Saturday, July 26, 2008

New music by Sierra Sierra shares stage with Janáček and Schumann at Chamber Music Northwest concert

Since 1990 Chamber Music Northwest has commissioned 27 new works, a remarkable feat for any arts organization, and according to Linda Magee, executive director of CMNW, “more commissioned works are in the hopper.” That great news, because CMNW sponsorship gives today’s composers an opportunity to create new pieces and hear them performed. On Tuesday evening (July 22) at Cabell Center (Catlin Gabel School) I heard the world premiere of the latest CMNW-sponsored work, Roberto Sierra’s “Concierto de Cámera” for woodwind quintet and string quartet.

Sierra, a native of Puerto Rico, has many works that have been performed world-wide by ensembles ranging from the Kronos Quartet to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He has also won numerous awards and since 1992 teaches composition on the music faculty of Cornell University.

Sierra’s “Concierto de Cámera,” co-commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, is a lively, five-movement work with no pause between the first two. As the program notes pointed out, this work begins as a nonet, then is directed toward two separate ensembles, and ends up presenting the musicians as virtuoso soloists. So, in the way, the music gradually fragments in the way that it is played, yet it all sounded as a whole. That, of course, can be accomplished when it is played by two virtuoso ensembles, the Imani Winds and the Miami String Quartet. They displayed a wonderful way of transcending this difficult work and giving the audience an exciting journey into a new soundscape.

I really liked the second movement which seemed, for an extended passage, to evoke the flight of birds and ended with statement that seemed to question everything that had been played up to that point. The third movement had a quick-footed, agitated state and lots of aggressive sounds with sharp edges. The fourth movement juxtaposed an arresting legato from the winds and first violinist with pizzicato from the other strings. The last movement was jaunty and dance-like. All of the musicians from both ensembles really got into the work and the resulting applause was very enthusiastic.

The Imani Winds with David Shifrin on bass clarinet began the concert with Leoš Janáček’s “Mládí” (“Youth”), a sextet that he wrote in 1924 at the age of 70. In this four movement piece, Janáček recalls the exuberance of his childhood, and, indeed the music from the get-go chrips along at a fast clip. The blasts from Jeff Scott’s French horn, were wonderfully echoed by others in the ensemble. The second movement seemed to have a more serious tone, which at one pointed became almost sultry. It also contained some intriguing passages for the clarinet, which were played wonderfully by Mariam Adam, and somewhere in this movement the group of musicians seemed really gel and take the music to a higher level. The happy, chirpy sounds returned in the third movement before there was an abrupt shift to a more lyrical style. The fourth movement was energetic and ended joyously, which the audience embraced wholeheartedly.

After intermission, The Miami String Quartet teamed up with pianist Shai Wosner to give an outstanding performance of Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat major for piano and strings, Op. 44. Their collaboration was superb, due in part to the wonderful sense of communication. Everyone in the ensemble was looking and listening to each other so intently that they got the utmost out of this piece. You can hear a great recording of this work, but to hear it live like this goes beyond what any recording can do.

One of the highlights of the first movement included the way that violist Yu Jin finished the phrases that cellist Keith Robinson began. The sweet tone of Benny Kim’s violin during second theme of the second movement was delicious to the ears. The melancholy themes, the dreamy sections, the parts that sounded like a beehive at work: they were all outstanding. The way that Wosner kept the piano in balance with the strings was fantastic! I loved the way that he crouched at the keyboard and looked at Kim in anticipation of the first note of the last movement before pouncing on it. The audience got completely swept up in the music and went bonkers at the end. It was a great way to end the evening.

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