Unraveling the New Demons: Chamber Music Northwest Summer (Contemporary) Music Festival Begins

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I’ve long considered the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival, especially their New @ Night series, formerly New @ Noon, a highlight of Portland’s classical music scene. This series, along with the Makrokosmos festival and the FearNoMusic concert season, usually provide the best opportunities to hear what we call “new music” in town.

“New music” is a strange term. It’s less of a genre distinction than a purely functional term for any music written recently by a young composer living in, say, the last fifty years. It would be like calling The Batman, Midsommarand baby boss 2 “New cinema”. I suppose it is the responsibility of critics and historians to create catchy terms for these aesthetic movements, unraveling the knotted strands into neat, linear pathways.

At the very least, it seems the designation rarely retains audiences in this city. The Alberta Rose Theater was certainly not crowded last Wednesday for the first [email protected] concert, Rhapsodies & Demons, the audience scattered around the room like pieces on a Go board, but it was well over half capacity. An attendance of 150 to 200 people is not to be neglected for music that the public will probably never have heard before. It’s easy to love intimate gatherings with an audience of fifteen, but it’s also nice to see a bigger reception.

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Chamber Music Northwest’s first [email protected] concert at the Alberta Rose Theater on June 29, 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

This participation also disproves the idea that there is no audience for new music and that people just want to hear the classics. There may be a regressive contingent of viewers who want to hear Brahms again and again – and to our chagrin, that often includes the biggest donors – but they’re not the only audience worth caring for.

Many in attendance were young artists from CMNW’s Young Artists Institute, who will be giving a free community recital at the University of Portland this Friday, July 8. This accomplished group from across the country (including a few from Portland) are treated to a month of workshops and performances around the community. They already have big accomplishments: five will go to the National Youth Orchestra in New York, two will go to Yale, one to UC Berkeley, and probably many more.

The [email protected] premiere, in classic CMNW fashion, kicked off with a one-hour social in the lobby of the Alberta Rose. I didn’t chat or chat much myself, preferring to sip my Ninkasi IPA while reading the festival schedule and thinking about the weeks ahead. Overall, I’m pretty happy with this year’s program. Even concerts I might not have been interested in attending had something unique on the list, whether it was works by lesser-known Romantic composers like Anton Arensky or Reinhold Glière, or the many new works sprinkled throughout the concerts outside of the New @Night Series. It’s definitely one of the most eclectic programs Summer Festival has had in the roughly five years I’ve been around.

The first piece on the program was a series of miniatures for two cellos by Fred Sherry entitled 8 Romanian folk dances, interpreted by the composer with Sophie Shao. Based on Bartok’s extensive transcriptions, Sherry’s arrangements were cheeky, cheerful and lively, with some nice subtleties in the performance to bring out that Eastern European flavor (I thought I caught some microtonal inflections there).

Cellists Fred Sherry and Sophie Shao performed Sherry's Bartók-inspired
Cellists Fred Sherry and Sophie Shao performed the “8 Romanian Folk Dances” inspired by Bartók de Sherry for Chamber Music Northwest’s first [email protected] concert at the Alberta Rose Theater on June 29, 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Next on the schedule was Jessie Montgomery Rhapsody No. 1 for solo violin (giving the concert half of its title), masterfully played by Alexi Kenney. The moment I heard the opening, I knew I had heard the track before. Sure enough, Ines Voglar-Belgium performed it for FearNoMusic’s April 2021 season, and Oregon Symphony violinist Shanshan Zeng performed it for OSO’s Essential Sounds series in 2020 even further.

The piece is a showcase for a myriad of solo violin devices – mostly idiomatic, such as up-and-down arpeggios, but with less obvious techniques like the sevenths melody that appears midway through. Montgomery says in the program notes that the music for solo violin by Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe inspired the Rhapsodywhich manifests itself in the virtuosity and depth of expression that Kenney manipulated with ease when a slimy phrase turned tender in a split second.

The schedule as we heard it that night was a bit different than it was supposed to be, and I suspect this won’t be the first schedule change this year – “playing by ear” seems have been a recurring theme over the past few years. The concert was originally scheduled to end with Stephen Hartke Netsuke for violin and piano, a series of portraits of small Japanese wood sculptures performed by Monica Ohuchi and Jennifer Frautschi. But it had to be replaced by a piece by Du Yun and another by Kenji Bunch, whose barber demon was already on the program (giving this concert the other half of its title).

Bunch, in his opening remarks, explained how his article Flights from Vesper for flute and piano is based on an essay by Helen Macdonald that he read in the New York Times around the time of his father’s death. The essay describes the flight of birds that live most of their lives in the air, rarely coming to the ground even to sleep. Macdonald weaves this into a metaphor for life, understanding us as a small, insignificant portion of a larger world. Cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless. You may also recognize the title of Macdonald’s recent book of the same name, its evocative cover staring at you from the bestseller section of Powell’s Books.

I really loved this piece, which was perhaps my favorite on the program. The use of the high register of the piano in the ascending arpeggios and suspended harmonies created this feeling of upward flight and weightlessness, perfect for evoking the flight of swifts. And I can’t praise Tara Helen O’Connor’s flute performance enough, which was tender yet articulate, as every little change of breath and timbre becomes meaningful. The ending was also impressively sweet, melting into pure silence.

Monica Ohuchi and Tara Helen O'Connor performed Kenji Bunch
Monica Ohuchi and Tara Helen O’Connor performed Kenji Bunch’s “Vesper Flights” at Chamber Music Northwest’s first [email protected] concert at the Alberta Rose Theater on June 29, 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

This was followed by Bunch’s The barber demon, based on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” by Steven Sondheim. Bunch’s piece (for solo piano, performed by Ohuchi) transformed the demented ballad into something much fiercer, as the melody sings over jagged, dissonant triplet figures in the piano’s lowest register. He really tapped into the wilder side of Sondheim that comes through throughout Sweeney Todd. It also reminded me of some of Brad Mehldau’s craziest improvisations – and anything that reminds me of Brad Mehldau is on my good side.

This piece was also a tribute to Bunch’s late father: the composer recounted memories of watching a PBS broadcast of Sweeney Todd at the age of ten with his father.

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The concert ended with Kenney returning to the stage for Pulitzer-winning Du Yun’s. Under a tree, an Udatta for solo violin and band. While the performance was great and I enjoyed the idea of ​​the piece, the tape sounded a bit too quiet for my liking. So it sounded less like a wild violin cadenza coming out of a buzzing vocal texture and more like a scattered violin solo with a few vocals hanging in the background. Nonetheless, it was a solid ending to the program, as the unpredictability of the extended techniques – including shaking the violin with the bow – and its improvisational character left a strong impression.

Alexi Kenney portrayed Jessie Montgomery
Alexi Kenney performed Jessie Montgomery’s “Rhapsody No. 1” at Chamber Music Northwest’s first [email protected] concert at the Alberta Rose Theater on June 29, 2022. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

New nights to come

Next week’s [email protected] concert is at 6 p.m. tomorrow night, July 6, in downtown Armory. Arcadia unlocked is a relatively short program: the work for solo cello by Judith Weir Unblocked and the string quartet of Thomas Adès Arcadianperformed by Zlatomir Fung and the Viano String Quartet respectively.

Weir is the first woman to hold the post of Master of the Queens Music in the UK, a position previously held by Peter Maxwell Davies and Edward Elgar. Unblocked is based on a series of folk tunes collected from prisoners in the 1930s by Alan and John Lomax, two of the earliest chroniclers of American folk lore. Adès is another British composer, and his quartet Arcadian is among his earlier works – before he became famous for his large repertoire of orchestral and lyrical works.

Fung is the youngest recipient of the first prize in the cello division of the International Tchaikovsky Competition; the Viano String Quartet is Nina von Maltzahn String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music. Both are CMNW 2022 Protected Artists and will be featured throughout the festival.

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