Flutes and strings and weirdos

Chamber Music Northwest plays Caroline Shaw and Jacob TV. We are Kulululu.

Chamber Music Northwest seems a lot quieter since the clarinet circus left town. After last week’s brouhaha—a wide swath of concerts featuring upwards of a hundred clarinets—the audiences at Thursday night’s Copland/Shaw concert and today’s New@Noon felt hushed, rapt, attentively relaxed in a way that only summertime and a lot of lovely string and flute music can induce.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor performing at Chamber Music Northwest.

Let’s talk about the flute first. Last night at Reed College, CMNW stalwart Tara Helen O’Connor played flute in a chamber orchestra of other CMNW stalwarts, performing Aaron Copland’s bland-but-beautiful Appalachian Suite. This afternoon at the New@Noon concert down in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall, O’Connor did what she does every year: she balanced Thursday’s classical side with something daring, special, bizarre. Last year, it was Andy Akiho’s -intuition) (Expectation; the year before it was Allison Loggins-Hull’s electronics-laden Pray. This year, today, she played a bit of “boombox music” by bizarro Dutch composer Jacob TV, whose Grab It, for saxophone and prerecorded samples of death row inmates, caught everyone’s attention several years ago (two favorite versions: this one for jazz trio, and this one for two bari saxes and drums).

Lipstick—the one O’Connor played today—uses the same multimedia gimmick as Grab It, a combination of speech-to-melody transformations (used most famously by Steve Reich in Different Trains), wild chromatic flourishes on regular and alto flute, various extended techniques, electroacoustic stuff I couldn’t discern the nature of (was that a prerecorded track or a filter-delay effect on the live flute?)—all of it accompanying a manic MTV-age video montage of footage from talk shows and talent competitions, sliced and remixed and projected on the screen above the stage.

In other words, it’s exactly that madhouse smorgasbord of aesthetic layering we love so much about contemporary classical music. Hearing O’Connor play this stuff is always a festival highlight for me, because it demonstrates the one thing that really makes new music sing: love of craft. The rest of the time, we hear O’Connor and all the rest of the CMNW crew apply their considerable skills to Bach and Brahms with real dedication—and it’s wonderful to hear that craft applied to music by living composers.

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Andy Akiho: systems within systems

Composer and steely pan virtuoso brings the heat at Chamber Music Northwest, and tells ArtsWatch where the fire comes from

In the midst of a five-week music festival, a weird mid-week show starring composer-performer Andy Akiho felt like a village gathering. Akiho’s music, after all, is geared towards pretty specific tastes: challengingly colorful modern classical music, complex rhythmic grooviness and modern sonorities, rooted in jazz and pop and rock and hip hop, all played on steelpan and other percussions together with flute and strings. Everyone in the mostly full Alberta Rose Theater audience that Wednesday was either already an Akiho fan or about to become one.

Composer Andy Akiho

CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta introduced the concert by jokingly insinuating that Akiho may have been indirectly responsible for last winter’s notorious CMNW office fire. “I picked up eleven copies of his new CD in January when it came out, and there they sat, on my desk in our office, where they burned up. We don’t know what caused the fire: maybe it was mechanical, maybe it was arson, or maybe the CD is just that hot!”

Cool Duos

Akiho himself lurked quietly off-stage, quivering with athletic energy like a young Robert DeNiro, as the show opened with flute goddess Tara Helen O’Connor and Akiho champion Ian Rosenbaum premiering a new arrangement of -intuition) (Expectation, originally composed in 2012 for trumpet and marimba. O’Connor excels at this stuff, and it was wonderful to hear her amplified: flutter-tongued polymetric riffage, breathy backbeats, and crazy wide-registered arpeggiations popped out around the theater, sizzling about over Rosenbaum’s quick quintuplets.

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest in 2016. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Akiho-Rosenbaum duo dominated the show. They opened Karakurenai with a loose, improvised intro, getting into a full-body head bob and grooving from the spine once that all-important quarter-note pulse got going, Akiho spinning out crazy-fast flashy four-mallet wheedlings all around his steelpan, showing off like a hair metal guitarist, pure Cool.

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