Friday, June 27, 2014

Uneven Debussy performances open Chamber Music Northwest’s 44th Summer Festival

O'Connor, Neubauer, and Allen at Kaul / Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest opened its 44th season with an all-Debussy program that received some superb performances and some that ran a little rough at Kaul Auditorium on opening night (Monday. June 23). Part of the program featured three sonatas that Debussy wrote towards the end of his life. He had had planned to write a set of six sonatas, but because of failing health (colon cancer) and the outbreak of WWI, he only finished three of them: a Sonata for Violin and Piano, a Sonata for Cello and Piano, and a Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. These pieces were accompanied on the program by a solo piece for flute, and rhapsody for clarinet and piano, and an arrangement inspired by “Children’s Corner” by David Schiff.

The concert got off to a good start with the Sonata for Violin and Piano. Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Melvin Chen circumnavigated the mercurial soundscape of this piece with excellent balance and an air of spontaneity. Sometimes Beilman fashioned light and fluid sonorities that starkly contrasted with solid, repetitive chords the Chen emoted from the piano. Other times, both instruments danced along or delved into a lush melody. The third movement reached a wild, climatic state that elicited enthusiastic rounds of applause from the audience.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor has probably played “Syrinx” a thousand times, but she always seems to find something new to say with this short piece. It’s an intimate number that evokes the Greek legend of a river nymph who success to elude the amorous intentions of Pan by transforming into marsh reeds, which Pan then uses to make musical pipes. O’Connor succeeded in finding the sad and unsettling quality of this music, and her playing made me want to hear this brief piece again.

Next on the program came “Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner,” a quintet for clarinet and strings that was written by Portland composer David Schiff. Just to whet the audience’s appetite, Chen popped out on the stage to play the original piano version of the “Golliwogg Cakewalk.” That may have been a last-minute offering, because it sounded awkward and bass-heavy.

Schiff’s piece was played by clarinetist David Shifrin, violinists Theodore Arm and Beilman, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Peter Wiley. It had the childlike spirit and charm of the original. Highlights included the bubbly playing of Shifrin in “Doctor Gradus and Parnassum,” the mysterious quality of “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” and the jazziness of “Golliwogg’s Ghost.”

After intermission, Shifrin and Chen played “Premiere Rhapsodie” for Clarinet and Piano. Creating dreamy lyrical lines that seemed to float about, Shifrin played the entire piece from memory, but his artistry didn’t seem to gel all that well with Chen. The same problem cropped up when Wiley and Chen followed with a performance of the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Wiley created all sorts of nuanced sounds and dynamics, but Chen was often too loud and rough. It seemed that the two artists were coming at the piece from different angles, and the combination just didn’t work very well.

The last piece on the program, the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp was the best of the evening. O’Connor, Neubauer, and harpist Nancy Allen elicited a wonderful variety of intimate sounds that transported the listeners beyond Kaul Auditorium to an enchanted space where notes danced about. The threesome listened to each other as they played and created music that was intense and engaging. The audience responded with thunderous applause, and most strolled over to the lobby where they were treated to champagne and sweets as part of the celebration of CMNW’s 44th season.
CMNW reception / Photo credit: Tom Emerson

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