Sunday, July 12, 2015

New music by Bunch creates chuckles at CMNW concert – along with music by Lang and Mozart

Tara Helen O'Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji Bunch, David Shifrin, and Fred Sherry | Photo by Tom Emerson
Chamber music (heck, classical music in general) needs a little levity now and then. So, it was refreshing be at Kaul Auditorium on Monday (July 6) and hear a brand new piece, Ralph’s Old Records,” that was lighthearted from the get go. Written for “Pierrot” ensemble by Portland-based composer Kenji Bunch, “Ralph’s Old Records” was inspired by the popular tunes that Bunch’s father, Ralph Bunch, enjoyed, such as the popular jazz music of Hoagy Carmichael and Spike Jones. As a kid, Kenji Bunch also enjoyed listening to his dad’s favorites, and his “Ralph’s Old Records,” commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest, channeled those memories.

The first number, “Chi-Chi Hotcha Watchee Stomp” was a loosey-goosey, bouncy affair that featured a wild solo by clarinetist David Shifrin. In the second piece, “Celestial Debris,” pianist Yekwon Sunwoo sprinkled chords a la “Stardust” while Shifrin’s clarinet wandered about in a breezy aimless fashion. Next came “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray” with fiddle-style passages from violist Bunch, pips from the flute/piccolo of Tara Helen O’Connor, wails from Shifrin, a wheezy tone from cellist Fred Sherry, and punctuation marks from Sunwoo. “When I Grew Too Old to Dream, Dream, Dream, One More Dream Came True” was stocked with shenanigans that included kazoo, penny whistle, store counter bell, and Shifrin making fun noises with his clarinet mouthpiece. In “Off to the Foxes," Shifrin created some Benny Goodman-like licks while Sunwoon added Liberace-esque flourishes from the keyboard, and the entire ensemble came together perfectly for the slow stuttering fortes that created a lot of suspense in the last few measures of the piece. A rip-roaring standing ovation ensued.

The program included the West coast premiere of Lang’s “almost all the time” (yes, a lowercase title), which refers to his quest to us a 10-note strand as the musical DNA of that piece. Because he came close to getting the kernel of musical DNA into each and every phrase of the piece, he entitled it “almost all the time.”

The piece, played marvelously by the Jasper String Quartet, began with mix of glass harmonica-like sounds that transitioned through a series of microtonal adjustments. It seemed that the viola (Sam Quintal) was the first instrument to break away from the musical scrum. He played three rising notes, which grew to four, and gradually to five. It gave me the feeling of someone who wanted to break free. Various members of the quartet followed that with another series of rising tones. At some point, cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel got ahold of the line and played a series of 20 ascending tones (if I counted correctly). Violinists J. Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi pushed things higher and higher before the concoction settled down into a sequence that seemed random and unconnected. I have to admit that I lost the thread of the piece at that point. There was not windup or grand finale. The piece just stopped. It was an intriguing number that I would like to hear again.

Mozart was known to be a party animal, and his music often floats along in a way that causes one to smile on the inside. That was part of the takeaway that I felt while listening to Mozart’s Flute Quartet No. 1 in D Major (K. 285). Flutist O’Connor, violinist Nikki Chooi, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Sherry gave a masterful performance. With O’Connor demonstrating astonishing breath control, the ensemble modulated effortlessly between elegant and smooth passages and effervescent ones that were perky and playful.

The probing opening commentary of the cello, the seamless exchange of phrases between ensemble members, and an excellent blend of instrumental voices were hallmarks of the performance Mozart’s String Quintet No. 5 in D Major (K. 593), which closed the concert. Violinists Daniel Phillips and Chooi, violists Neubauer and Bunch, and cellist Sherry dug into the piece, delivering the loveliest sections with dulcet tones and scampering across the animated passages with élan. A bauble or two and some slight intonation problems were the only flaws in their performance, which was enthusiastically embraced by the audience.

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