Saturday, July 2, 2016

CMNW Summer Festival's first week features imaginative program by steel pan artist Andy Akiho

Andy Akiho
Photo by Da Ping Luo
Wednesday night, June 29, saw the return of composer and steel pan (known commonly but less accurately as the steel drum) artist Andy Akiho to Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival, for what Akiho joked was surely "the first all-Akiho and Schubert concert" in history. The program was presented at the Alberta Rose Theater, a hip, informal venue perfectly suited to the night's event.

The evening opened with two movements from Akiho's Synesthesia Suite, originally a set of fourteen tenor steelpan solo movements in all 12 equal-tempered keys (each named for a color) plus two movements for black and white. Akiho reworked at least several movements for a chamber ensemble consisting of steel pan, percussion, violin, cello and piano, on Wednesday played by Akiho, Ian David Rosenbaum, Brandon Garbot, Hamilton Cheifetz, and Yevgeny Yontov respectively.

The first movement was Hadairo (Beige).  It began with a strange, halted intro with a rhythmic follow-through. There was a pizzicato plinking accompanied by percussion (principally marimba). Akiho demonstrated an incredibly deft touch on the steel pan in all respects, but perhaps most surprisingly the range of dynamic effects he was able to elicit from his instrument. I confess to not having much if anything by way of a basis for comparison, but it seems that Akiho demonstrated a virtuosic touch on his instrument, if anything even more striking than when I last heard him at CMNW. If he's not a virtuoso, I'd like to hear who is. (Seriously.) The violin sounded nice over the percussion, but the balance was skewed toward the percussion so the violin was sometimes concealed. There was a striking and dramatic stop-tempo toward the end, and Akiho once again played with an eerily beautiful sense of striking dynamic contrast.

The Passacaglia from Akiho's Five Movements for Piano Trio saw Garbot, Cheifetz and Yontov take over. Cheifetz plucked out an extremely tricky passacaglia theme on the cello, which was the beginning of a fascinating polyrhythmic experiment that worked well as the piano wended its way in and out of mysterious arpeggiations.

Complex rhythmic interactions between instruments seems to be a hallmark of Akiho's compositions; 21 was next. A theme was recorded on a loop sequencer that formed an ostinato around which the two performers (Akiho and Rosenbaum) played. At one point Akiho used what appeared to be a pair of chopsticks to elicit a tinny, quiet effect on the pan, and Rosenbaum played an arresting series of glissandi on the marimba, an instrument that could be indifferent to subtlety in lesser hands. Akiho tapped out a rhythm on the tambourine with a foot pedal as he continued his steel pan heroics, lapsing into molto pianissimo stretches of sublime beauty.

The program returned to two more movements from Synesthesia: Murasaki (Purple) and Aka (Red). Much as before, these works were a triumph of color, dynamics and sometimes surprising interactions between diverse instruments. For anyone seeking a new and vibrant sound-picture, Akiho's composition are an intriguing and worthwhile prospect, and his live performances are imaginative in execution.

The second half consisted entirely of Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 99 D 898 by Franz Schubert. Garbot and Yontov were joined by Timothy Eddy on the cello.  The opening Allegro Moderato featured fine, singing pedal points from the violin, and the trio managed well the tricky subversion of rhythmic expectations that Schubert incorporates. The Andante un poco mosso of the second movement was like a cradle-song serenade, requiring incredible coordination between players. It was spectacular, transportative, and this group rendered it so sensitively that it formed one of the most subtly glorious chamber music moments I've heard in a long time. The whole work was phenomenal; to use the old saw one runs out of superlatives, and that is probably not the first time I've used that phrase in conjunction with CMNW Summer Festival performances. The musicians are simply spectacular.

An interesting parallel between Akiho and Schubert (and one does try to suss these things out, assuming the programming is most definitely not random) is that they both employ colors and timbres as important, essential elements within their compositions, not merely as window-dressing.  I look forward as always to the continuation of the CMNW summer fest, one of the highlights of the musical year.

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