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chamber music music new music string quartet summer festivals viola

summer round-up

Summer isn’t over yet – by the calendar it has 30 days yet to go. But for me, musically speaking, the summer season is ended. It’s been busy, rewarding, and tiring. Now it’s time for a bit of relaxation and recharging of the batteries before the fall season starts in earnest. Let’s take a look at what I’ve been up to since mid-June.

Makrokosmos Project premiere

Composer and violist Kenji Bunch. Photo: Artslandia/Meg Nanna

On June 29th I had the pleasure, along with my colleagues of the Pyxis Quartet, pianist Maria Garcia, and former principal percussionist of the Oregon Symphony Niel DePonte to give the premiere of a major new chamber work Trackings by Kenji Bunch. It was part of the always rewarding and adventurous marathon of new music Makrokosmos.

Percussionist and impresario Niel DePonte. Photo: Artslandia/Christina Dong

Trackings traces the African diaspora from West Africa through its music and influences. I hope it gets many more performances. It is a delightful and soulful work that gives the percussionist many opportunities to shine (and to play melodies!).

Pyxis also played I found this flower, the lovely piece for string quartet by Bonnie Miksch which was featured on our critically-acclaimed concert I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, featuring the poetry of Micah Fletcher back in 2019.

Oregon Bach Festival

Less than a week after Makrokosmos it was time to make the annual trek down to Eugene for the Oregon Bach Festival. The festival has been in artistic limbo since the ill-advised and ill-conceived dismissal of previous artistic director Matthew Halls in 2017. Now, after two seasons drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of an extended artistic director search, the festival came roaring back with enormous works for an enormous orchestra, with some very interesting conductors at the helm.

The first concert of the modern orchestra’s portion of the festival – Silver Celebrations – celebrated the twin silver anniversaries of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy and the commissioning of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, which subsequently was winner of the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. A selection of pieces featuring the youth choir were presented, followed by the Credo, which also prominently featured the young choristers. The performance was led by a young Polish conductor Anna Sulkowska-Migon, who coincidentally was the daughter of Helmuth Rilling’s assistant during the premiere and recording of the work back in 2000. She was very much in control of the performance, and gave it a loving account, working well with both the orchestra and chorus. I was not involved in the original premiere of the Penderecki, and so it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know this work under someone who was intimately familiar with the language of the composer.

My second concert of the festival featured a bucket list composition that I’ve always loved and always wanted a chance to perform: Richard Strauss’ majestic and mighty Alpine Symphony. A tone poem of about 50 minutes in length, the symphony depicts a climbing expedition in the high Alps from start to finish. While it could do with a bit of editing for length, it’s an orchestral showpiece of the highest order. There is the huge moment of the depiction of the arrival at the summit of the mountain, and it is one of the most glorious orchestral climaxes in the repertoire. I was grinning, I looked over at concertmaster Sarah Kwak, and she was grinning – there were lots of happy faces in the string section during that moment!

Conductor Eric Jacobsen returned after his successful concerts last summer, and he led a memorable account of this incredible work. The concert began with Valerie Coleman’s Fanfare for Uncommon Times, which was followed by Johannes Brahms’ great and powerful piece for chorus and orchestra, Song of Destiny (Schicksalslied). It was my first time digging into this piece, and it’s a corner of the Brahms repertoire that is too often overlooked in my part of the world. It’s a marvelous piece with gorgeous, warm sonorities, beautifully written for both the orchestra and chorus.

The final concert of the festival was constructed around another massive piece, this time for chorus and orchestra, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. Kiwi conductor Gemma New was on had to marshal all of the forces needed for this sprawling and demanding symphony. I’m not convinced that it is one of my most favorite pieces, but it does have one of the most spectacular openings of any piece, with the chorus and orchestra giving full cry to Walt Whitman’s words “Behold, the sea”.

Also on the program, the Ravel Piano Concerto with soloist Angela Hewitt, Edward Elgar’s somewhat garish orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, and Eleanor Alberga’s brief curtain-opener for chorus and orchestra Arise, Athena!.

WVCMF

After about a week to regroup and try to get my back realigned after 10 days in a horrible dormitory bunk bed, it was time to start rehearsals for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. It’s my favorite part of the summer, and a contender for my favorite musical experience of the entire year. The festival gives three weekends of concerts, each weekend taking place at a different landmark winery in the valley. Wine pairings with each half of the concert are a unique part of the festival’s format. The festival directors (and performers on violin and cello) Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi also invite a composer-in-residence to the festival and feature at least one of the composer’s works on each week’s program. This year the composer was Boston-based Syrian American composer Kareem Roustom. Four of his works were presented at the festival, one of which was a world premiere commissioned by the festival, Syrian Folk Songs. The other works were the string quartet Four Dances from Clorinda Agonistes, a violin/cello duo Letters Home, and String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night.

L-R: Charles Noble, Kenji Bunch, Megumi Stohs-Lewis, Leo Eguchi, and Sasha Callahan.

The first week of concerts was presented in the excellent acoustics of the barrel room of Appassionata Estate. The two halves of the first concert were opened by Tegere Tulon, two sets of Malian clapping songs by Hawa Diabaté which adapted songs sung by the women of Malian villages and passed down through the generations through oral tradition. Delightful pieces, full of joy, and it was fun to get the audience to join in the clapping! The Syrian Folk Songs and Four Dances followed. Fry Street Quartet violist Brad Otteson played on the Folk Songs, while I played the Four Dances.

After intermission and the second set of Diabaté pieces came Dvorak’s wonderful and perplexingly unknown String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 which gave we two violists a chance to rock out together. It’s a beautiful and tuneful work that really ought to be heard more often.

Week Two was another interesting and varied program, this time at Sokol-Blosser Winery. The concert opened with Ukranian composer Vasyl Barvinsky’s Prayer from his Piano Quintet. This movement has no piano part, and made an eloquent case for the need for peace in Ukraine.

Kareem Roustom’s violin/cello duo Letters Home came next, extending the melancholy mood. The mood was lightened significantly by the presence of Caroline Shaw’s ode to the Dumbarton Oaks estate Plan and Elevation. I’m a huge fan of Caroline’s music, and this evocation of the rhythm and lines of a grand estate really moved me. The second movement, entitled The Cutting Garden was particularly interesting, as Shaw cut into the movement snippets of Mozart, Ravel, and her own quartets previous to this one as a sort of play on the meaning of a garden from which blooms are plucked and made into the new form of a bouquet.

The concert closed with a monumental work of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, his Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127. What a joy it was to dig into this work, which features as its second movement one of Beethoven’s longest movements for string quartet, a sublime set of variations. I think it presages the famous quote from the meeting of Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, wherein Mahler was said to have remarked to Sibelius that “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything”. These variations do indeed contain worlds, plural.

Week Three at Archery Summit Winery brought Mozart’s last string quartet, No. 23 in F major, K. 590, Roustom’s 35 minute String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night, and the west coast premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Songs for a Shared Space, his fifth string quartet, with the composer playing the viola part.

Mozart was prompted to write his last three string quartets by a commission from the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was in fact a gifted cellist. Mozart was inspired to write some strikingly virtuosic parts for the cello (especially compared to many of the existing quartets of the time) and to give an almost democratic distribution of prominence to the other voices of the ensemble as well. It makes for a rewarding experience to play, especially as a violist! The fact that this final string quartet of Mozart’s is effortlessly elegant and perfectly proportioned doesn’t hurt, either!

Kareem Roustom’s major string quartet, String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night is a nine movement piece which is inspired by the Arabic terms for the different phases of nighttime. It presents so many changes of mood and tempo, as well as different unique timbres and combinations of sounds, all of which proceed quickly and meltingly into each other. It makes for an extremely demanding piece, but one that is also extremely rewarding. It was a pleasure to dive into this piece over the few weeks we had to familiarize ourselves with it, and I hope we get further chances to perform it!

I had the second half of the concert off, I could now start having my wine! While I enjoyed the offerings of Archery Summit winery, I also got to enjoy the performance by my colleagues of Kenji Bunch’s newest piece for string quartet, which was commissioned by the Boston ensemble Sheffield Chamber Players (which is also run by Sasha and Leo). The piece begins with the cellist on stage, and with the other three players spaced out beyond the audience, each contributing from a distance. As the piece continues, each player eventually moves onto the stage, playing all the while. It’s a fantastic piece, instantly recognizable as one of Kenji’s, and full of the American folk underpinnings that are a major part of his style. The piece is a slow burn of sorts, building over the course of 15 minutes to the finale which itself crescendos to an ecstatic close that brought the audience to its feet both nights.

Vacation

So now, just a day after the final concert, I’m taking a few days to recharge, relax, do laundry, and get out on the bike and into the garden. In just a few weeks time the Oregon Symphony season will begin (my 29th!) and I’ll write a post about the concerts that I’m most looking forward to in the 2023 part of the season.

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