Monday, July 28, 2008

Chamber Music Northwest gives a glimpse into the world of Claude Debussy

Chamber Music Northwest explored the late chamber music of Claude Debussy in a concert that drew a capacity crowd to Kaul Auditorium (Reed College) on Thursday (July 22). The music revealed a bit of Debussy’s mindset, which may have been affected by the events of WWI and the deterioration of his own health due to colon cancer. Each piece had a transitory nature that may have depicted fleeting impressions and feelings or was a reflection on the ephemeral nature of our existence… or maybe a little of both.

David Shifrin, artistic director of CMNW, and pianist Shai Wosner, began the concert with “Premiere Rhapsodie” for Clarinet and Piano, which Debussy wrote in 1909. As a preface to the piece, Shifrin told the audience that he had played this work over twenty times with Andre Watts. That remark might have intimated most pianists, but Wosner didn’t blink an eye and proceeded to support Shifrin with an impeccable accompaniment. Shifrin played the work from memory and used his superior breath control to create all sorts of sounds – from smooth, expansive legatos to fluttery, buttery staccato runs. Overall, this was a pleasant piece that ended by looking forward on a note of hope.

Cellist Sophie Shao teamed up with Wosner to perform the next piece on the program, Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, which he wrote in 1915. Together, Shao and Wosner interpreted Debussy’s improvisatory style with élan and took us on a journey that covered a changing landscape of moods. Highlights included the eloquent opening of the first movement (“Lent”), the quixotic pizzicato and dance-like moments of the second movement (“Modérément animé”), and the seamless tempo changes in the third movement (“Final: Animé”). Shao, in particular, seemed to know this technically difficult work like the back of her hand and was totally immersed in the music. Wosner, a last minute replacement for an injured André Watts, seemed very comfortable with the piece as well.

Debussy finished his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1917, and it became his final composition, because he died the following year. Although it is regarded as a short work, this sonata covers a lot of ground, and its episodic nature was given the full treatment by violinist Carmit Zori and pianist Wosner. I loved the Zori’s ardent and emotive playing, and she handled the virtuosic finale with panache. The singing tone of Zori’s violin was matched by Wosner, who could impressively change dynamics on a dime.

After intermission, Tara Helen O’Connor played “Syrinx” for Unaccompanied Flute. Debussy wrote this piece in 1912. The title was imposed in 1927 upon the publication of the piece and refers to an ancient Greek story in which the nymph Syrinx escaped Pan by being transformed into a reed by her sisters. Of course, Pan takes the reed and fashions a flute from it.

In the hands of O’Connor, the ephemeral qualities of Debussy’s “Syrinx” came to the forefront. The many arresting sounds – some of which flitted here and there, others of which evoked someone in distress – that I would’ve enjoyed hearing this short piece a second time.

The final piece on the program was the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, which was written by Debussy in 1916. O’Connor was joined in the performance of this work by violist Toby Appel and harpist Heidi Lehwalder. Lehwalder, by the way, was the first recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and teaches on the music faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle.

The trio gave Debussy’s Sonata a wonderful performance, but the music is not easy to grasp. Like the other works in the program, this sonata had harmonic twists and turns. The music seemed very episodic with no particular destination in mind. The tempo did pick up dramatically at the end with a passage that reminded me of a snowball rolling downhill, gathering in size before it stops.

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