chamber music summer festivals

summer heat

It’s a warm July 4th (Independence Day here in the US) in Portland. Our outside thermometer says 90F. Still warmer weather is coming, and the summer festival season is warming up for me as well.

Last weekend I played for the first time at the Chintimini Chamber Music Festival located in Corvallis, Oregon. Corvallis is about 90 minutes south of Portland, midway down the Willamette Valley. Corvallis is a wonderful college town (home to Oregon State University) which has had the distinction of producing a lot of wonderful musicians over the years. It was founded in 2001 by its former Artistic Director violinist Erik Peterson out of a desire to return to his hometown each summer and perform with his friends who had also grown up in Corvallis and gone on the successful careers in music. Now the festival is in its first year with new Artistic Director cellist Noah Seitz.

I got the invitation email from Noah in late Spring of this year, and when I read what the repertoire was, I knew I had to say yes. I played on three sprawling, challenging, and masterful pieces of chamber music, ranging from a string trio to a string septet.

The first was the String Trio of 1926 by Jean Cras (1879-1932), a French naval officer who also had a successful career as a composer. I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about the composer, much less his String Trio! But what a wonderfully strange piece it is – and a vital part of the string trio repertoire. It is challenging in similar ways to other French (or French adjacent) chamber music pieces, with a strong vein of Orientalism that was common at the time, and perhaps drew from Cras’ travels as a career Naval officer. All of the parts have plenty to do — sometimes a bit too much if you ask me — and the writing is full and opulent, which is quite a thing to accomplish with three instruments. I was joined by two intrepid explorers on the journey, both of whom I’d never played with before, the excellent violinist Fritz Gearhart, and the indefatigable cellist Noah Seitz. I’m always flabbergasted by musicians who play nearly every piece in the festival while also helping to run it as well. They’re usually cellists, too.

The second piece was the string septet version of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, written in 1944-45, most well-known in the version for 23 solo strings. The septet version was a study for the full orchestration and was not intended by the composer to be composed as such. But, as often happens, someone got wind of the manuscript in 1990 and edited it into this version which was published in 1996. It is a powerful work that presents unique problems for the ensemble, as nearly every line is independent and the tempos are generally quite slow. Much concentration is required by all the musicians to make the piece come off in performance, with careful attention given to the hierarchy of the voices and balancing of the ensemble. I had to luck to have another incredible ensemble to play with for this piece (another debut piece for me): violinists Fritz Gearhart and Anthea Kreston, violist Andrew Duckles, cellists Noah Seitz and Anne Riddlington, and double bassist Chris Kim.

Strauss dress rehearsal at Tyee Vinyards.

My last piece of the festival was perhaps my favorite* piece of chamber music by Johannes Brahms, his Sextet No. 2 in G major, op. 36. It’s a nearly perfect piece, with beautiful melodic lines and harmonies that pull at the heartstrings. I got to play the second viola part this time around – violists always seem to fight for the second parts in quintets and sextets. I was joined by all of my Strauss colleagues minus the double bass (though some groups do perform the piece with a double bass in place of the second cello).

Bike rides always need a bakery stop!

I had a great time in Corvallis – my first time really spending any longer than a day there. Wonderful places to ride my bike, great bakeries and restaurants, and beautiful scenery. I can’t wait to go back again for more wonderful music!

*my favorite piece of Brahms’ music is whichever one I’m currently playing

Up next: I’m in Eugene, Oregon for the Oregon Bach Festival.