preview – willamette valley chamber music festival – final weekend

This weekend the festival moves from the warm embrace of the J. Christopher Wines barrel room to two new locales. On Saturday, it’s Sokol Blosser, and on Sunday, Elk Cove Vineyards. The program is a nice mix – some newer music, music by a female composer, and a big, old favorite by a dead white guy.

Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.

Small-scale music by Philip Glass (who, like festival resident composer Joan Tower, is celebrating his 80th birthday year) opens the concert. His Four Duets for Violin and Cello (extracted from his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello), written in 2010, will be performed by festival co-directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.

Rebecca Clarke

Poem for string quartet by the British-American composer and violist Rebecca Clarke (active in the first quarter of the 20th century) follows. Most famous for her wonderful Viola Sonata, her compositional career was limited by her gender, and she eventually stopped composition entirely after marrying. What might have been, one wonders, if she had lived in a time where being female and being a composer weren’t mutually exclusive? Callahan and Eguchi are joined by Megumi Stohs Lewis and myself.

Marilyn De Oliveira – Photo: Jacobe Wade.

Finally, the great String Quintet in C-major by Schubert closes the program.  Oregon Symphony Assistant principal cellist (and member of the Mousai REMIX and Pyxis Quartet) Marilyn De Oliveira joins the quartet for this sublime ending to the festival’s third season. Is Schubert’s Quintet perhaps the greatest and most perfect piece ever written for chamber ensemble? Many think so. Come decide for yourself!

Tickets and information.

summer catch-up

I can’t believe that it’s been nearly two months since my last post! Lots of stuff has been happening, musically. In early July I was at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon. I played three orchestral concerts there, and two chamber music concerts. The orchestral concerts were a mixed bag of repertoire. The first concert consisted of the world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua by Richard Danielpour, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The final orchestral concert was the Elijah oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn, conducted by John Nelson. In between was a hybrid orchestral-chamber music concert. It featured the music of JS Bach and Philip Glass. Our piano soloist in the Oregon premiere of Glass’ Third Piano Concerto and Bach’s G minor piano concerto was the incredible Simone Dinnerstein. We performed without a conductor per se, but with Simone leading as needed from the piano. The opening piece was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, also without a conductor, led by OBF orchestra (and OSO) concertmaster Sarah Kwak. Then, in our festival debut, was the Pyxis Quartet (part of the new 45th Parallel Universe collective) playing Glass’ String Quartet No. 5. Glass was in attendance at the concert, and was also generous enough to give us a bit of time to play through some parts of the quartet the afternoon before the concert. It was a fantastic experience – very much a once-in-a-lifetime sort of musical happening!

Post quartet selfie with Philip Glass: L-R: Marilyn De Oliveira, Charles Noble, Philip Glass, Ron Blessinger, and Ruby Chen.

Then, after a week off at home, I was off to Coos Bay, Oregon for the Oregon Coast Music Festival. This festival has been going strong for 40 years, and this was my first time taking part. James Paul is the music director, and the orchestra comes from all over the western U.S. It was a blast from the past for me, as many in the orchestra played in the Cascade Festival orchestra which I took part in in Bend, Oregon for several years back in the late 1990’s. It’s a large orchestra, and the repertoire was sized to match – Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade, Brahms’ 4th Symphony, and Strauss’ Don Juan were the major works of the week’s classical concerts. It was a super fun and relaxed festival, and it was also much cooler than the nearly triple-digit temps that folks inland were dealing with during the week!

Now I’m home again, and getting ready for some chamber music concerts in the Oregon Wine Country. I’ll give you the low down on those later this week.

the string quartet as chameleon

Third Angle String Quartet Plays Philip Glass

This past Thursday and Friday evenings, Third Angle New Music, of which I’m a member, gave the first of its Studio Series concerts at Studio2 in the Zoomtopia Building on SE Belmont. The Studio Series consists of sets of two concerts, in an intimate venue, each concert lasting about an hour. I, personally, love the format for a couple of reasons. First, it’s great to repeat a concert that you put as much work into as this one entailed (more on that in a moment). Second, the flow of a concert without an intermission can be fabulous, especially when the program is tight and coherent, as this one was (kudos to 3A Artistic Director and violinist Ron Blessinger for that).

This set of concerts highlighted the string quartet at the heart of Third Angle. In many ways, the string quartet is the ne plus ultra of chamber music. Since it was essentially invented, then perfected, by Joseph Haydn, the string quartet has attracted some of the most profound and/or innovative music from the greatest composers in history. The list is truly daunting: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Berg, Shostakovich, Bartok, Janacek, Ligeti, Crumb, Rorem, Adams, etc, etc. As Ron Blessinger noted in his talk at our presentation at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics Friday afternoon, the string quartet, unlike virtually any other ensemble, is capable of sounding completely and astoundingly different – in the hands of a capable composer – from one piece to the next. So it was with the three pieces we did this week.

Our first piece was by Illinois composer Kerrith Livengood, entitled Online Communion. It was partially inspired by her reading of a New York Times story on the United Methodist Church pondering offering online communion services to home bound parishioners, as well as the concept of a piece being experienced differently depending upon the context of the listoner.

kerrith livengood - online communion (2014)

It involved the instruments being amplified, and playing synchronized to an electronic soundtrack, coordinated by a click track that we heard through headphones. It employed some quarter-tone and third-tone pitch alterations as well. It’s one of those pieces that I wish I could have heard as an audience member, so concentrated was I on keeping to the click track in some hairy rhythmic passages. Two lucky audience members got to hear an alternate mix of the performance through headphones randomly placed in the seats, which is an interesting idea. Kerrith noted on Friday that the piece is still a work in progress, and I look forward to seeing what its future incarnations bring.

The piece on the concert that involved the largest amount of sheer effort in terms of personal practice time and rehearsals was John Zorn’s 20+ minute work The Alchemist, written in 2011. Up until now, the most difficult work I’d played for string quartet was Bartok’s great and daunting Fourth String Quartet. If the Bartok were Mount Everest, then the Zorn is K2 – not quite as lofty in its heights, but deadlier, and fraught with more perils. No piece has involved me sitting in my practiced studio swearing like a long-haul trucker, longshoreman, and Quentin Tarantino movie character combined. The learning curve on the music was quite extreme, even just in coming to terms with one’s own part, never mind how it will integrate with the whole.

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Here is where the problem (if that’s the right word) of being an orchestra musician comes in. We often tend to be slavish to things like rhythm, almost to the detriment of every other element of musicianship – because, in an orchestra, you are part of a larger organism, and the first and most important part of that organism is rhythmic unity. In a piece like the Zorn, rhythm is, of course, very important, but rhythmic structures become more important when seen as musical gestures, rather than part of an unyielding backbone of rhythmic pulse. I feel like we just started to really get a handle on that by Friday night’s performance, which also felt less tentative than Thursday, and more enthusiastically heeded Zorn’s desire for his performers to “bleed all over the stage”. It’s a huge piece, arguably the most difficult (by Zorn’s own admission) in Zorn’s output. It will be nice to take a break and then come back to this piece with fresh hands, eyes, and ears.

The closer on the program was Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet ‘Mishima’. Written in 1985 as part of a score to the Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it is a stunningly effective piece of pure minimalism. It couldn’t be further from the frenetic, ADHD, maddeningly complex music of John Zorn.

philip glass 3rd quartet 'mishima' (1985)

But it really is no less complex. For anyone that would say “anyone could write this music”, I’d say, well, why didn’t you write in back in 1980? It is simplistic music, but not simple. What I love about minimalism is the state of mind that it engenders in both the audience and the performers. As a performer, you’re challenged by the homogeneous blend of sound that the quartet requires, and even more by the repeat schemes which require an enormous amount of concentration to get right. There is little to do, but that means that what you do is incredibly important to get as perfectly as you can. There were moments in both performances where the quartet got into a groove, and it was like riding on a standing wave of sound, eternally surfing the endless chord progressions and myriad cross rhythms.

So, there were three pieces – all played by the same four instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. But they sounded completely different, and had very different effects upon the performers and audience. That is the genius of the string quartet – the true chameleon of the musical world.