Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chamber Music Northwest goes clubbing

If you had never heard Daniel Phillips play the violin with the Orion Quartet or Yo-Yo Ma -- playing it, in short, at the highest level -- but you had seen him play the "air" violin in a teaching session, then you'd still think he must be a great musician. Without bow ever touching string.

About three-fourths of the way through his session with the Jasper Quartet, Phillips stood up from the chair where he'd spent most of the rehearsal and assumed the proper violinist's stance in front of them, holding an imaginary violin in front of him. He doesn't cut an imposing figure. He's shorter than average, a little on the stocky side with an admirable belly rounding out his profile in front. But when he assumed this particular position, you just knew how deeply he understood what he was talking about. It was the balance and the economy of motion that the balance allowed him. Also the focus, so concentrated on the spot where the imaginary strings and bow met (and the centimeter or so above that spot). So intense that the observer could be forgiven for hallucinating a real violin in his hands. And my God, if he could create that effect, a practical grace, with an air violin, what could he do with a real instrument in his hands?

The Jasper Quartet, a group of young musicians in Chamber Music Northwest's Protege Project, watched him closely, not because they hadn't had oodles of instruction in the way to hold and address the violin but because they had never had such instruction from Phillips. And Phillips had observed in their playing a lot of wasted, even contradictory movement, a bobbing and weaving common enough among string players but all of it beside the point: the place where bow and strings meet. He said he'd played the same way once, too, but gradually learned a different way.

Phillips talked about muscle groups in the back, avoiding dead-arm pulls with the bow arm, achieving force simply by flexing the bicep of the arm holding up the violin, and he demonstrated this, posing for a moment like a body builder. Which was humorous. But his point was important -- how do we achieve the best possible tone and the widest possible range on the violin? "It's like digging," he said. "The more perfectly rounded it is, the better." And then he switched metaphors to talk about "sculpting feeling out of the strings" either by sculpting lightly or deeply. And when that happens? "Everything you feel comes out -- and maybe more."

"And maybe more." This sounds a little like Yoda or a Taoist saint or a shaman; alchemical, maybe, if you have your doubts about this sort of thing. You can get more out than you put in. And here we'll leave Phillips for the moment, poised with imaginary bow in hand, shoulders squared, arms and hands and fingers prepared to make the most minute of gestures or clench powerfully, depending on the music on the stand.



*****

Before Chamber Music Northwest began its summer season this year on June 21, artistic director David Shifrin and executive director Linda Magee sat down to talk about the Protege Project, a program they invented this year. Magee and Shifrin have constituted the management team of Chamber Music Northwest for 30 years, and the organization has had the kind of stability implied by their impressive longevity. During those years, attendance has always hovered close to 100 percent, even when the festival added a second venue to its Reed College home base. Loyal subscribers traditionally are a very high percentage of the audience. Corporate sponsors have gladly re-upped year after year for decades. And though the festival doesn't receive large individual donations compared to Portland's major arts groups, it receives many smaller individual gifts.

It's been a nice, enjoyable and high quality chamber music festival for years, primarily because Shifrin, who served for many years as artistic director of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, has long and deep ties to many of the country's best chamber players. They enjoy the Northwest summers and the ambiance of the festival, which is informal but dedicated to the music. And they have converted Portland into something of a chamber music town, with two major presenters (Friends of Chamber Music is the other) bringing the best international ensembles to town.

But Chamber Music Northwest hasn't been immune from the problems that have vexed the classical music scene nationally -- declining attendance, aging audiences, financial problems caused by the changing nature of the corporate and philanthropic support as well as the stuttering economy. These problems have led to some tentative experimentation by most orchestras, operas and music festivals. Programming in some cases has become more adventurous; in others, it's become more conservative. Marketing has become more important in some cases, curtailed in others.

Chamber Music Northwest began to expand its mission about a decade ago, adding and intensifying a younger musician training program, for example, and expanding beyond its summer season to offer concerts during the winter months. Shifrin's programming has become a little more wide-ranging, too. Last year, the Punch Brothers, an alt.bluegrass band led by mandolin player Chris Thile, performed both regular classical music mixed in with other musicians and in a special concert of their own. And Magee has found a new summer outpost for concerts in the Gerding Theater at the Armory building, usually occupied by Portland Center Stage, the city's largest theater company.

Shifrin and Magee explained the Protege Project as an extension of some of these efforts. It is aimed squarely at the Jasper Quartets of the world: accomplished younger musicians who have graduated from university, conservatory and graduate programs and are attempting to make careers for themselves in classical music. Shifrin selected this year's class mostly from musicians he worked with, taught or heard play at Yale, where he now teaches.

Up until now, the festival has aimed its education efforts mostly at younger musicians closer to home. Shifrin understands the problems that the Jasper Quartet, the Atria Quartet or Sospiro Winds face getting started. The Protege Project, he said, is "a formalization of an apprentice program for musicians identified as having the goods but without the experience yet." The idea is to hook up these younger groups with the old pros who make up most of the festival personnel, such as pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, the violinist Kavafian sisters and flutist Ransom Wilson. In addition to breathing the same musical air and learning directly from their elders, the young guns have been enlisted to play a series of concerts in places that Chamber Music Northwest has never entered -- Mississippi Studios, The Woods and the Someday Lounge, all of which are indie and progressive rock bastions, though they also have experimented with various sorts of programming. Mississippi Studios has hosted ballet concerts, for example, and Opera Theater Oregon staged a new version of "Beggar's Opera" at both the Someday Lounge and The Woods.

Why send the Protege groups out into the world this way?

"We wanted to use their younger faces as part of the face of Chamber Music Northwest," said Magee. Shifrin said he thought of them as "ambassadors to their own generation in the community." They also liked the idea of the more intimate, informal spaces offered by the clubs and the idea of spreading the festival to other neighborhoods -- Mississippi Studios is in north Portland, the Someday Lounge is in Old Town and The Woods is in Westmoreland. They said that the musicians would talk to the audiences about the music, too, and take questions from the crowd. In short, they hoped Protege would help them reach out to younger people in different neighborhoods with a format that might be more agreeable and less formidable than traditional concert settings -- even Chamber Music Northwest's concerts. Plus, beer would be served!

*****

When I arrived at Mississippi Studios for the first concert in the Protege series, the small room was already mostly filled. A few younger faces dotted the audience, but mostly it seemed to be a Boomer Generation crowd. Some were drinking beer, but with nothing like the eagerness of most crowds at the club. On the other hand, after the Jasper Quartet performed the 30 second third movement of Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet and asked the audience to identify the composer, one wag hollered out Led Zeppelin, so maybe Protege in the neighborhoods did attract an atypical chamber music crowd.

The Jasper Quartet played the first two movements of a Haydn quartet (Op. 77 No. 1) to start and then stopped to talk about and play the first three movements of Webern's Five Movements for String Quartet. This was educational: They explained that Webern, despite his 12-tone attack, different sonic effects and fractured tempos, employed a structure similar to Haydn's in his movements: One theme, another theme, development of both themes, recapitulation of both themes. The 30-second movement was a perfect teaching tool to show that, yes, amid the caterwauling and seeming chaos, Webern's structure was actually quite traditional. And when Jasper dug into the Webern (and I totally understand the Led Zeppelin comparison), the audience seemed to enjoy it more for the tutorial. I know I did.

At intermission, some of us, including The Oregonian reviewer James McQuillen, headed to the bar for liquid comfort and an exchange of information and ideas. Chamber Music Northwest's director of communications Elizabeth Harcombe told us that when she arrived that afternoon (the concert started at 5 p.m.) she found tables set up so the Jasper Quartet could sell its t-shirts, CDs and other paraphernalia. When the Mississippi Studio staff was informed that the tables wouldn't be needed, a staffer was dubious. "No merch? How's this band going to make it?" Which is an excellent question: In the world of indie bands, the merch table is crucial, and frankly, the Jasper Quartet resembles nothing more than it does a fledgling rock group. But then I thought, hey, Chamber Music Northwest itself has tables of merchandise (which from now on I'm going to call "merch") selling all manner of items. Merch is merch is money in the bank.

After we all sat back down, the quartet returned for a rousing version of Schumann's String Quartet in A Major, and if we hadn't been able to get a fix on just how talented the Jasper Quartet is, then the Schumann convinced us: These guys are really good, thoughtful and expressive and technically proficient. I wasn't alone in this assessment. McQuillen quite agreed: "At the end of the achingly beautiful third movement, which finished with an exquisite pianissimo, you could have heard a pin drop -- not because people were observing concert etiquette but because the music was just that compelling," he wrote in his account of the concert.

*****

The following Sunday, McQuillen and I and maybe another 100 or 150 people, again mostly Boomers and older, found seats at The Woods in Westmoreland for a July 4 concert by the Atria Ensemble. "I bet you didn't think you be celebrating Independence Day with two Koreans and a Canadian," said Romie de Guise-Langlois, who is from Montreal and whose English has definite French inflections. She plays clarinet in various New York ensembles; Summi Chang is the violinist, affiliated these days with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; and Hyeyeon Park is a superb pianist, who is doing her doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins. But all of them are good, as it became clear immediately in Libby Larsen's "Slang," a pulsating piece that summons forth boogie-woogie, old-timey fiddle music, funk and Dixieland jazz within a hard-edged, jangly contemporary context.

In honor of the day, the group, which was the first-prize winner in the Plowman Chamber Music Competition in 2008, the year they began playing together at Yale, performed music by American composers. Next up was Paul Schoenfield's Trio for Clarinet, Piano and Violin, which was originally commissioned by David Shifrin, who in addition to his administrative duties happens to be a stellar clarinetist. Nothing says "Fourth of July" quite like klezmer music, and Schoenfield's trio gives the clarinetist and violinist a full-on plunge into the ecstasies of the form, though the piano often supplies big classical chords behind them. The third movement started off with a mournful wail before resuming the manic klezmer tempo.

Charles Ives' Largo for Violin, Clarinet and Piano reminded us just how modern Ives is, even though this piece was written in 1902 -- it emerges gradually from the imperceptible, picks up audibility, fractures, turns in on itself, slaps itself around and then heads back to the imperceptible. And the performance closed with William Bolcom's homage to ragtime, Afternoon Cakewalk, which reminded us of Larsen's Slang and also demonstrated how complete Bolcom's mastery of the early jazz form is -- some of the songs were adapted from ragtime masters (Scott Joplin, of course, Louis Chauvin, etc. ) but Bolcom's own compositions were deft even profound examples of ragtime. This was also another intersection with Shifrin, who premiered the piece (with violinist Sergiu Luca, Chamber Music Northwest's founding artistic director, and Bolcom himself on piano) in 1979 for the Murray Louis Dance Company.

A good-spirited program, well-played, to obvious audience delight. At intermission, Guise-Langlois was asked how it felt to be performing outside the concert hall in a club, and she beamed. "We love it. It's so intimate isn't it? And chamber music is meant to be intimate."

*****

When he walked in to the rehearsal room at Reed College Monday for the teaching session with the Jasper Quartet, Phillips couldn't have been more informal about it all. He settled into a chair in front of the group, whom he had never met, and after saying that he had never actually played the the music at hand, namely Alban Berg's brambly Lyric Suite, he began to listen as the group plunged into the first movement.

"You guys sound great on this," he said, after they finished. "Is it really hard?"

"Yes, it's really hard," replied J Freivogel, the first violinist.

I'm not sure it was a "real" question. Phillips had the score in front of him, and I think his question was a little joke. Yes, Berg's Lyric Suite is difficult, a combination of staccato bursts of expressionistic 12-tone blurts with an almost syrupy Romanticism. From the first run through, Phillips had decided that the Jasper Quartet -- which includes Rachel Henderson Freivogel on cello, violinist Sae Niwa and violist Sam Quintal -- was stronger on the blurts than it was on the syrup that the blurts were critiquing.

"If the dynamics are all you're doing, you don't hear the melodies," Phillips said, and the most of the session was devoted to uncovering these melodies, which Berg liked to scatter over different instruments. Of course, those melodies competed for attention with other twisting musical lines, often dissonant, Berg being Berg. He had studied with arch-revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and learned the 12-tone approach, learning to apply it in his own idiosyncratic way. One of his earliest compositions caused an audience uproar violent enough to stop its premiere. Berg's story ends in 1935 with the composer penniless in Vienna, the Nazis having censured modernist art of all sorts, including modern music. An insect bite raised a carbuncle on his back. His wife attempted to lance it with a scissors. He contracted blood poisoning and was rushed to a hospital, but too late.

Phillips' view of Lyric Suite is that it captures the waltzy-culture of Vienna on the one hand and then describes the "Freudian repression" of that culture on the other -- "the repressed stuff of the subconscious, letting all of this stuff out." He compared the piece to Fritz Kreisler, the great lyrical violinist and composer, to emphasize the Romantic side of the quartet, but also showed how that fruit was over-ripe, "sickeningly expressive, something we shouldn't mention in public."

The group would play a movement, and then Phillips would usually praise its execution and point to the half-dozen or so places where they might consider changing their approach. He did it in the nicest possible way, and the Jasper musicians -- cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel, second violin Sae Niwa and violist Sam Quintal round out the quartet -- listened carefully and tried their best to put his suggestions into practice. This wasn't an academic exercise, either, because they were due to play the first three movements of the Berg the next day at the Oregon Historical Society.

Phillips also told lots of little stories to illustrate his points. He called a performance of Ferenc Rados, the Hungarian pianist, the greatest performance he had ever heard, for example, and quoted Rados's description of Phillips' own playing: "I accuse you. You play too much the violin and not enough the music." This led to a short discussion of the responsibility of the musician to the composer's idea -- to figure out where the phrase starts, what the system is and what the harmonies are, for example. "Articulate what's in the music; the emotional impact then emerges."

One of my favorite lines from the Berg rehearsal time: "No matter how well you play it, the listener may not latch onto it." This sentence has so many other applications, namely anytime we try to communicate something to someone else.

*****

When the quartet, which, by the way, has already won several important competitions since meeting up as undergraduates at Oberlin College and continuing their studies in New Haven, moved on to Haydn's String Quartet No. 66 in G Major, also on the bill the next day, they played the first movement with great spirit and energy. Phillips acknowledged their playing, but this is when he pulled the air violin out of its imaginary case and took his stance.

After some thought, I think he most resembled a wrestler, a Greek wrestler of the Golden Age, one of the key tropes of the Greek "technology of the self," according to French philosopher Michel Foucault's analysis of ancient Greek and Roman culture. The wrestler, to this way of thinking, was someone who was ready for anything his opponent might muster. Rather than practice particular moves exhaustively, the Greek wrestler practiced being ready -- and the stance was the start to this, a state of balance combined with alertness and intelligence. Not that there's a "perfect" stance, really. We're all always trying to find our balance, what saxophonist Pharoah Sanders called his center. "When did you find your tone?" I asked Sanders in an interview earlier this year. "I'm still looking," he responded.

There's a payoff for the discipline of the never-ending search. "Everything you feel comes out and maybe more," Phillips had said. Maybe more? How does that work? Well, it's that listener, who maybe didn't get it, even though Phillips played it. Because when the audience does get it, the emotion in the music as translated by the musician is amplified many times over. And though we've wandered away from anything Phillips said directly, the implication is the power of humans in society together, in concert, responding and transmitting at the same time, and turning little notes on a page into something that unifies their multitude of singular experiences, which sounds like a paradox but really isn't.

*****

One of the ideas Phillips tried to get across involved thinking of the "resting" position of the bow as residing at a spot a centimeter or so above the strings -- instead of on the strings themselves. In the rehearsal room, the quartet seized this idea immediately, and it transformed their Haydn, giving it both more breath and more power. But would they carry it over the next day at the History Center?

Of course they did! I especially noticed it in Quintal's viola work, and when I asked him about it after the short concert, he said that he had the advice in mind as he played, the sculpting and the roundness and the one centimeter. So did Niwa. They weren't quite so successful at managing the bobbing and weaving -- there were still little physical convulsions of "feeling" that didn't contribute to bows on strings -- but as we decided afterward, some ideas take longer to test and employ.

The concert went extremely well from where I sat. They spent some time explaining the Berg piece, particularly the codes he'd included in the music, which was written for a woman who wasn't his wife. One repeated phrase stood for the woman -- wistful, maybe, plaintive. Another represented her older son, and it sounded like a toy soldier, if a toy soldier were music that is. Finally, there was the younger son, little DoDo. Berg took this one literally, repeating two middle C notes, two do's, to work Dodo into the music. Armed with this knowledge, the audience listened intently to the Berg. One man caught my eye because of his concentration and then the giant smile that filled his face when he heard the "people" in the music, especially little DoDo. At the end he applauded enthusiastically, but so did nearly everyone else. Berg would have been happy!

When you talk to the Jasper Quartet, they talk about how much they want to reach out to the audience and try to help them understand the music that the quartet loves. Rachel Freivogel said that she expects the process to be a long one. "We want to build the community for it, make it a fun thing you do with your friends," she said when I asked about the problem of putting classical music in a place where people their own age could here it. The Jasper Quartet, J Freivogel added, is willing to take the music where the people are. "Our generation feels that the concert hall set-up is not totally necessary."

"The age of the audience has never bothered me," Quintal said, but he was worried that classical music audiences seemed to turn their back on anything new sometimes. Which is why the education part, the Webern and the Berg, is so important to the group. When the audience understands it, we all saw at the Oregon History Center, they like it. And maybe a little more than that.

The Protege Project has two more concerts: The Sospiro Winds play 5 p.m. Sunday, July 11, at the Someday Lounge; and all of the musicians get together at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 18, at The Woods for a program of Bartok, Beethoven and Beria.