Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chamber Music Northwest highlights American music

Chamber Music Northwest presented a satisfying, varied program of Americana on Thursday, July 2 in the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College. A number of artists were featured on this night that celebrated American music in honor of our Independence Day weekend.

Opening the program was John Williams' new work Air and Simple Gifts (2009), composed and arranged for (and famously pantomimed during) President Obama's historic inauguration ceremony earlier this year. Featuring David Shifrin on the clarinet, Jennifer Frautschi on violin, Fred Sherry on cello and Anna Polonsky at the piano, this moody yet joyful work aptly set the tone for the program to follow. After a brief introductory air the familiar tune came to the fore. Frautschi and Sherry played wonderfully; with a scaled-back yet spacious timbre that showed respect for this hallowed tune, they deftly handled Williams' tricky fracturing of the main motive between the two instruments.

Next came Leonard Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, (1942), Bernstein's first published work as a professional. Bernstein himself characterized it in part as a 'student work,' and its sometimes unlovely yet never uninteresting structure was a sharp break from the opening. David Shifrin, clarinettist and artistic director of the festival, displayed the smooth, buttery elegance for which he is known, and yet infused his playing with a smarmy wit, very fitting for the non-sequitur interjections which spewed from the clarinet into the grumbling, harmonically complex base laid down by Polonsky the piano.

The half closed with a composition by Aaron Jay Kernis entitled Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby (2006). With the composer Kernis at the piano, Frautschi on the violin, Bryan Johanson playing guitar and Hyunah Yu singing soprano, this dense and complex work was a bit mystifying and suffered from some balance issues. Yu had a lovely voice but it seemed small, and she was frequently drowned out by the violin and piano, which did nothing to help with her diction issues. This piece might have been better served by a soprano with a bigger set of pipes, one willing and able to stake her place amongst the bullying strings, or failing that the violin and piano should have scaled back to fit the needs of the singer, who was really the centerpiece of this composition.

Given that, however, Frautschi was impressive all night long. The range of tonal colors she was able to elicit was exciting to hear, from high-pitched mewlings to a broad, viola-like singing. The guitar sounded nice when one was able to hear it, which was really only when nothing was coming from the violin and piano. Though Yu was drowned out far too often, there were moments of great beauty and emotionally intense import, and her murmuring glissandi and delicate, almost fragile ornamentation were important in bringing out the overall meaning of the piece. This work, especially the final lullaby, seemed ultimately overly-complicated and far too long to expound on the themes presented in the text.

The second half reverted to more traditional fare: a song cycle by Gershwin, and the same composer's Rhapsody in Blue arranged for piano, four hands. Yu and Polonsky teamed up for three of Gershwin's best-loved tunes: The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, and Summertime. The first was a huge hit with the crowd, but it seemed as though her singing was covered, or muted unnecessarily. In the second tune Yu gave an extremely personable delivery, and it seemed that by the time she got to Summertime, everything fell into place. The last tune worked; her sultry tone and languishing, unhurried manner embodied all that this song is about. It was by far her best delivery of the night.

The Rhapsody in Blue was fun and a sure crowd-pleaser. Polonsky, playing with a sincere and entertaining physicality, was joined by Elizabeth Harcombe, and despite a bit too-heavy sustain pedal at first, they managed to find many of the right orchestral colors and were given a standing ovation.

The final piece of the night was a world premier by Rob Moose entitled New Old River Music: Traditional Melodies in Four Movements. This was performed by the Punch Brothers, a group that is hard to describe as just a bluegrass band (nothing wrong with that), though it seems that bluegrass is where they start...

Featuring young (though incredibly experienced) mandolin phenom Chris Thile, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert on double bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo (joined by guest clarinettist Shifrin), the Punch Brothers served up a very different offering than the rest of the night's fare.

The first movement, based on Done Gone, began cautiously, with the main theme taken up alternately by fiddle, mandolin and banjo before exploding in glorious ensemble, with a free-flowing, improvisational feel. In the second movement (Midnight on the Water), the clarinet struck up a plaintive theme accompanied by a few ingeniously hesitant plunks from the banjo, and then the rest of the group came in for a surprisingly delicate arrangement. The song turned into a slow country waltz that began right where it started.

The Turtle of Laurel Lake opened with Thile's incomparable gossamer picking on the mandolin, the composition making use of the marvelous facility with which fiddle tunes transcribe to the mandolin. The movement delighted in its clever, untroubled ambience. Big Sciota sounded like slowly gathering drops of rain tinkling alternately from the different instruments in a very tricky pattern, rapidly gathering steam and making use of some surprising, satisfying harmonies and an incredible, judicious use of space. By the end, this ethereal framework had mutated into a good old-fashioned hoe-down like a bolt of thunder out of the blue.

The audience went wild for the Punch Brothers, who returned for an encore sans Shifrin to give a taste of the program being presented tonight, Saturday July 4th, at the same location. Fans of authentic, deeply-felt and impeccably performed American folk music with a twist would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining concert.

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