valerie coleman

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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Imani Winds: unapologetically bold

Adventurous ensemble’s residency at Chamber Music Northwest culminates in accessible, original music that embraces change and American culture

What’s special about Imani Winds, besides their overall badassery as a woodwind quintet, is that the group boasts two composers—horn player Jeff Scott and flutist Valerie Coleman. Although Coleman is taking a break from performing with the group, her presence (physical and spiritual) added considerably to the joy the group brought to their recently concluded residency with Chamber Music Northwest.

Over the last year and a half, the quintet performed a whole slew of bold, intimate concerts around Portland, in the usual venues (Lincoln Hall, Kaul Auditorium) as well as less conventional spots like Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Revolution Hall, and the OMSI Planetarium. They’ve even routinely hosted an instrument petting zoo, where children can come play with the group’s flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

Imani Winds: Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-18 artists in residence

The group also got better from the beginning of their residency to the end, as their usual repertoire (arrangements of Rite of Spring and The Planets, commissioned works by Simon Shaheen and Reena Esmail) gradually gave way to a lovely collaboration with local dance troupe BodyVox in April: a delirious evening of film and dance set to arrangements of Chopin and Brahms (and Scott’s Homage to Duke), Imani performing right there on stage with all the dancers. Finally we came to this summer’s festival and the large-scale compositions they were all talking about last year: Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane and Coleman’s Muhammad Ali portrait Shot Gun Houses.

After all that, I was sorry to see them go.

Great Scott

Imani has always had several Jeff Scott compositions in its repertoire, but his Passion for Bach and Coltrane—premiered a few years back and performed at Kaul Auditorium on July 5th—marked the apotheosis of his time as a composer during the group’s CMNW residency. His other compositions have been good, sure (last year’s performance of his “Titilayo” in Whitsell Auditorium being a high point), but this was something else altogether, a real highlight of the entire fest.

Sadly, it’s relatively rare for important music to also be good music, and it’s especially rare for referential music to have any real originality, but Scott handled his interpolations of Bach and Coltrane with grace, confidence, and a unique compositional voice which seems to have matured just in the couple years since I started listening to him. I felt his original music was the Passion’s best feature, the more overt references functioning mainly as contextualizing brackets and launching points for the pure joy of playing with other people’s music—a joy that classical musicians can sometimes lose sight of, since they’re almost always playing other people’s music.

Composer Jeff Scott and poet A.B. Spellman chat during pre-concert CMNW Musical Conversation. Photo: Judy Blankenship

“I wanted to combine the two arts I love the most: classical music and jazz,” Scott said in a pre-concert talk with poet A.B. Spellman. Bach and Coltrane made an ideal meeting point, as both were engaged with the search “for oneness with spirituality.” Though Spellman had doubts about classical and jazz meldings, saying they are “very seldom accomplished, though many have tried,” he praised Scott’s music, saying the composer “does both forms with integrity, with a bona fide jazz trio and two classical groups.”

The two classical groups were Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet, and the bona fide jazz trio consisted of pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith (all but Imani playing their CMNW premieres). The poet himself was on stage too, nestled in with the band, reading his poetry, weaving it in and out of the music. “Through beauty, past knowledge, here I am, Dear John, back at the beginning, better.”

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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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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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Imani Winds preview: celebrating the differences

Chamber Music Northwest brings the renowned wind ensemble back to Portland this week as its artists in residence

Classical music has a diversity problem. So it marked a turning point when the Portland classical music presenter Chamber Music Northwest announced that its next annual artists-in-residence — following the 2015-16 tenure of the storied Emerson Quartet, composed entirely of older white men — would be Imani Winds, a younger, equally talented and until recently, entirely black ensemble.

Bassoonist Monica Ellis, hornist /composer Jeff Scott, flutist/composer Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz and clarinetist Mark Dover delighted audiences at last summer’s annual summer festival. They’re also in town this week for a series of concerts, dance performances and educational and outreach programs, and will return to this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Imani Winds returns to Chamber Music Northwest this week.

It’s not just the group’s race and age that represents greater diversity in chamber music. At last summer’s CMNW festival, Scott noted in a composers panel discussion that the group’s values arise in part from its music. Unlike the Emersons or any other string quartet,  “a wind ensemble is celebrating the differences among instruments, rather than the homophony of string or sax quartets,” he pointed out — a metaphor for Imani itself. “Chamber music, more than orchestral music, allows the individuality of the musicians to shine through to audiences, because there’s no conductor intermediary,” Scott continued. “The musicians are allowed to establish their own individuality and tradition. ”

Imani’s 2017-18 residency grew out of the ensemble’s long relationship with CMNW. “We’ve been coming to Portland every two or three years for 15 years,” Scott recalls. “The audiences have been so nice to us!” says Spellman-Diaz. “It’s hard to think of nicer audiences than in Portland and Eugene.” The ensemble enjoyed their Oregon experiences so much that when artistic director David Shifrin asked if they’d be interested in becoming CMNW’s resident ensemble, Scott says, “it took about five seconds for us to say yes!”

The feeling is mutual. Since their founding in 1997, Imani has cultivated a substantial, diverse and enthusiastic audience in Oregon and beyond. Their skill as musicians plays the biggest role, of course — they’re among the finest of all chamber ensembles. But their genuinely enthusiastic, refreshingly un-canned stage charisma, and their audience-conscious programming, also encourage broader listenership than most classical music concerts’ traditionally narrow demographic. They’ve collected innumerable awards, toured the globe, given hundreds of concerts, and made eight recordings.

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