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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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‘Beyond the Cultural Revolution’ preview: cultural confluence

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary music by composers of Chinese heritage

Two decades ago, Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin, the clarinetist who still leads the Portland festival, had admired a clarinet quintet written for him by Bright Sheng, one of China’s finest composers, who’d moved to the United States in 1982. Shifrin asked Sheng to compose a new music theater piece for CMNW and other classical music presenters.

Inspired by a legend from his native China, Sheng’s The Silver River premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997 and went on to acclaimed performances in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, and beyond.

A scene from Bright Sheng’s opera, “The Silver River” at the John Jay College Theater, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival 2002. Photo: ©Stephanie Berger.

But not in Portland. Back in the 1990s, CMNW administrators, then accustomed to little more staging than a few chairs, music stands, and maybe a piano, looked at the forces required for Sheng’s opera — singers, dancers, actor, choreographer, stage director, classical chamber ensemble, pipa (the banjo-like Chinese lute), props (eventually including a huge heated water tank in which the actors performed), costumes, et al — and blanched.

“We determined we couldn’t afford to produce something that large,” says current CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta. But it remained on Shifrin’s “bucket list” to bring to CMNW before he retires in 2020. With the organization expanding and diversifying as never before, says Bilotta, “we decided to make the resources available and do it.”

On Saturday and Sunday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland audiences will at last get to experience the work CMNW helped create — with the composer in town to see it.

CMNW also decided to use The Silver River as the tentpole for a broader celebration of Chinese-influenced music. Beyond the Cultural Revolution comprises seven events happening this Thursday through Sunday, including the two opera performances, coffee with the composer, and premieres of new works commissioned by CMNW from composers of Chinese heritage.

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