The finest Northwest arts organization you never heard of

Summer amenities have made chamber music festivals a national phenomenon, with one of the best in Portland. Now in its 37th season, Chamber Music Northwest exemplifies high standards, teamwork, and the pursuit of the elusive magic in a once-central musical form.
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David Shifrin, artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest.

Summer amenities have made chamber music festivals a national phenomenon, with one of the best in Portland. Now in its 37th season, Chamber Music Northwest exemplifies high standards, teamwork, and the pursuit of the elusive magic in a once-central musical form.

If Seattle is a bright beacon flashing out its grandness, Portland is a bushel basket, under which well-kept secrets gleam. My favorite example is Portland's Chamber Music Northwest summer festival, now in its 37th year and one of the finest in the country. My family has been going for the past 25 years, but I rarely encounter a music lover in Seattle who's ever been. CMNW, doing just fine, thank you, shows no inclination or need to market to a Seattle audience. To be sure, "chamber music" is not exactly the biggest attraction on the summer circuit. Anne Midgette of The New York Times recently wrote an essay saying that the art form (small-ensemble pieces, generally with one player to a part and no conductor) has become so stultified with trappings of decorum that the term ought to be scrapped for "ensemble piece," and the performers should shift, as some already are, to performing in bars and cafes. Citing only anecdotal evidence, Midgette said audiences for chamber music, like art music generally, are declining. Not in Portland, says the music director of Chamber Music Northwest, David Shifrin, whose audiences last year rose 7 percent and where they sell out 94 percent of the seats for the five-week festival each summer (running through July 29 this season). "Stupid, pointless, ignorant, and counter-productive," Shifrin says of the Midgette article. The slightly smaller Seattle variant, the Seattle Chamber Music Society's summer festival now running at Lakeside School, is also doing well, with frequently sold-out houses and a recently added two-week extension at the Eastside's Overlake School. The declines are more likely to be in winter seasons and in cities like New York with tremendous competition for the music dollar. The series at the University of Washington's Meany Hall, for instance, is doing "fair to middling" in attendance, with 64 percent of the seats sold, reports series director Matt Krashan, who has a big hall (1,200 seats) to fill. For many years, chamber music was the most rarified of classical music forms, and it took a very cultivated European or academic audience to support it. Musicians in America were not particularly trained to perform this very collaborative form of music-making, and the leading string quartets were from Europe. Then came the killer app, the summer festival. Suddenly, chamber music had picnics and pleasant summer nights and a relaxed, convivial atmosphere that brought in lots of novice listeners, much as supratitles demystified opera. Portland's festival began in 1970 at Reed College, and Seattle's began in 1982. There are now scores of them in cooler parts of the country and in mountain towns like Santa Fe and Aspen. The real growth was in the 1980s and has flattened since, perhaps because the art form has reached audience saturation. These festivals have at least three positive factors going for them, compared to winter programming. Musicians discount their rates in the summer, since they are playing in smaller halls. (At CMNW, a typical week's pay, not counting free housing and car, is about $3,200, among the top rates in the nation.) Donors and corporate sponsors are drawn to the atmosphere, which is a blend of faculty club picnic and country club table hopping. At Reed and Catlin Gable, Portland's elite private school, concert-goers arrive in seriously casual clothes, chat in picnic lines beneath lofty trees, and uncork fine Oregon wines to go with the catered dinners. The third fortuitous factor is the mixture of conversation, strolling, and dining that makes the experience less formal and more convivial, a bit like going to a museum with a friend. Sometimes, the relaxation extends to the musicians, who are on semi-holiday and are often playing pieces so familiar to them that they need little rehearsing for audiences that need little convincing. Portland is quite the opposite, with top musicians, careful rehearsing, and intelligently assembled programs (not the usual variety act). It helped for the years 1994-2005 that artistic director Shifrin was also artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well as being one of the country's top clarinetists. That meant complex works were being readied (or repeated) in Portland and that Shifrin could have his pick of musicians, since he could reward them with a prestigious New York City stage. Shifrin and CMNW's executive director, Linda Magee, have been a smoothly meshed team for 27 years at the festival, so the whole enterprise exudes professionalism and seriousness, rather like a crisp and well-structured Oregon pinot gris. The three concerts my wife and I heard on a recent weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights) typified the high standards. Two leading American quartets were in residence, the Orion, in the middle of recording all the Beethoven quartets and playing two of them with a very high sheen, and the Emerson, probably the greatest quartet in the world today and absolute master of the Shostakovich quartets. The Emerson was completing the full cycle of all 15 Shostakovich string quartets, spread over two seasons, and playing three each night with a kind of terrifying power and precision. Bold is the summer festival that allows such quartets on the stage, since they set a standard of polish and absolutely worked-out interpretations that other, ad-hoc groupings of players have to try to measure up to. And the presence of quartets means the heart of chamber music repertoire can be put into the programs. One example of CMNW's coherent approach to an evening's program was the Saturday concert of three late works, including Brahms clarinet trio, written in 1894, three years before the composer died and burnished with nobly wistful autumn colors, and Beethoven's last complete work, the string quartet Op. 135. The Brahms trio, played at a slow and broad tempo so that it widened out into symphonic magnificence, featured Shifrin and cellist Peter Wiley, two old masters, joined by a beautifully under-playing pianist, Pei-Yao Wang. (Andre Watts had injured his back.) It was a dramatic conversational triangle, with Wiley as the thick and gruff Brahms, Shifrin's achingly hollow clarinet as Brahms refined by his art, and Wang as the shy, limpid reminder of years long past. Shifrin had discovered and worked with Wang when she was a student at Yale, where he teaches chamber music, kept in touch during her apprenticeships at Marlboro, Vt. (the sacred fount of chamber music in America), and then further at Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Two for young players. The three had performed together, but not this masterpiece until this unforgettable performance that locked into a powerful emotional groove from the opening cello phrase. The real thrill of chamber music is that things like this can happen, not every night, but often enough to keep you ripe with expectation. I had a talk with Shifrin afterward, and he, too, knew that an angel had flown overhead during that performance. It got him talking about the distinctive qualities of chamber music, its ability to deploy "large ideas with small forces." Composers like chamber music because of the quality control it allows, Shifrin said; they can write it for favorite players, like a playwright crafting a part for an actress, and often they can play a part themselves. The transparency of the texture means the musicians must take special care, cannot hide. "The great conductor George Szell used to say his goal for the Cleveland Orchestra was that they would all play as chamber musicians. By that he meant: listen to each other; know the whole score and how all the parts fit together; do not just sit there waiting to come in or following a leader." The big question is whether chamber music, with such ardent pleasures when done as well as the Portland players can do it, needs to change, rather than just cleaving to high standards. Western art music is clearly no longer at the center of our cultural conversation, as it was in the 19th century. Why was it? A new book by Lawrence Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters, says that this music, with its basic structure of following the troubled fate of melody, "a treasured, numinous object," expressed large dramas of loss and recovery, subjective feeling in a threatening world – clashes that are now trite and drained of real tension. But if Portland is playing lovely homage to such music, the city and Chamber Music Northwest are also very engaged with contemporary music. Portland has a lively scene of making new music and putting on work by its resident composers. Each fall, Portland Art Focus has many cutting edge shows in its galleries. On July 23 and 24, CMNW will premiere a work it commissioned from Portland composer David Schiff, and this January it will hold a three-day festival, linked with speakers at Reed, commemorating the 100th birthdays of Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter. There's a lot of light under that bushel basket!


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