yevgeny yontov

Zorá Quartet review: A program that tells a story

Chamber Music Northwest concert shows European classical music's range of expression

There’s something quite charming about a well-programmed concert. I love it when the different elements all work together to tell a coherent story, or present familiar compositions from a new perspective. A July Chamber Music Northwest concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, performed by the Zorá Quartet and other CMNW artists, did just that. The concert featured compositions by Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ludwig van Beethoven, in performances by CMNW alumni and Protege Project Artists, and the selection was just right: from light-hearted violin duos to a bitter 20th-century quintet for piano and strings, ending on the profound final string quartet of one of the tradition’s giants.

Ani Kavafian. Photo: Bernard Mindich.

Ani Kavafian. Photo: Bernard Mindich.

Teacher and student duo Ani Kavafian and Benjamin Hoffman began the evening with selections from Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, composed in 1931. It is always nice to see teachers performing with their students, passing the torch and revitalizing traditions (even relatively new traditions) for the next generation, and Bartók wrote these duos with just such a pedagogical purpose in mind; as with his Mikrokosmos, Bartók’s identity as a composer cannot be separated from his identity as an educator and as a champion of folk music. Teacher Kavafian and student Hoffman (a student at Yale in his first season with CMNW’s Protege Project) performed a well-balanced selection, covering a fair portion of the vast range of Bartók’s quirky and profound musical personality. Performers and audience alike were visibly, audibly enthusiastic, chuckling and toe-tapping at the delightful neo-folk miniatures, which made it feel more like a village gathering than a formal classical music concert.

Now in her 22nd season with CMNW, Kavafian’s joyful demeanor during her brief time on stage felt like a homecoming—a performance for friends and peers in a familiar space, showing off her pupil and generally having a good time. Although any of Bartók’s many chamber pieces could have made for a good first act, the decision to open with such life-affirming and humanistic music started the concert’s story on just the right note.


Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

Ambitious theater and music performance reveals an inspired composer, but an uninspired story


Editor’s note: Chamber Music Northwest’s new production,  “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld,” received its premiere at this summer’s festival before going on tour. ArtsWatch sent two writers to cover it, one from a musical perspective, the other a theatrical one. They came away with different impressions.

Even at the height of his fame, Johannes Brahms was an unusually private person. He rarely made public statements aside from his music, and towards the end of his life he burned piles of letters his family and closest friends had sent him over the years, even asking for his own letters back. (This was long before copiers, let alone e-mail.) In contrast, his rival, composer and dramatist Richard Wagner, left a torrent of text about his life and ideas, including some the world could have happily done without. Still, Brahms’s life had its portentous if not operatic moments.

The Dover Quartet joined actor Jack Gilpin, clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet joined clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

One moment music lovers can be especially grateful for was his meeting with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1891, shortly after the composer had decided to retire. He was so taken with Mühlfeld’s artistry that he began calling him Miss Clarinet (Fräulein Klarinette), possibly in wistful memory of times spent squiring various attractive young female singers around Viennese society. That artistry got Brahms composing again, not only writing four meaty chamber works featuring clarinet, but also no fewer than 20 piano solo works, many that would become audience favorites.

No car chases or vampires in sight, but this story of creative renewal is pretty dramatic as classical composers’ lives go, and it was probably irresistible to David Shifrin, who is not only Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director but also an internationally renowned clarinetist. CMNW teamed with playwright Harry Clark, actor Jack Gilpin, and director Troy Hollar to create a cross between a concert and a play, a one-man show with live music. As a composer who’s been in awe of Brahms for 40 years, I found it fascinating, although I naturally focused much more on its music than its modest drama.


Chamber Music Northwest reviews: Unspoiled by success

Where does a composer go after reaching the peak of popularity? Two concerts trace Beethoven's path from excellence to exploration


Ludwig van Beethoven’s extraordinary fame rests mostly on works he wrote in his mid- to late 30s. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you probably know parts of his third (“Heroic”) and fifth (da-da-da-DAH) symphonies. If you are, you undoubtedly know his “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, his violin concerto, and his last two piano concertos. String quartet lovers have his three “Razumovsky” quartets, informally named after the generous patron who commissioned them. They’re the only string quartets in the pantheon, but they fully measure up to their fellow icons.

The Dover Quartet played Beethoven at Reed College. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Dover Quartet played Beethoven at Reed College. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Dover Quartet, Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project Artists just a few years ago, have since catapulted themselves toward a different pantheon after sweeping the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning First Prize and all three Special Prizes. Who better to bring Portland audiences Beethoven’s mid period string quartet masterpieces, as they did at CMNW’s July 11 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium? They showed such mastery that even a critic could just relax and luxuriate in Beethoven’s endlessly inventive music.