The fruits of composer David Schiff's skills as an arranger were evident on Thursday, July 21st as the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival continued. Kaul Auditorium was the perfect acoustical space for an evening of Scandinavian composers as the program Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems took place.
Opening the evening was a brace of works by Carl Nielsen, beginning with Serenata in vano, a work like all the works of the evening for strings and winds. This work began with a rhythmically intense three-quarter time signature dissolving into languid arias for horn and clarinet. Exciting annunciations from the contrabass came to the forefront as the extremely well-balanced wind section swelled and receded, leaving the air cleared for exciting, razor-accurate doublings between horn and bassoon. Like much of the evening it was redolent with the richness of the Fenno-Scandia folk tradition, and was over too soon.
David Shifrin had another chance to shine as Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 was next. This brilliant work opened with a crisp fughetta, one which Shifrin infused with electricity, and a rich, throaty sound from the basso register of his instument. The texture was widely varied...at times Shifrin was mysterious and unhurried, other times the strings spun a glorious web upon which Shifrin went spidering along, and there were great moments from William Purvis on the solo horn as well. Shifrin's playing felt like storytelling as he navigated the ever-shifting shoals with his usual grace and dexterity.
After intermission the audience was treated to the ever-popular Peer Gynt Suites, arranged for a 13-piece orchestra by Schiff. It was an interesting dichotomy to see such a large orchestra (for this festival) on stage as Schiff spoke a bit on the challenges of boiling down these huge orchestral pieces for such (relatively) spare ornamentation. Seven of the eight movements from both suites were on the bill; Peer Gynt's Homecoming presented too large a task for the composer vis-a-vis the need for such radical reductions in the number of instruments he had to work with.
The order of presentation was different as well, so it was fun to hear these movements juxtaposed in an unfamiliar manner. Beginning with the Death of Ase, the theme shifted from primarily winds to the strings, a nice subtle change of color. It retained most of the gravitas of the full orchestral work. For Morning Mood, the sonority of all those winds didn't quite work...at times it felt a bit hokey for Grieg's grand gesture, though it was fun to watch the string players standing in bravely for an entire section. Anitra's Dance featured brilliant solo work from Matt Landry who throughout the work shifted between a number of different saxophones. Theodore Arm's solo work also stood out as particularly fine.
The Abduction of the Bride held a fascinating sonance; the winds constantly uplifting the small string band almost felt like human voices somewhere in the background. The Arabian Dance and Solveig's Song were truly delightful, especially the latter. What a joy it was to hear such necessarily sparse scoring--every single player had to be completely on top of their game or all would have been lost. Percussionist Jonathan Greeney deserves high praise for his performance, which was nothing short of heroic at times. And finishing off with In the Hall of the Mountain King? Well, how could you go wrong? Schiff's arrangement was fascinating, fun and inspired, and was a wonderful new way to hear such beloved old gems.