Monday, July 11, 2011

In the Works Review, July 8

by CMNW guest blogger Chien Tan

Listening last Friday to Debussy's Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp performed by CMNW Protégé artists Sooyun Kim, flute, Andy Lin, viola, and Bridget Kibbey, harp, it is hard to believe that they just rehearsed together for the first time the night before. I was observing them in their master class on July 8 (“In the Works”) with CMNW veteran violist Hsin-Yun Huang, who gave them thoughtful insights into the Debussy. She spoke of the need for absolute connection of lines merging into each other in the first movement, and that it be more ethereal but also not entirely calm.

This is an emotive group. Sooyun Kim sways her flute to and fro, eyeing Andy Lin as she passes her musical line to his. Lin takes over melody, giving a dark velvety sound. Kibbey is poised expressively, plucking her harp with gestures not unlike a ballerina.

Huang interrupts for a moment. She tells Lin, “Try to be less expressive at the beginning - less vibrato, like the flute.”

Debussy was a trailblazer who did not conform to the harmonic expression of his time, and furthermore, he was the first to compose for the odd combination of viola, harp and flute. Yet it is a an effective one, as each line has a distinct color.

The music changes rather abruptly to a dance. Then it shifts again to something quite animated.

Huang comments, “Look at the music - it's crazy” as she points out to the audience that Debussy wrote a succession of bars full of a tempo contrasts, faster in one bar and slower the next. She talked about subtle dynamics and how such attention to details makes the piece come alive. “What instrumentalists thrive on is making a difference between piano and pianissimo.”

Now forty-five minutes have gone into coaching the first movement and yet it is a thrill to hear the trio take in new ideas and weave it together. And there was still the second and final movement to come. The music is like an exotic perfume wafting through the air that you want to wrap yourself in.

“That was so beautiful! Goosebumps!” Huang exclaimed. Indeed it was.

The next In the Works is Friday, July 15, 11am-1pm at Sherman Clay Moe's Pianos, featuring the Wanmu Percussion. Works by Crumb and Kirchner featured. David Shifrin, CMNW coach.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Music on Jewish Themes

by CMNW guest blogger Bob King

I’m sure there are many compositions for solo trombone and drums, but until last Saturday night’s CMNW Encore Series concert “Music on Jewish Themes”, I didn’t know there was even one. Ok, strike that, apparently the piece I heard, “Elohai N’Shomo”, is a Hebrew liturgical song, but I have to tell you it sounded terrific as played by David Taylor, bass trombone, and Michael Sarin, drums. Surprises just like this were pretty much the order of the evening for this concert which featured the world premiere of David Schiff’s latest composition, “Borscht Belt Follies.”

One thing that wasn’t a surprise to me was the size of the crowd hoping to buy tickets at the door and the subsequent SRO audience. I wasn’t surprised because I had read David Stabler’s effective preview of the concert the day before, in which he quickly summarized the essentials and labeled the featured clarinetist, David Krakauer, as “one of the greatest” of our time. Between that and my (admittedly fuzzy) awareness of Portland’s closely knit Jewish community, the enthusiasm of the patrons at Kaul seemed nearly inevitable. And boy did they get their money’s worth - starting with the aforementioned bass trombone and drum transcription; I really enjoyed Michael Sarin’s work on the drums – he seemed to have just the right balance between punch and control; rhythmic interest and quiet backbeat (can you tell I know almost nothing about drumming?) From this controlled outburst of brass and crash, we transitioned to the quiet and reflective Ernest Bloch piece “From Jewish Life” for piano and cello performed by two thirds of the excellent Apollo Trio, Michael Kannen and Marija Stroke, respectively. I especially enjoyed the first section “Prayer”, with its balladic tempo and form.

Then onto the treat of the night, Schiff’s “Follies.” Here I am at a distinct disadvantage; if it wasn’t for my father-in-law, a nice boy from Beach Street in the Bronx, who has told us stories of those Friday evenings during summers in the Catskills, when the mothers and kids lined the road to the cottages as the fathers drove in from their work week in the city, if not for those stories I would know bupkis about Jewish life. Fortunately a cultural background wasn’t needed to appreciate the terrific music in this tribute to Jewish life in NYC and The Catskills of the 1950’s. I wish I could do greater justice to what I’m sure are a myriad of cultural and musical references contained therein; I will not attempt to expose my pitiful ignorance of 1950’s jazz and Jewish life. What I can tell you I heard was an amazing ability to create picture after picture in my mind; you hear the word kaleidoscope thrown around quite a bit, but this truly was a remarkable musical cocktail in which I saw as much as heard visions of home life, city-scapes, jazz bars, funeral marches, a Jewish wedding, and much more.

Ironically, the more recognizable chamber music format of the piano trio, in this case the Shostakovich No. 2 in E Minor, was somewhat the odd duck in this concert. That isn’t to say that the Apollo Trio’s performance of this wartime memorial to the composer’s friend and leading Soviet polymath, Ivan Sollertinsky, was something less than excellent; to be sure, its weight and seriousness served as a good counterbalance to some of the wild moments of the night. I suppose the difference was the standard movement formats and that there were no drums of course! Speaking of drums, they were back for the finale of the night – some rocking Klezmer standards (if you can use that word for Klezmer.) At one point during the peak of Krakauer’s take on a Synagogue Wail, I could tell that more than a few audience members were concerned that the performer might expire on the spot from either a heart attack or burst lung, the clarinetist having nearly literally reached a fevered pitch! And even I recognized the classical folk song Der Heyser Bulgar, a fun dance to end the night. Bravo, Mr. Schiff.

"The Professor and the Madman"

by CMNW guest blogger Bob King

Last Saturday night at St. Mary's Academy, Chamber Music Northwest presented cellist Colin Carr and pianist Thomas Sauer performing three Beethoven sonatas and his set of variations on a theme by Handel. Of course this really has nothing to do with their music making, but my first impression of the artists was the book title "The Professor and the Madman", which is really only to say that Mr. Sauer looks every bit the handsome young professor in his suit, tie and wire frame glasses, while Mr. Carr's somewhat wild curly locks and what I believe was a black Chinese shirt gave him a bit of a crazed aura; this was actually even more pronounced as the concert progressed where, in the Sonata No. 5 in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 102, No. 2, at some of the especially forceful lines of ending Allegro Fugato, Mr. Carr seemed about to launch himself (with cello) towards center stage. Regardless of my odd imaginings, the duo gave us excellent illustrations of Beethoven's early, late and middle (or heroic) musical modes, and beautifully rendered. Not being a highly accomplished musician, I won't attempt to guess at the particular virtues of the performers or any subtleties they may have evoked in the pieces that the expert may have heard. I will offer that Mr. Carr's performance was full of emotional transparency; the character of the music being nearly simulcast by his facial expressions. It's possible for a performer to attempt to force this, and that becomes melodrama and distracting gesticulation. What I felt from Mr. Carr was entirely different; he was living in the music, and by turns all the drama, joy and occasional humor was therefore inhabiting him.

I was very happy when the artists addressed the audience regarding some facets of the program. Even Beethoven, with all that depth and passion emanating from his works, can feel somewhat sterile in the forms of the concert hall; but when two high caliber performers help translate both the historical contexts and some of the musical ideas that may be less obvious to the lay person, such as myself, the listening experience is truly enhanced, both intellectually and emotionally. Thomas Sauer's anecdotal remarks about the D Major sonata not being part of the standard repertoire for piano and sonata earlier in the 20th century because it was not well understood and considered essentially unplayable, especially after they had just performed the piece with such excellent technique and feeling, was amusing but also reminded me that music performance and repertoire is a living construct which changes over time. I also enjoyed Colin Carr's remarks about Variations on Handel's "See the Conquering Hero Comes", that they could have easily been written by Mozart, meaning that the musical styles are in the classical Mozartian vein, but that Mozart wouldn't have been so lazy as to steal the theme and would have written his own. While I thought that was funny, I wonder if the truth lies closer to Beethoven's nearly fanatical devotion to the great composers who came before him, and his desire to honor them, while Mozart's combination of narcissism and the luxury he had with that profusion of melodies coursing through is inner ear would almost never have led him to use another composer's music.

I will be unhappy with myself if I don't say something about the "perfect" Sonata No. 3 in A Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 69. Both Messrs. Carr and Sauer gave it that appellation before their performance, and while that might seem like hyperbole, of which I am typically very skeptical of, I would like to add my voice to theirs in that description of this fine piece. Of course their particular performance of the piece last night, while terrific, was not perfect. And yet, through a variety of lenses, be they that of the sonata form, or balance between the instruments, or musical themes and melody, or for me simply because the combination of the cello and the piano is so satisfying, and perhaps because the piece is neither retrospective (in it's time) or especially forward looking, it feels about as perfect a composition as I can imagine.

Lastly, I must say I appreciated the venue. I have heard that the acoustics are not ideal; fortunately for me I guess my perceptions are not fine enough for that to detract. What mattered more to me was the opportunity to attend an excellent concert downtown, near relatively inexpensive parking, in a hall that was comfortable but not so fancy as to make me wonder what all this was costing. In many ways it felt somewhat like the old PSU Piano Series concerts at Lincoln Hall - comfortable like a good old coat. I also appreciated how quiet the audience was throughout the performance - bravo - if only I could take you all with me to some other concerts around town this year, we might be able to concentrate on the music!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Beethoven, Bartók, Berg... and baseball

by CMNW guest blogger Bob King

In my previous post I talked about my dream of small form classical concerts in relaxed, night club-type environments. This final Protégé Project concert (7/18) at The Woods reminded me of the other important element of the idea—capturing that elusive, younger 20’s and 30’s audience. I actually wrote some of this during the performance from the back of the hall (an interesting side benefit of this kind of venue) and looking out I would guess that at least a third of the attendance were in the late 20s through early 40s. If I may borrow the phrase from Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, "build it and they will come;" this younger audience attraction is part of what I presumed would happen if this great music were performed where they are familiar with the milieu if not the exact location. I absolutely do think this takes a bit of an intimidation and/or resistance factor down a few notches for people who may never have been to a chamber music concert before. And I think they will find, possibly to their surprise, that live music is great whether it's Curtis Salgado singing the blues, U2, a local jazz artist, or, in this case, Beethoven, Bartók and Berg chamber pieces played by a host of highly dedicated twenty-something rising stars of the classical world. In Kinsella's book, "they" were long forgotten ghosts of ball players looking for one more chance to play baseball together; in a way that imagery fits here. These protégés are also looking for venues to play in, an opportunity to share their love of the music, an invocation of magic if you will allow it.

One side benefit for us in the audience derives, at least somewhat, from theses young artists' relative exposure in their field. It's been my pleasure over the past weeks to get to know the artists that make up the Atria Trio, Sospiro Winds and finally the Jasper String Quartet. This has been possible, in part, because they have all stayed in Portland since their arrival over the four- week duration of the series, thereby also giving us the opportunity to hear them play in the other CMNW Summer Festival concerts. If I were writing about the Emerson Quartet, or the Takács Quartet, they would surely have had only a few days in town before other concert obligations intervened. Of course, there is no doubt that in the coming years these tremendous talents will have that same pleasant dilemma, trading less travel for more work. And we will be introduced to other dedicated rising stars, but I know they would agree that their weeks in Portland have been good and they also have enjoyed getting to know some of their audience here over these weeks.

This last concert of this year’s Protégé series, in part because the artists were still all here then, was somewhat of an "all-star" concert. They even brought in one of their favorite sound engineers from NY, David Merrill, who I can tell you is a major baseball fan (I think this is the end of my little baseball theme). In any case, the groups have been able to program some of their favorite pieces, rather than conforming to a particular theme or compositional period. It would be hard to pick out a favorite work from the concert. All the performances were top shelf, beginning with Beethoven's second Cello Sonata, played by Hyeyeon Park and Aleksey Klyushnik. I enjoyed Aleksiy's story about Beethoven enthusiastically hearing the piece played on a bass, thus heading off any audience protests both then and now. This was followed by a much lighter but equally well-executed selection of Bartók violin duos performed by Portland native Rebecca Anderson and the violinist third of the Atria Ensemble, Sunmi Chang. The crowd favorite of the night may have been the “Opus Zoo for Wind Quintet” by Luciano Berio. Sospiro Winds, it turns out, are a full service musical theatre group, excepting maybe animal costumes. While the barnyard cast of characters in this four movement, modern, but neo-classically based, suite seems at first to remind one of Peter and the Wolf, the undercurrent of the horrors of war and violent, abrupt death make this no children’s tale. After the break, the final piece of the Protégé series was a beautiful performance by the Jasper String Quartet of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. This work offers fascinating avenues of study, in both musical and biographical directions. It is written more or less entirely in twelve-tone technique and in sonata form over six movements—it’s difficult but fun to follow the sonata form due to the nature of twelve tone structure where everything ends up sounding like development. Programmatically the Lyric Suite quotes—and was dedicated to—von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony; but there is much, much more underlying this wonderful piece. Even if you have not heard this work, I would direct you to this 2003 NY Times article, by Reed College’s David Schiff, from which I will just briefly quote to tease you into it: “In 1977, hints in the score and from Berg's intimate circle led Mr. Perle to a copy of the score that Berg had given to his mistress, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, whom he had met on a visit to Prague in 1925. In Fuchs-Robettin's copy, Berg explained in detail how the work's arcane procedures symbolized their love, in a coded form made necessary by the fact that both were married.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

By popular demand: 7/18 program from The Woods, published

Beethoven: Cello Sonata
Klyushnik, Park

Bela Bartok: Duos
Anderson, Chang

Luciano Berio: Opus Number Zoo
Sospiro Winds*

Alban Berg: Lyric Suite
Jasper String Quartet

*A video of this performance was added to YouTube!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Viva L'Arte! Sospiro Winds perform at Someday Lounge

by CMNW guest blogger Lars Campbell

For those of you reading this, I’m going to assume you’re already aware of CMNW’s latest concert series that presents young(ish) professional artists in less conventional venues, so I’ll dispense with any further program synopsis and move along to my take on the concert experience itself—the experience of hearing ensembles who rehearse together all the time, and the difference that makes in a performance.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the many great artists CMNW brings to Portland year-round, but sometimes the short duration of the festival necessitates that artists fly in, rehearse for a couple of days, and on with the show. As a professional musician, I understand this is often the name of the game, and that the ability to perform and play well together on little rehearsal time is a valued commodity. But the magic that comes from hearing an ensemble that lives the music together is something different. What is that difference, you may ask? Are great musicians just great musicians, regardless of how much time they get to play together? Not necessarily.

Sunday at the Someday Lounge, Sospiro Winds gave a concert spanning a good portion of the 20th century wind quintet repertoire to an enthusiastic crowd, everyone enjoying the old adage “not a bad seat in the house.” (Leather couches and the entire audience within one hundred feet of the stage will do that for you.) The group emceed the concert from the stage with each member of the quintet introducing one piece from the concert.

The first piece on the program was “Quintet for Winds” by Pavel Haas, a piece that, reminiscent of Janacek in its soundscape, utilizes the colors of the winds brilliantly. A piece like this really lends itself well to the luxury of endless rehearsal time that pre-established ensembles enjoy! The blend and careful preparation of even the smallest melodic ideas clearly shone through the young quintet’s performance. The only detraction from a truly beautiful performance was the overbalancing of the horn in the mix. (Through some sneaky investigation, I discovered the ensemble had felt the horn was buried in the sound check, and thus asked the sound engineer put up a box to reflect the sound back out to the audience—they overcompensated a bit.)

Next up on the program was Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music,” a beautiful work that Barber wrote for the Chamber Music Society of Detroit in 1953. Again, the subtle clarity achieved through careful preparation is evident, as the dramatic moments for which they aimed were arrived at stunningly, demonstrating thoughtful care for the music itself, highlighting particular passages while giving sheen and color to others. Perhaps the technical finesse of a seasoned professional was slightly lacking in the quick moving triplets near the end, but the feel of the performance trumped these small details.

The last piece on the first half, Elliott Carter’s “Quintet for Woodwinds,” was the highlight of the concert. During its introduction, the Sospiros told the audience it was the first piece they’d performed together as a group, and it certainly showed. The care they granted the passing of themes between instruments was flawless, always an exact balance of the melodic and accompanimental material presented. Moments of the music that required technique felt easy and comfortable, like they’d been playing this work for quite some time.

The second half consisted of two works: György Kurtag’s “Quintet for Winds” and Paquito D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales. The Kurtag was introduced as a piece about space. I tried to pick up on that vibe while listening, but I didn’t find it. The sonorities were interesting and the playing was quite good, but I didn’t find space. The instrumental control however, was beautiful. One particular moment which stuck out to me was a trill shared by the flute, clarinet and oboe, which was so brilliantly crafted, it created a brand new color—I’ll call it the flariboe.

The final piece of the evening, Aires Tropicales, based on Latin American dances, was written by a jazz saxophonist/clarinetist. Requiring experience in jazz articulations and groove, here the “youth” of the ensemble—and by youth I talk not of the ensemble’s age, but rather its room for growth—revealed itself. The playing of the piece was actually lovely, but the urge to get up and dance never really hit, as it should with properly executed Latin music. The highlight of this work came during the habanera, in a moment of oboe melody over a beautifully balanced bassoon-clarinet accompaniment, in which the lilt of the dance’s rhythm (made most famously known by an aria in Bizet's “Carmen”) was well-achieved. The oboe just floated above, with a striking sense of melody and direction.

The palpable magic of preformed ensembles is one of the benefits of CMNW's new Protege Project, with a vast sense of musicianship on display that’s highly enjoyable. The reflection and precision Sospiro Winds—and Jasper Quartet and Atria Ensemble —can develop and implement through long-term togetherness is something special, and not to be missed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chamber Music in NW PDX: The Future is Now

by CMNW guest blogger Bob King

This past Sunday evening, in NW Portland on the edge of The Pearl, and while sitting at the bar (!) at The Someday Lounge, a long held dream of mine came true. Specifically, if one can be so about a dream, that we could simultaneously take in the magical experience of live chamber music and nurse our vodka tonic (or wine - or fizzy water if you must.) And while I've heard all sorts of great music outside of the concert hall, (Bach Solo Suite for Cello #2 at a Red Line subway station underneath Boston's Beacon Hill comes to mind), for me the dream leads to some kind of nightclub and a soloist, or duet, or trio—in short, a band—playing great music. Like many "dreams" we have, this one formed slowly and over time - little swirling idea 'planetoids' coalescing around a star like central theme - to get out of the confining concert hall and into an comfortable space with a happier feel. Since I am not a performing musician, I won't attempt to try inhabiting their psyches to imagine what the more relaxed environment feels like for them—you can get a bit of that from portions of the earlier post by Hyeyeon Park. But speaking as someone whose audience patronage divides almost equally between classical and jazz venues, I will take the more casual, the more spirited and more lively spaces every time. Now please don't misunderstand, I have a fine appreciation for the concert hall and the large form symphonic music that really would not work - psychically or physically—at say—The Doug Fir. We absolutely need the great halls (even better halls would be nicer) for Bruckner and Brahms, and I love to get dressed up for those events like a kid going to his first dance. But when it comes to the small forms - solo piano, and string or wind ensembles being the most common— is it really necessary to maintain the silence of the library in the confinement of what feels more than anything like an evening mass? Must we maintain a repression of appetites, in the more general sense, simply because our grandparents or more distant ancestors decided to turn the auditorium into a sacred place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries? For me, I would prefer a nice drink with my Mozart and the freedom to stand in the back if I want to.

And stand in the back I did for portions of the wonderful Sospiro Winds' performance at the aforementioned Someday Lounge. Their beautiful blend of five voices was just perfect for this fairly intimate club - and beautifully enhanced by some of the best acoustics I've heard in our fair city. The performance of five 20th century pieces moved more or less through the past 100 years of modern wind repertoire from the Czech Pavel Haas' 'Quintet for Winds' to commissioned pieces by Barber and Paquito d'Rivera. Admittedly, my knowledge and experience with ensemble music for winds is skimpy enough that I won't attempt to critique, for better or worse, the quality of the pieces or the programming. However I will emphatically say that the performances were top shelf - beautifully done. One side benefit, in my opinion, of the more interactive and intimate setting of the club is the performers’ proclivity towards explanation and exposition of the music they've prepared. Something I learned as the Sospiros each introduced pieces in turn was that the 'Quintet for Woodwinds' by Elliott Carter was the very first piece the group had performed together. I believe this little biographical trivia was relayed by either Kelli (flute) or Alana (French horn.) Speaking of Alana, and I have no shame in telling you she asked me to mention this, she is a one of a soon to be white hot famous group, Genghis Barbie, four fabulous and self-styled temptress horn players. A music video will be going viral online any day now apparently. Getting back to Sunday evening's performance, after the group had a chance to get their own drinks - and how great is it to get to chill with the band in the middle of a concert? - the second half of the show moved into even more modern pieces from the always evocative Kurtag and a crossover suite from the incredibly prolific Cuban jazz master Paquito D'Rivera (54 albums and he's only 62!) Ironically, I found d'Rivera's 1994 Aires Tropicales to be the most accessible piece of the evening, especially the lively concluding Contradanza with its echoes of Ragtime. All said, a wonderfully dynamic evening - in the sense of being vigorously active and energetic - in a nice relaxed environment from a quintet of players who are the future of modern music. Come see them again, along with all the rest of the Protégé Project players, at the concluding concert of the first annual Protégé series this Sunday afternoon at The Woods.