Sunday, July 5, 2015

Kernis’s “River” runs through Chamber Music Northwest concert with Brahms and Bach

Jasper String Quartet | photo credit: Jonathan Lange
This year, Chamber Music Northwest has extended its reach into contemporary music more than ever before. Featured in this year’s summer festival are many new works, including several pieces that were either commissioned exclusively by CMNW or commissioned by CMNW in cahoots with other music organizations. Aaron Jay Kernis’s String Quartet No. 3 (“River”) fell into the latter camp, being commissioned by CMNW and six other entities. I heard the “River’s” West coast premiere on Tuesday (June 30th) at Lincoln Hall. Before it was performed, Kernis came to the stage and told the audience that he hoped that the music would convey the “flow of water, energy, speed, flux, change.” The Jasper String Quartet, for whom it was written, followed his words with an incisive performance of the piece, which has five movements: “Source,” “Flow/Surge,” “Mirrored Surface – Flux – Reflections,” “Cavatina,” and” Mouth/Estuary.”

Cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel introduced “Source” with brief, rising phrases that suggested a spring bubbling forth. Soon violinists J. Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi plus violist Sam Quintal accompanied her with pizzicatos that began sporadically before gushing forth. The second movement featured a lovely duet between the cello and viola with the leading line passing to the second violin and later with the first violin joining in. An accelerando into quick, virtuosic fingerwork by the entire ensemble signaled surging waters and a torrent shooting over a mountain side, but the movement ended with a series of phrases that climbed higher and higher. I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to signify something or if Kernis just decided to go in another direction. The music in the third movement did seem to create a shiny surface and a series of downward glissandos suggested flux, but I never caught the waves of reflection. The fourth movement travelled from a sense of yearning with high notes that vanished to bird-like songs to a state of nervous energy to half-tones and snapping sounds from the cello and finally a state of calm. The last movement began with a slow and sad emotion. A couple of evocative cello solos led to a searching solo by the first violinist (J. Freivogel). The flow of the music then picked up speed and several intriguing combinations, such as pizzicatoing violins against low strumming from the cello ensured until the sound flatted out a bit. Perhaps the music arrived at the “Mouth/Estuary.” I couldn’t quite tell, because a lot of astonishing, virtuosic playing by the Jasper Quartet dazzled along the way. Overall, the piece contained huge helpings of emotion but the complexity of the music got in the way and that made me lose track, at times, of where the “River” was going.

The program started with Brahms “Selections from 11 Choral Preludes” (Op 122) in an arrangement for one piano and four hands by Peter Serkin. The selections were performed by Serkin (on the lower portion of the keyboard) and Julia Hsu (on the upper portion). Their playing was immaculate and finely balanced. The selections traded between stately and solemn to tenderly lyrical. It was wonderful to see how the two pianists worked together on pieces (for example, No. 5 “Schmücke dich, o Liebe Seele”) that required Hsu to delicately reach over with one hand and play between Serkin’s hands. It was grace and poetry in motion.

After intermission, violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Peter Wiley performed Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in a beguiling arrangement by Dmitry Sitkovetsky. With tremendous agility and sensitivity the trio created timbers and textures that marvelously added to the enjoyment of the work, which Bach wrote for the keyboard. Once in a while the musicians allowed a slight smile to form on their lips, revealing how much they enjoyed playing Bach’s masterpiece on their instruments. Smile or no smile, there were many transcendent moments during the performance, and it would be great to hear it again on a CMNW program in the near future.
Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley, and Steven Tenebom | photo credit: Tom Emerson

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