Friday, July 25, 2014

Chamber Music Northwest delves into Romanticism in works by Del Tredici and Schubert

Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest showed that Romanticism is alive and well in a program consisting of a newly composed “Bulllycide” for Piano and String Quintet by David Del Tredici and the “Octet” in F Major for Winds and Strings by Franz Schubert. Both pieces, played on Monday, July 21st, at Kaul Auditorium, were imbued with strong harmonic lines, and they received intense performances by the CMNW musicians and enthusiastic applause from all corners of the concert hall, which was fairly full.

“Bullycide” was commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest in a consortium that included the La Jolla Music Society and Peak Performances at Montclair State University. The piece honors five gay men who were victims of bullying. After reading newspaper accounts of the bullying, Del Tredici felt moved, in part by reflections on his own experience, to write “Bullycide.” It is a piano sextet that is split into two parts with four movements for each part. The movements flow into one another without pause, and the music follows a trajectory that runs from a spirited beginning to a tragic ending.

For the past 25 years, Del Tredici (age 77) has been the Distinguished Professor of Music at The City College of New York. In the 1970s, he pioneered neo-Romanticism as a direct counterweight to the prevailing atonal style and never looked back. Completed in 2013, “Bullycide” is a continuation of Del Tredici’s journey into the landscape of complex harmonies.

The performance that I heard featured pianist Orion Weiss, violinists Ani Kavafian and Bella Hristova, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, cellist Sophie Shao, and bass violinist Samuel Suggs. Weiss was the only member of the ensemble who had performed the piece before (at the premieres at La Jolla and Montclair), and his playing seemed to be the glue that made this piece very engaging. Often the Weiss created a sonic presence that cascaded over and around the strings. Lots of sweeping arpeggios and scintillating ornamentation gave the piece a lush sonority that reminded me of Tchaikovsky at times. The strings played with conviction, sometimes in conversation with each other and at other times in distinctly different corners. A muted and aggressive pizzicato section effectively suggested the violence against the five men and after two brief pauses the musicians used loud stage whispers to recite (I think) the names of each man. One of the highlights of the piece was a lovely solo violin part that Kavafian played while the other strings created a soft, undulating background. Towards the end, the music picked up tempo and later relaxed into a simple tune that was childlike and hopeful. Del Tredici was in the audience and came up on stage to join the performers in accepting the heartfelt and sustained applause.

Photo credit: Tom Emerson
After intermission, the stage was given over to the famous “Octet,” which Schubert wrote during a time in which he was depressed because he was suffering from syphilis. The six movements of this hour-long extravaganza received an incisive performance from the ensemble, which consisted of violinists Hristova and Kavafian, violist Ngwenyama, cellist Fred Sherry, bass violinist Suggs, clarinetist David Shifrin, bassoonist Julie Feves, and hornist William Purvis. The group played with an élan, and the mood bounced with a light foot during the dance-like sections. The liquidy-smooth sound of Shifrin’s clarinet was superb and in the last movement, his fleet fingers made several crazy runs sound like the easiest thing in the world. The rumbling tremolo from Sherry’s cello was another outstanding passages that fortunately was repeated. He seemed to inspire the entire ensemble, and, again the audience rewarded the music making with heartfelt applause.
Photo credit: Tom Emerson

Bella Hristova, Ani Kavafian, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama - photo credit: Tom Emerson

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Norman Leyden - Oregon Symphony's Pops Legend - passes at 96

Earlier today, the Oregon Symphony issued a press release that announced the death of Norman Leyden, beloved Laureate Associate Conductor. Here's the text:

Norman Leyden, Laureate Associate Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, died today at the age of 96.
Oregon Symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter said, “Norman was one of the closest members of the Oregon Symphony family. While we mourn his loss, we also celebrate his life and incredible contribution to the arts.”
Mr. Leyden initiated the Oregon Symphony’s Pops concert series, one of the most successful in the nation, in 1970. “For 34 seasons as the Pops Musical Director, Norman charmed standing-room-only audiences with his warmth and musicality,” Showalter said. “His talents were revered far beyond our stage. He, his clarinet and his fine musical arrangements will be remembered by many for a long, long while.”
The musicians, board, and staff of the Oregon Symphony send their heartfelt condolences to his family and legion of fans throughout Portland and the U.S. The Symphony plans to honor his memory at its Waterfront Concert on August 28.

David Stabler has written a fine obituary in the Oregonian here, and Charles Noble offers his recollections about Leyden on Noble Viola here.

I have an hour-long tape of an interview that I did with Leyden in September of 2004. I'll have to write it up one of these days. It was part of several interviews that I did with older members of the Oregon Symphony, including Glen Reeves, John Richards, Cheri Ann Egbers Richards, Eugene Kaza, Reinhold Pauly, and Huw Ewart.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chamber Music Northwest goes big with symphonic chamber program

Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest flexed its musical muscles on Monday (July 14) at Kaul Auditorium, presenting three works for ensembles that ranged from twelve to fifteen musicians. So the stage seemed almost crowded for the three big pieces in the program, which was entitled “Heroic Chamber Symphonies.” The beefed up presence, required for works by Richard Wagner, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg, created a chamber orchestra atmosphere that was offset by one slim gem, a sonata for two violins by Sergei Prokofiev.

Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” was written as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. According to program notes, the piece “was designed to be played only by the number of musicians who would fit on the stairs of their home near Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.” That number totaled thirteen for the chamber version performed at Kaul. The brass and woodwinds did an excellent job of not overpowering the strings – in particular, first violinist Steven Copes. The playing was rhapsodic and beguiling, but still needed a little more shaping in terms of dynamics and tempo. The problem for most listeners is that we have heard the piece so often in the big orchestral version, which has a lot more strings. Still, the chamber performance was satisfying, and it was terrific to hear Wagner’s symphonic birthday greeting in its purest form.

Hindemith was only 26 years old when he wrote his “Kammermusik” (“Chamber Music”) No. 1 in 1922. A performance of the piece in Munich in 1923 apparently caused an uproar, because after the music ended “Whistles blew, boos resounded, chairs flew through the air — a hellish noise filled the large room.” That reaction certainly helped to mark Hindemith as one of the bad boys of the music scene.

Of course, lots of unusual and challenging music has been composed since the early Twentieth Century. So this Hindemith piece is not as striking as it was back then, but it still had its moments. The first movement, in particular, sounded like a kooky cabaret number that went unhinged. The second continued in a loud and spunky fashion. The musical thread was spiked now and by blips and beeps. The third was completely different. It featured a beautiful, tranquil clarinet solo (Ashley William Smith) that was joined later by the flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), and lovely combinations with clarinet (Smith), bassoon (Julie Feves), flue (O’Connor), and chime (Luanne Warner Katz). The entire ensemble generated a spirited fourth movement that had an array of unusual sounds coming from all corners, such as the murky low chords from the piano (Daniel Schlosberg), and a later a wild combo for piano and flute. Sporadic blasts from the trumpet (Jean Laurenz), wistful lines from the accordion (Samuel Suggs), and glissandos from the strings were halted by a dramatic pause and then followed by a crazy, agitated ride to the finish line with the xylophone (Katz) going helter skelter. That was a breath-taking performance.
Bella Hristova and Stephen Copes - Photo credit: Tom Emerson
After intermission, violinists Bella Hristova and Stephen Copes delivered a mind-boggling performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins. Together they danced through a score that was laced with, double stops, fast pizzicatos, high-wire passages, and fast, tricky phrases. They seamlessly passed lines back and forth, and their dynamics were mostly in agreement. Hristova, who had the first violin part, excelled tremendously in the high register, displaying an incredible agile technique and a singing sound. The head pair made a headlong rush into the finale that brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion.

The final work on the program, Schoenberg’s “Kammersymphonie” (Chamber Symphony”) No. 1 caused a riot when it was first performed in Vienna in 1907, because of its unconventional tonalities. Even later performances caused critics to complain. Nicolas Slonimsky in his “Lexicon of Musical Invective” quoted a critic from Berlin, who, in 1914, stated “Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony – self-torture of a flagellant who whips himself with a cat-o’-nine-tails, while curing himself!”

The performance at Kaul by fifteen musicians didn’t cause a commotion, but the piece needed a lot more definition to make it enjoyable. It had plenty of volume, sweeping big, Wagnerian themes and counter-themes. But the music didn’t go anywhere. The brass and woodwinds overpowered everyone else. Conductor David Fulmer kept everyone together, but that seemed to be it. With more shape, the piece might have done something, but, at least, in this performance, the journey was not satisfying.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Emerson String Quartet with cellist Paul Watkins as brilliant as ever in Chamber Music Northwest concert

Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich
Death might have been the subject matter of the program on Saturday night (July 12) at Kaul Auditorium, but the Emerson Quartet was as alive and thrilling as ever. The foursome, newly re-constituted with cellist Paul Watkins, dug into two pieces: Shostakovich’s gravely serious String Quartet No. 15 and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, which carries the moniker “Death and the Maiden,” and delivered incisive performances that made the standing room only audience forget about the hot weather outside.

Shostakovich wrote his Quartet No. 15 just a year before he died in August of 1975, and its primarily slow and solemn qualities (six Adagios) can be, well, deadening if played without intensity. The Emersons not only played with conviction and technical accuracy, but they also carried the dead-weight of the music’s emotion without sinking. Right off the top, the quartet created a colorless and tired sound that evoked sorrow and lamentation. It was as if Shostakovich were telling us that he was worn out. Faint strains of Russian hymns drifted about. Extended sections that featured only two players at a time sounded intriguingly austere and warm at the same time. The violent zings of the second movement seemed to puncture the atmosphere. The brief and wild excursions by violinist Philip Setzer in the third erupted out of nowhere. Later came a lovely cantabile segment that was led by violist Lawrence Dutton while violinist Eugene Drucker and cellist Watkins supported him with gracious, complimentary lines. As the piece progressed, the ends and beginnings of phrases and pauses took on more and more significance. Semi-tonal trills erupted now and then as if the soul was trying to escape. The last few measures diminuendoed into prayerful silence, bringing to a close a wandering, meditative journey that seemed unresolved with more questions than answers.

Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, one of the most beloved in the repertoire, was composed in 1824, just four years before he died at the age of 31. The piece acquired the nickname “Death and the Maiden” because part of the theme in the second movement (“Andante con moto”) was taken from a song of the same name that Schubert had written several years earlier. The serious nature of the music reflects the depression and health issues that he began to experience after having been diagnosed with syphilis a couple years earlier.

The Emerson String Quartet boldly launched into the Schuert, playing the opening salvos with precision and panache. The music was heightened with terrific dynamics that included sweeping fortes, hushed pianissimos, and organic tempo changes. Phrases were seamlessly traded from one musician to the next and the balance was outstanding. First violinist Setzer created a singing, sweet tone during the second movement and the many pizzicato notes seemed to bubble up effortlessly from Watkins’ cello. The uptempo and crescendo into the finale of the swirling tarantella-like last movement gave the piece a riveting conclusion. The audience responded with a loud standing ovation that should have gone on longer than it did.

Watkins played every bit as well as the man he replaced, David Finckel, who retired from the ensemble last year. Eye contact, listening, and virtuosic playing - you name it -Watkins seemed to fit into the group as if he had been playing with them for the last twenty years. If you would like to read an excellent interview with Watkins, I recommend this article in Oregon Arts Watch. I also suggest that you catch the Emerson String Quartet the next time they return to Portland. It’s an amazing ensemble.
Emerson String Quartet playing Schubert

Sunday, July 13, 2014

CMNW's 'Schubert's Trout' concert keeps the Festival momentum going

Abigail Fischer.
Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival continued Thursday, July 10 at the Kaul Auditorium. The concert, Schubert's "Trout", took its title from the second half, which opened with Schubert's lied Die Forelle (The Trout), followed by the famous "Trout" Quintet, which took its name from the fact that the theme from the lied was used as the basis for the tema con variazioni of the fourth movement. But first it opened with three vocal presentations programmed around the vocal prowess of mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, who stood in at the last moment for Sasha Cooke, the intended singer who was out with an illness.

 The opening work, J.S. Bach's Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from Cantata No. 170, saw Fischer joined by Allan Vogel (oboe d'amore), Steven Copes and Bella Hristova (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Samuel Suggs (double bass) and Daniel Schlosberg (harpsichord).  The logistics presented problems from the first. Fischer was standing at the back of a 7-piece orchestra playing modern instruments, and so her voice often had trouble cutting through the texture of the chamber players. Perhaps this arrangement would've worked with a gut-strung HIP orchestra, but it was unsatisfactory as presented: too often her sound was swallowed. 18th-century composer and lexicographer Johann Mattheson nailed it when he is reputed to have said: "The singers must stand alltime in front."

Mozart's Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio, an aria extracted from Clemenza di Tito for mezzo, clarinet obbligato and piano quartet followed, and the same logistical arrangement was used. Schlosberg switched to piano, and Hristova was the only violinist. David Shifrin was a delight; if there's anything finer than Mozart played on the clarinet by someone who really knows his instrument--well that would be something indeed to hear. He was in not so much of a dialogue with Fischer as a role of running commentary. Fischer, possessed of an undoubtedly fine instrument, came across at times as disinterested, and so was I for parts of this piece. One must I suppose give the benefit of the doubt; standing in on such difficult music with who-knows-how much notice can't be easy even for a top-notch performer. Towards the end she seemed to come more alive; her flourishes and cadenzas were actually quite spectacular and she had bedazzled the audience by the end of the Mozart.

The newly commissioned piece Crossroads (commissioned by CMNW and a multitude of other entities) by American composer John Harbison (b 1938) was like an entirely new world. The poetry of Louise Glück was featured, and set to the music of five strings (Hristova, Copes, Neubauer, Wiley and Suggs) and oboe (Vogel). The absence of a keyboard instrument was somehow bracing, and it began with a simple yet intriguing and profound opening statement from the strings, like a harbinger. The first movement, Twilight was a still-life, and there was much humor to be found in the text. Telling the story of a millworker dreaming at an evening table at dusk, Fischer's intensity and complete engagement with the text was spellbinding; each nuance and subtle turn of phrase was impeccably executed; Fischer seemed to inhabit the constantly changing emotional spaces. There was no straining to become involved with and completely subsumed by the story at hand. Harbison's textual underlay was fascinating; set off just enough from the accompaniment at times, it was constantly fresh, and both propelled the story and created space for the diction. A dissonant final soliloquy for the oboe seemed odd and disjointed, but in the context of the second movement, Primavera, it suddenly made perfect sense.

Primavera was like a misnomer in some ways, or a dichotomy. A high harmonic squawking from the strings programmed the scene: "the warm air fills with bird calls..." This movement seemed a naturalistic interpretation of life; even in the glories of spring it spoke of an end to all things, and the dissonant clarinet from the end of the previous movement felt like a foreshadowing. The music gloried in the transience of life rather than seeking to hide from it or become fearful of the inevitable end. The strings were not just an accompaniment to Fischer's recountal, but an equal partner in imparting meaning. The final movement, Crossroads, is really about the crossroads between life and death. Exactly the opposite of the story in the Bach cantata--here the music moves into atonality at the bitter end, not in trepidation of what comes after...but really the end doesn't have to be so bitter after all.

Die Forelle, (D. 550, Op. 32) a quick study into the life and death of a trout, was an oddly appropriate accompaniment to the Harbison, and presaged the "Trout" Quintet (D667, Op. 11) to follow. Neubauer, Wiley, Suggs and Copes were joined by Anna Polonsky on piano. These festival favorites dove into the chestnut with gusto. Polonsky in particular seems to have an innate ability to discern and perfectly execute the role of her instrument. The ensemble playing was spectacular, in addition to the individual fireworks. Copes displayed a spritely, rapid-fire saltando in the third movement, and Wiley and Suggs anchored the work nicely without being overpowering. It's a joy to hear Wiley--whatever he brings to the table is always fine. There was no grasping for glory by any performers; simply a purely professional and profoundly artistic ability to work with what was there at any given moment. The variations on the Trout theme in the fourth movement were spectacular; especially fun and satisfying was the sturm und drang variation, which fooled a knowledgeable audience into applauding a bit before it was time--much to the amusement of performers and audience alike.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Virtuoso Paul Jacobs delivers awesome organ concert at the Oregon Bach Festival

One of the many astonishing things about Paul Jacob’s organ concert at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Tuesday (July 8) is that he played ninety minutes of organ music entirely from memory. But I’m guessing that that was a relatively easy feat for a fellow who has memorized all of Bach’s solo organ music and even performed it in an 18-hour marathon concert. For his performance on Trinity’s Rosales Organ, considered widely as the best organ in the Pacific Northwest, the Grammy-award-winning Jacobs’ program consisted of works by J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, Alexandre Guilmant, W. A. Mozart, and Felix Mendelssohn. Jacobs wonderfully explored a huge variety of sound – from dainty and far away to loudly majestic and all surrounding – with virtuosic yet gracious flair.

This concert, sponsored by the Oregon Bach Festival, effectively used a camera, which projected Jacobs’ playing onto a very large screen that I could easily see from the back of the nave. It was fascinating to see how Jacobs, who is only 37 years old, engaged the keyboards, stops, and pedals. His first piece, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (aka the “Wedge”), was a real eye-and-ear opener. The opening statement was bold and brilliant but not overwhelming. The fugue section was like a many-layered cake with delicious flavors. The theme traveled from one hand to the other and finally to feet, but then it all became transmogrified into a bigger, better, more expansive theme, with Jacobs’s hands and feet dancing all over the place, that just lifted everyone’s spirits.

Next came a piece that went in an entirely different direction, the Sonata in D Major by C. P. E. Bach. It was much, much lighter and more buoyant and it didn’t involve any pedal work. That’s because C. P. E. (one of J. S. Bach’s sons) wrote the piece for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (a sister of Friedrich II), who had limited pedal technique. The tonality of the piece was centered primarily in the treble register, with a nice meditative segment in the second movement that sounded like a duet for soprano and mezzo. The last movement alternated between strong, lower passages and delicate and higher ones, creating a slightly bravura finish.

Instead of playing John Stanley’s Voluntary in D Minor as stated in the printed program, Jacobs substituted the “Pastorale” movement from Guilmant’s Organ Sonata in D Minor, explaining that the Guilmant was better suited to the Rosales than the Stanley. In any case, it the Guilmant was a gem that took the audience in a different direction in which the main melody evoked a shepherd piping. This melody was supported by chords in the distance, which could have been sheep or clouds or just a gentle breeze. While playing, Jacobs would gracefully change the stops, teasing the audience with different qualities of sound.

J. S. Bach wrote six Trio Sonatas, by which he apparently wanted to teach his son, Wilhelm Friedrich to play the organ in a way that each appendage (left hand, right hand, and feet) would be independent of each other. With most composers, such a piece would probably be mundane and boring, but with Bach, it’s another masterpiece. Jacobs performed the Trio Sonata in C Major, and you could see and hear one melody starting in the right hand, then a different melody starting with the left, and finally another melody starting with the feet. How Bach got all of the themes to work together was mesmerizing and how Jacobs kept it all straight – who knows, but it right there in front on the big screen, and it just blew the audience away.

This complicated piece was followed by Mozart’s Andante in F Major, a rare work since Mozart wrote few pieces for organ. Jacobs explained that the Andante was written for a mechanical clock-cum-music box which an eccentric count kept in his wax museum. This was a lovely piece with several main themes in a cantabile style, yet it was interspersed here and there with sounds that reminded me of a calliope.

The final piece on the program was Mendelssohn’s sonata in F Minor. This work sounded grand and glorious. The first movement featured Bach-like sections and a massiveness that was delightfully punctured by meditative hymn-like chorales. The second movement was sober and subdued and had more of a Mendelssohn-like quality. The third movement alternated single line recitatives with bombastic outbursts and the fourth displayed huge toccata passages and enormous crescendos. It all wound up with a ray of sunshine that caused everyone to stand up and cheer.

Jacobs added an encore, Bach’s A Minor Fugue (BWV543), which again showed off Jacobs immense, impeccable, and virtuosic skills, including a crazy feet-only passage and wild phrases for both hands. That got everyone cheering again. It was just amazing.

Finally, this concert was a return engagement by Jacobs and with the OBF, which also named him as the director of the new OBF Organ Institute. So, it will be our good fortune to hear him, hopefully, again next year.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sing great chorale literature - with members of the Portland Symphonic Choir

From the Portland Symphonic Choir website:

Celebrate summer with song!

Whether you sing in a professional choir, a school choir, or a choir for one in the shower, Summer Sings is for you! Three Wednesdays in July, music lovers of all stripes come to sing through choral masterworks with members of the Portland Symphonic Choir led by some of the finest conductors in the Pacific Northwest. Join your voices for a preview of the 70th anniversary season as we sing the Mozart Requiem with David Hattner and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with Katherine FitzGibbon. The beloved Brahms Requiem led by PSC’s very own Kathryn Lehmann rounds out the series. We provide the scores, you provide the song!

Tickets on sale now! Just $10 or $25 for all three events.

We provide the scores, the free parking, and the air-conditioning! You provide the enthusiasm!
All Summer Sings events take place at the Moriarty Arts Auditorium at the PCC Cascade Campus.

Moriarty Arts & Humanities Building at Portland Community College, corner of N Killingsworth and Albina, Portland, 97217 (link to map).