‘The Clearing’: Opening a space for modern piano music

Portland Piano International presents its first-ever four-day festival of 20th and 21st century classical music


Over a hundred years ago, dense evergreen forests surrounded a small community that called itself The Clearing, also known as Stumptown and now, Portland. Our city’s first settlers, back then in the early-1840s, opened up that wild terrain with their axes and two-man saws, promising population growth. Likewise, Portland Piano International (PPI) invites listeners to open their ears to post-World War II classical music and expand their minds—with their upcoming four-day festival called The Clearing.

Tamara Stefanovich curated Portland Piano International's 'The Clearing.' Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tamara Stefanovich curated Portland Piano International’s ‘The Clearing.’ Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Held November 10-13, 2016 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, The Clearing is a first for PPI. It’s also the latest among several PPI programs that the 37-year-old organization has launched since Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen became its Artistic Director in May 2013. The Clearing’s five evening recitals join daily master classes, films and panel discussions. Also, each day there’ll be “Conversations” with young composers. Their scores will be projected for everyone to see while they’re performed by the festival’s curator, Yugoslav-born pianist Tamara Stefanovich.

She’s coming all the way from Berlin to share the stage with Cohen in presenting works by some of the 20th century’s most-honored composers—among them, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter—as well as those by our own, local and regional artists. Pianists from around the globe will be performing — including a late-surprise special guest, the great Pierre-Laurent Aimard, one of the world’s most visionary and accomplished  pianists.

Here, Stefanovich and Cohen talk about the world of the womb and the stars in the sky, and how The Clearing can change the way we listen to music.

Music as an Evolving Language

Arnaldo Cohen: Music starts with the heartbeat, the sounds you can hear before you’re born. And then the impact of being born, getting air into your lungs for the first time, the first cry and hearing that. Music itself is a language that was invented, created. When you invent a language, there’s a reason for that. It’s because the language you have doesn’t say all that you want to say, so you have to create a new vocabulary. Music is a language that you can say anything you want with, and people can listen to it in any way they wish.

Along with it being a former name for Portland, [The Clearing] also means, to me, a clearing of the mind, of preconceived ideas. When you’re clear, you’re open-minded, you can see clearly, think clearly, and play clearly, cleared of any negativity. We all can have ideas that are so structured and crystalized. But we have to move, especially when you talk about music, piano music, with its emphasis on old, classical composers. For me, “clearing” also has to do with freshness. We have to clear out the old to make way for the new.

Connecting to the Past

Tamara Stefanovich: I needed to create a galaxy of the most extraordinary planets of composers, and show the relationships, and the distances, between them. Everything in art and music comes from somewhere; no one is a completely new creator. Boulez wouldn’t be who he was if Debussy and Stravinsky didn’t exist. Ligeti and Kurtág without Bartok, [contemporary British composer George] Benjamin without Messiaen, and Carter without Ives—they wouldn’t be possible. This doesn’t mean that they borrowed or used something of the older generation. They went further, but somewhere in a given or chosen direction. And it’s this need to go further that I believe is the most important in creators.

Small Portions

TS: I chose miniatures and études in the hopes that a shorter form enables us to cover and showcase a wide range of composers and styles, and also entices younger pianists to tackle one or two pieces, themselves. I am very aware that the curriculum of pieces needed to be played in a school or university doesn’t leave much time for the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, unfortunately, here in the United States as well as in Europe. So putting on pieces between 30 seconds to five minutes doesn’t leave any room for an “excuse” to not play them! And from among the roughly 15 different composers we’re presenting, it is really impossible to not like at least four or five of them.

More than Music

TS: We wanted to open the discussions without any preconceived need for answers or to impose a philosophy. Having only recitals leaves the audience on one side and puts the interpreter on a pedestal—something I passionately dislike about today’s portrayal of so-called “stars“ of the piano. Where would we all be without a composer?

The idea is to go behind every corner, to hear from young composers, from two composers at an advanced age in films about Carter and Kurtág, and to see how an interpreter is the glue that needs to reconcile both worlds—creation and communication. I know for myself what I want to play, hear and look for in composers, but it is crucial to hear what they are dealing with. We are at a moment in history that is on one side very democratic, meaning there is less necessity to be a rebel, but on the other, leaves too much room to choose from. I am curious to hear how composers see their roles in this society, compared to mine, as an interpreter.

Changing the Audience Experience

TS: I am grateful to be given a playground to share my passion for the music of our time. I am also adamant that we have to reconnect with the art and creation of our time, so we find our pride not only in our nations and ourselves, but also in this collective moment in history that is so rich in courageous, extraordinary, talented and brave creators. And I am profoundly grateful to my team for working so hard and sharing in this adventure.

Portland Piano International artistic director Arnaldo Cohen. Photo: Felix Broede.

Portland Piano International artistic director Arnaldo Cohen. Photo: Felix Broede.

AC: What I’d like this festival to achieve is to create some sort of curiosity in people’s minds. I see the whole thing as a virtual temple, a place where they can clear their minds, where they can be free to understand anything they want from this music, and not go with any prejudged idea, or wait for something they already know is going to happen. The Clearing is an adventure, a new experience. It doesn’t matter whether you love the music or not. But even those who know they love it might be surprised.

The important thing is that you bring something to yourself in the listening of it. Our mission, you could say, is to create a bridge between you and yourself, and have that happen with a different language. My advice to anyone not familiar with new music is that you open your heart, open your mind, open to your fantasy. The fantasy is the most important thing. When you listen to this music, you can elaborate on a film, an emotion, an image, a situation or a specific sentiment. And you can be sure: It’s going to be attached to your life, your past, your emotional history.

And this is what is phenomenal about music. It’s like when you look at the night sky. In the stars, you’re looking at the past, now arriving after billions of years. Without understanding those stars, they’re still beautiful. So what is there to understand about music? Perhaps it’s something that can simply stir up feelings in us, neither right nor wrong. You listen to music according to yourself, as you wish, because it has everything to do with you—with the planet inside of your mind.


November 10-13, 2016

Claudia Chan. Photo: Nadine Targiel.

Claudia Chan. Photo: Nadine Targiel.

Thursday, November 10

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ~ Opening Recital: Miniatures (short pieces by new music masters, performed by Tamara Stefanovich)

Friday, November 11

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Master class with Tamara Stefanovich

1:45 p.m. – 3:30 – Film: Elliott Carter

3:30 p.m.  – 4:15 p.m. – Conversations: A Bridge Beyond the Score

4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. – Panel: “Physiology and Psychology of Playing Contemporary Piano Music”

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. – Recital: Claudia Chan and Yihan Chen, pianists (short works for solo piano)

Saturday, November 12

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Master class with Tamara Stefanovich

1:45 p.m. – 3:30 – Film: György Kurtág The Matchstick Man

3:30 p.m.  – 4:15 p.m. – Conversations: A Bridge Beyond the Score

4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. – Panel: “Composition – Demystifying the Process”

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. – Recital: Piano + (performed by Tamara Stefanovich, Claudia Chan and Yihan Chen; and cellist Nancy Ives, violinist Emily Cole and flutist Amelia Lukas—and special guest?

Yihan Chen performs at Portland Piano International's 'The Clearing.'

Yihan Chen performs at Portland Piano International’s ‘The Clearing.’


Sunday, November 13

10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Master class with Tamara Stefanovich

1:45 p.m. – 3:30 – Film and Other Sources: Pierre Boulez

3:30 p.m.  – 4:15 p.m. – Conversations: A Bridge Beyond the Score

4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. – Panel: “The Future of New Music”

7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Recital: Students

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. – Closing Recital: Études (performed by Tamara Stefanovich)


Portland Piano International’s The Clearing runs Thursday-Sunday. All events are held in the Lincoln Recital Hall at Portland State University. Click here for more event details. Tickets online and at Call 503.228.1388 or email tickets@portlandpiano.org.

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland. Copyright 2016 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    A fine preview of a very exciting festival here in Global Village PDX. Ligeti, Boulez & Messiaen are among my fave composers.

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