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Untangling the new demons: Chamber Music Northwest’s summer festival of (contemporary) music begins

The first of CMNW’s New@Night concerts featured music by Jessie Montgomery, Kenji Bunch, Fred Sherry, and Du Yun.


I’ve long considered the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival–particularly their New@Night series, formerly New@Noon–one of the high watermarks of Portland’s classical music scene. This series, along with the Makrokosmos festival and FearNoMusic’s concert season, generally provide the best opportunities to hear what we call “new music” in the city. 

“New music” is an odd term. It’s less of a genre distinction than a purely functional term for any music written recently by a young, living composer of the last, say, fifty years. It would be akin to calling The Batman, Midsommar, and Boss Baby 2 “New Cinema.” I guess it is the responsibility of critics and historians to create catchy terms for these aesthetic movements, untangling the knotted strands into neat, linear pathways

At the very least, it seems the designation rarely holds back audiences in this city. The Alberta Rose Theater certainly wasn’t packed last Wednesday for the first New@Night concert, Rhapsodies & Demons, the audience scattered around the hall like pieces on a Go board, but it was well over half capacity. A turnout of 150-200 is nothing to scoff at for music the audience likely will not have heard before. It’s easy to love intimate gatherings with an audience of fifteen, but it’s also nice seeing a larger reception as well.

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Chamber Music Northwest's first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Chamber Music Northwest’s first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

This turnout also disproves the idea that there isn’t an audience for new music and people just want to hear the classics. There may be a regressive contingent of concertgoers who want to hear Brahms over and over again–and to our chagrin that often includes the biggest donors–but they aren’t the only audience worth catering to. 

A good number of those in attendance were the Young Artists of the CMNW’s Young Artists Institute, who will be performing a free community recital at University of Portland this Friday, July 8. This accomplished group from around the country (including a few from Portland) are treated to a month of workshops and performances around the community. They already have some big accomplishments: five will be going to the National Youth Orchestra in New York, two will be going to Yale, one to UC Berkeley, and probably much more. 

The first New@Night, in classic CMNW fashion, opened with an hour-long social hour in the Alberta Rose lobby. I didn’t do much mingling or chatting myself, preferring to sip on my Ninkasi IPA while reading through the festival program and reflecting on the weeks ahead. Overall I’m quite happy with this year’s program. Even the concerts I might not have been interested in attending had something unique on the roster, whether it be works by lesser-known Romantic composers like Anton Arensky or Reinhold Glière, or the many new-ish works sprinkled throughout the concerts outside of the New@Night series. This is certainly one of the most eclectic programs the Summer Festival has had in the five years or so I’ve been in attendance. 

The first piece on the program was a series of two-cello miniatures by Fred Sherry called 8 Romanian Folk Dances, performed by the composer with Sophie Shao. Based on the many transcriptions by Bartok, Sherry’s arrangements were cheeky, joyous and lively, with a few nice subtleties to the performance to bring out that Eastern European flavor (I thought I caught some microtonal inflections in there). 

Cellists Fred Sherry and Sophie Shao performed Sherry's Bartók-inspired "8 Romanian Folk Dances" for Chamber Music Northwest's first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Cellists Fred Sherry and Sophie Shao performed Sherry’s Bartók-inspired “8 Romanian Folk Dances” for Chamber Music Northwest’s first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Next on the program was Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 1 for solo violin (lending the concert half its title), masterfully played by Alexi Kenney. The moment I heard the opening I knew I had heard the piece before. Sure enough, Ines Voglar-Belgique performed it for FearNoMusic’s season back in far-off April 2021, and Oregon Symphony violinist Shanshan Zeng performed it for OSO’s Essential Sounds series in even-farther-off 2020.

The piece is a showcase for myriad violin solo devices–mostly idiomatic, such as the sweeping up-down-up-down arpeggios, but with less obvious techniques like the melody in sevenths that pops up halfway through. Montgomery says in the program notes that the solo violin music of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe inspired the Rhapsody, which comes across in the virtuosity and depth of expression which Kenney handled with ease as one viscous phrase turned tender in a split second. 

The program as we heard it that night was a bit different from what it was intended to be, and I suspect this won’t be the first program change this year–“playing it by ear” seems to have been a running theme over the last few years. The concert was originally going to end with Stephen Hartke’s Netsuke for violin and piano, a series of portraits of small Japanese wood carvings performed by Monica Ohuchi and Jennifer Frautschi. But it had to be replaced by a piece by Du Yun and another piece by Kenji Bunch, whose Demon Barber was already on the program (giving this concert the other half of its title).

Bunch, in his opening remarks, explained how his piece Vesper Flights for flute and piano was inspired by an essay by Helen Macdonald he read in the New York Times around the time of his father’s passing. The essay describes the flight of birds who live almost their entire lives in the air, rarely coming to ground even to sleep. Macdonald weaves this into a metaphor for life, understanding ourselves as one small, insignificant portion of a wider world. Cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless. You may also recognize the title from Macdonald’s recent book of the same name, its evocative cover staring back at you from the bestsellers section of Powell’s Books.

I really loved this piece, which may have been my favorite on the program. The use of the piano’s high register in ascending arpeggios and suspended harmonies created this feeling of upward flight and weightlessness, perfect for evoking the flight of swifts. And I cannot praise Tara Helen O’Connor’s performance on the flute enough, which was tender yet articulate as every tiny shift in breath and timbre becomes significant. The ending was also impressively soft, fading away into pure silence. 

Monica Ohuchi and Tara Helen O'Connor performed Kenji Bunch's "Vesper Flights" at Chamber Music Northwest's first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Monica Ohuchi and Tara Helen O’Connor performed Kenji Bunch’s “Vesper Flights” at Chamber Music Northwest’s first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

This was followed by Bunch’s The Demon Barber, based on Steven Sondheim’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Bunch’s piece (for solo piano, performed by Ohuchi) transformed the demented ballad into something much more ferocious, as the melody sings over jagged and dissonant triplet figures in the piano’s lowest register. It really tapped into the wilder side of Sondheim that comes out throughout Sweeney Todd. It also reminded me of some of Brad Mehldau’s more wild improvisations–and anything that reminds me of Brad Mehldau is on my good side. 

This piece too was a tribute to Bunch’s late father: the composer recounted memories of watching a PBS showing of Sweeney Todd as a ten-year old with his father. 

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The concert ended with Kenney returning to the stage for Pulitzer-winner Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udatta for solo violin and tape. While the performance was great and I enjoyed the idea of the piece, the tape sounded a bit too quiet for my tastes. Thus it felt less like a wild violin cadenza sticking out of a droning chant texture and more like a scattered violin solo with some voices hanging in the background. Nonetheless, it was a solid end to the program, as the unpredictability of the extended techniques–including shaking the violin along with the bowing–and its improvisational character left a strong impression. 

Alexi Kenney performed Jessie Montgomery's "Rhapsody No. 1" at Chamber Music Northwest's first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.
Alexi Kenney performed Jessie Montgomery’s “Rhapsody No. 1” at Chamber Music Northwest’s first New@Night concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, June 29 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Newer nights ahead

Next week’s New@Night concert happens at 6 pm tomorrow night, July 6, at the Armory downtown. Arcadia Unlocked is a relatively short program: Judith Weir’s solo cello work Unlocked and Thomas Adès’ string quartet Arcadiana, performed by Zlatomir Fung and the Viano String Quartet respectively. 

Weir is the first woman to hold the post of the Master of the Queens Music in the UK, a post previously held by the likes of Peter Maxwell Davies and Edward Elgar. Unlocked is based on a series of folk tunes collected from prisoners in the 1930s by Alan and John Lomax, two of the early chroniclers of American folk traditions. Adès is a fellow Brit composer, and his quartet Arcadiana is among his earlier works–from before he became well-known for his great repertoire of orchestral and operatic works.

Fung is the youngest recipient of the First Prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition Cello Division; the Viano String Quartet is Nina von Maltzahn String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music. Both are CMNW 2022 Protégé artists, and will be featured throughout the festival.

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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