Monday, July 8, 2013

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary composers – a la 1938

Although the Chamber Music Northwest concert for July 4th was entitled “Turning Points,” it could have easily been called “1938 – the Bumper Crop Year” in reference to the number of American composers who were born that year. The Independence Day program featured works from no fewer than five composers who were born that year: Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, and William Bolcom. Each of these composers have had quite a bit of success, including Pulitzer prizes Wuorinen (1970), Harbison (1987), Corigliano (2001), Bolcom (1988), Grammys: Bolcom, Tower, and Corgliano. Most importantly, all five are still alive, kicking and scribbling at age 75.

Overall, this concert, presented at Kaul Auditorium, was a curious affair, because only Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Piano” delivered something close to a knockout punch. Played with visceral commitment by violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, this piece (written in 1992) used a grinding passacaglia phrase in the piano that was often juxtaposed with flights of fancy in the violin to create a sensation of someone(s) or something (maybe music itself) that struggled to become free. Its subtext, in fact, fit nicely with the Fourth of July celebration.

Tower’s “Turning Points” for Clarinet and String Quartet didn’t go over the top like the Corigliano number, but it did have emotional content. Since Tower was in attendance, she made a few prefatory and self-deprecating remarks, and how, in this piece (composed in 1995), she explored phrases by turning them over and over. The music began with a difficult solo passage by clarinetist David Shifrin that transitioned from low and very quiet tones and to high and boisterously loud series of notes. The string quartet (cellist Fred Sherry, violist Paul Neubauer, and violinists Ani Kavafian and Yura Lee) responded to Shifrin’s soliloquy by creating a conversation that moved in several directions. It was fascinating to hear how some phrases were turned over and over again, like something that was being sifted in order to find a golden nugget. The musical dialogue was dominated by the clarinet and cello, and passages became faster and faster towards the end, which was satisfying, but a bit predictable.

Viewing American painters through the lens of music seemed to be the idea behind Harbison’s “Six American Painters” for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello. The six visual artists who inspired this piece (written in 2000) were George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, and Richard Diebenkorn (a Portland native by the way), and each of them received his own movement. The music had an appealing mixture of color with the flute (played outstandingly by Jessica Sindell) sometimes leading the way, accenting, interjecting, or cajoling the strings (violinist Joel Link, violist Milea Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw) into action or reaction. The Winslow Homer movement was the most dramatic portrait. It featured raspy tones from the flute, edgy sounds from the viola, an ensemble-generated mosquito-like buzz and wire-thin whispers as well. Sindell brilliantly performed a variety of solos in each movement, including a diabolically leaping passage in the Hans Hofmann number.

The concert opened with two very abstract pieces: Elliott Carter’s “Duettino” for Cello and Violin (which was added to the concert program) and the world premiere of Wuorinen’s “Zoe” for String Sextet. “Duettino,” written in 2008 for Sherry, was played by Sherry and Lee. The music conveyed a series of fragmented phrases that seemed disembodied and unemotional, despite very loud pizzicatos at the end of the piece and the fact that both musicians played throughout with great intensity.

Perhaps not to be outdone by Carter, Wuorinen delved into the realm of abstraction with a longer piece that he dedicated to his cat, “Zoe.” Although some tones did converge once or twice, the passages seemed completely unrelated to each other and did not have much discernible emotional content, even though the musicians (violinists Lee and Link, violists Neubauer and Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellists Sherry and Shaw) played with the utmost commitment. The piece had several of my colleagues shaking their heads during intermission in frustration, but maybe the music only was meant to evoke the mood swings of Wuorinen’s pet.

The concert ended on a light-hearted, upswing with Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris delivering a wonderful set of whimsical popular songs. Bolcom played from memory and announced each piece with a humorous tidbit. Morris sang from memory and had each number charmingly underscored with just the right gesture and facial expression. The opening set included “The Bird on Nelly’s Hat,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Dancing on the Ceiling,” George Gershwin’s “Yankee Doodle Blues,” and Tom Lehrer’s “The Hunting Song.” The duo also performed Bolcom’s “The Total Stranger in the Garden,” “Radical Sally,” and “Lady Luck,” plus several “mini-cabaret” songs that were often a brief phrase, like “I feel good.” They finished with Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” and were called back for a delicious encore that was inspired by Portland’s own Henry Thiele Restaurant (which no longer exists, but used to be located on the corner of NW 23rd and Burnside), because of its unique menu. It capped off the evening with thunderous applause.


bob priest said...

with the exception of the yucky carter & wourinen slogs, this was a mighty fine concert. darrell's piece was a REAL kicker!

thanx for the solid coverage of one of the better cmnw concerts i've ever attended.

bob priest said...

yikes, i mixed up 2 concerts - soooooo sorry.

darrell's wonderful piece was on a different program.

James Bash said...

Yes. I still have to write that one...