Weekend MusicWatch: Preludes to summer

Violinist Martin Chalifour and cellist Sergey Antonov perform Saturday at the Astoria Music Festival.

The big summer music festivals begin this month, and several performances in the past couple weeks offered enticing previews of things to come. If last night’s preview performance at Portland’s Old Church is any indication, this year’s Astoria Music Festival will make the drive to the north coast even more appealing than it already is. The two major instrumental soloists, violinist Martin Chalifour (the Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster who also maintains a solo career that’s brought him to Oregon several times in recent years) and cellist Sergey Antonov proved worthy of their stellar reputations.

Accompanied by festival chamber music director and veteran Portland pianist Cary Lewis, Chalifour played an arrangement for violin of Francis Poulenc’s irresistibly charming 1957 Flute Sonata. Although written late in the composer’s life (and after decidedly more somber late-career Poulenc music we’ve heard in Portland in recent weeks, including his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites and cantata Figure Humaine), it glitters with all the vivacity of his celebrated 1920s tunes. And there’s a long tradition (in Baroque music, for example) of composers allowing substitution of one treble instrument like violin for another, such as flute. Maybe it’s just that I’ve relished the original version for so many years that I can’t really hear it in any other, but the new arrangement lacked the original’s breeziness, although it did compensate with a certain elegance, evoking high-class cafe music, probably courtesy of Chalifour’s elan.

Sergey Antonov plays Ernest Bloch

In introducing his premiere of a recently unearthed 1897 cello sonata by long-time Oregon resident Ernest Bloch, the prize winning Russian cellist compared an unpublished or new score to an ultrasound image, and the actual debut performance of that piece to the fleshed out, newborn creature. Then Antonov tried to pre-emptively take the blame for any audience disappointment with the one-movement work. But his committed performance of this immature work of the then-17 year old Swiss composer wasn’t the problem with this fervid throwback to high Romanticism, which takes a memorable six note theme and pretty much sticks with it throughout. It’s a minor piece of juvenilia that will probably appeal to the romantically inclined. Antonov, however, is already a star — his rid,h focused sound and expressive playing in all registers of the instrument a marvel of musicality.

The concert — a fundraiser for the Old Church, which deserves the love for its indefatigable support of classical and other music in Portland — was worth the price for the third piece: Antonov and Chalifour’s blistering performance of an ingenious, too seldom heard major duo by Maurice Ravel. His kaleidoscopic Duo Sonata demanded deft interlocking lines and plucks at blazing tempos, and you could see the effort both these much-honored players exerted while never feeling that the performance was labored or in any other way inadequate. It was surely one of the finest chamber music performances in Oregon this year, and I envy anyone who makes it to Astoria Saturday to hear it. You can read the rest of our Astoria preview here.

Amedei Cello Quartet at First Presbyterian Church

You have another chance to help the Old Church spruce up its paint job at the sequel: Friday night’s fundraiser featuring the Bainbridge Quartet, which includes Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble (who also plays in the Arnica Quartet and other Portland ensembles), Third Angle pianist Susan Smith, cellist Heather Blackburn, and violinists Denise Dillenbeck and Timothy Schwartz. They’ll play Shostakovich’s dark Piano Quintet, a potent Beethoven quartet and Dvorak’s pretty Cypresses.

I heard traces of Dvorak (and some Bartok, too) in Croatian composer Reudolf Matz’s cello quartet, played last Sunday in First Presbyterian Church’s Celebration Works series by Portland’s Amedei Cello Ensemble. I realize the cello foursome literature is sparse (hence the arrangements of pop songs at this show) but Matz’s piece is a real discovery that deserves more performances when, as seems to happen so often in Portland these days, cellos convene.

[*UPDATE: the ever-astute Portland composer Bob Priest notes that in fact, original works for multiple celli abound. So, no excuse for lame multi-cello arrangements of pop songs.]

The ensemble played some Beatles arrangements, too,  and anyone who craves more Fab Four can hear more Merseyful arrangements, this time for 100+ voice chorus, at this weekend’s Portland Gay Men’s Chorus concert at Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Also, on Saturday, at 4 pm, Classical Revolution PDX joins FearNoMusic and dozens of bicyclists at the top of Southeast Portland’s Mt. Tabor for a performance of modern Italian trickster/composer Mauricio Kagel’s A Breeze — which requires a fleet of moving cyclists making various noises in synchrony and formation. It’s a short piece that’ll be repeated and accompanied by other contemporary works.

Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution

Classical Revolution celebrated its fifth anniversary last weekend at the place it all started, the little Waypost club in Northeast Portland. In true CRPDX fashion, the performance quality spanned the spectrum from rough and ready (including a bumpy but fun sight-read of Schumann’s Piano Quintet) to sublime (Ken Beare and Maria Choban’s masterfully nuanced, playful, keening, and passionate rendition of Maurice Ravel’s evocative Greek songs). But what really mattered was the relaxed atmosphere, which made classical music seem natural and fun evening entertainment rather than a stuffy formal event. Bottles clanked and babies chuckled during quiet moments of Mattie Kaiser and Choban’s performance of a Romantic Rebecca Clarke duet for viola and piano and other pieces, Choban earned the biggest shouts of the evening for her solo piano arrangement of Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s turbulent Storm Session, which sounded as electrifying as the plugged in guitar original (which I haven’t heard) must be. FNM’s Jeff Payne played — not new music, for once — but a scintillating Haydn sonata.

The centerpiece was Bay Area pianist Lara Downes’s enchanting encore performance of several works from her 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg project — commissioned works inspired by J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and composed by Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, Derek Bermel (a particular fave of mine), jazzer Fred Hersch, David Del Tredici and more, including one by John Musto she accurately described as “Bach on Crack,” and a bonus from Dave Brubeck. We may be seeing her more often in Portland in coming months.

Ken Beare sings Ravel

Downes performed those works at last summer’s Portland International Piano Festival and at Vie De Boheme wine bar. Portland Piano International, which sponsored that appearance, hosted the German prepared pianist Hauschka at another informal Portland venue, Doug Fir Lounge, last week. They should have mounted a mini camera in the piano’s guts so the audience could see all the doodads he installed to alter the sonic textures in fascinating ways — metallic ringing, thumping bass notes, buzzing midrange –thanks to duct tape, ping pong balls, and a whole shopping bag’s worth of noisemakers he displayed to the audience before installing them, like a magician pulling a seemingly endless number of unusual items from his pockets. Some flew out into the audience during the performance.

But the music proved to be more than a gimmick, sometimes reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s more ambient works, sometimes insistently percussive like the prepared piano originator’s, John Cage. Hauschka used simple repeating phrases in ingenious ways to showcase the unusual timbres. He also reminisced about his earlier dance and rock club career, which made sense when he unveiled electronic enhancements to provide dance club bass lines and drones that would have worked well in a house music or even drum ‘n bass concert. When he ditched the additions for a reflective solo piano piece, the unvarnished sound came as a pleasant surprise. Like all provocative artists, he made the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Only his encore, from an early album, fell flat.

The show served as a kind of prelude to this summer’s PIP festival. The organization deserves kudos for expanding the boundaries of the traditional piano recital by using atypical venues and performers — and was rewarded by the presence of a packed house of demographically diverse (for Portland, anyway) listeners.

Hauschka at Doug Fir Lounge

Portland State University professor Susan Chan gave a much more traditional recital the previous weekend, but the music — all from Chinese or Chinese-North American composers, was equally new and striking. Opening with 75 year old composer Doming Lam’s colorful, Debussy-influenced (like much of the music this evening) evocations of traditional Chinese instruments like the chin and pipa, the concert really took flight with Zhou Long’s 2009 Mongolian Folk Song variations. Now based at University of Missouri at Kansas City, the 2010 Pulitzer winner has come to Portland (along with his wife, the equally excellent composer Chen Yi) thanks to Third Angle, and Chan commissioned his newest work, Pianobells, which she played here in its Northwest premiere. It’s a magical tone poem, with Chan sometimes strumming strings inside the piano (after the manner of 20th century California composer Henry Cowell, also the inspiration for Hauschka’s tricks) and evoking legendary Chinese bells that ring without being struck. Chan will be recording it and others soon. With Zhou Long’s multiple Portland connections, wouldn’t be a treat to see Portland Opera or Opera Theater Oregon produce his 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning opera, Madame White Snake?

Susan Chan plays Zhou Long’s Pianobells

Alexina Louie’s gently flowing 1993 Music for Piano also evoked bell sounds and ancient memories. Tan Dun’s early Eight Memories in Watercolor also memorably channeled Debussy and Chinese folk melodies. The encore, Chen Yi’s bagatelles from Chinese operas from Hunan province, ended the recital on an exuberant note. Chan played with precision and poise, albeit with a limited dynamic range that may have been dictated by the scores. That made the recital feel a little long; I’d love to see her and other pianists (and other solo instrumentalists) perform shorter concerts more frequently. Her committed advocacy of contemporary Asian sounds makes Chan a real asset to Oregon music.

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