Shifrin Winds Up An Epic Era With Chamber Festival

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Wrapping 40 years at the helm of Chamber Music Northwest, David Shifrin’s 2020 festival drew a streaming audience of 50,000. (Photos courtesy CMNW)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Even the most ardent classical-music enthusiasts may not know several details about clarinetist David Shifrin, who retired this summer after 40 years as Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director.

  • He uses synthetic – not cane – reeds.
  • His distant relative, Lalo Schifrin (different spelling), who came to Hollywood from Argentina, convinced Shifrin’s parents to buy him a clarinet when David was growing up in Queens, New York. Lalo Schifrin, now 88, composed the theme for the television series Mission Impossible, and David Shifrin, 18 years his junior, decades later commissioned him to compose clarinet works that were recorded on the Aleph Label, Shifrin Plays Schifrin and performed at Chamber Music Northwest.

  • Hearing Benny Goodman play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and “lots and lots of swing” in the 1956 movie The Benny Goodman Story assured Shifrin that he had picked the right instrument. “I just fell in love with the clarinet,” said Shifrin, who at age 13 attended Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Surrounded by serious young players, including violinist sisters Ida and Ani Kavafian (frequent performers at Chamber Music Northwest), Shifrin convinced himself that to be a musician, “I’d have to work very, very hard, practice and practice, and be the best I could be.” That summer, he thought he’d give the career a shot. He’s never recalibrated his aim.
  • He has 14-year-old triplets, two of them striving musicians, and another a computer whiz. He also has a 26-year-old son who is a football coach. A couple of weeks into retirement from CMNW, he said he plans to spend more time with the triplets, continue to play his MoBA cocobolo-wood clarinet for various concerts, some at CMNW, and keep teaching at the Yale School of Music.
Shifrin’s love for the clarinet was reinforced by the dazzling impact of Benny Goodman.

Shifrin is one of three wind players to win the Avery Fisher Prize, established in 1974 to recognize outstanding soloists. He was given an honorary membership by the International Clarinet Society in 2014 for lifetime achievement. As a young man, he won the top prizes at the Munich and Geneva international competitions, which helped to launch his career.

His accolades are manifold, but he was more interested in talking about the “clarinet geek week,” as he called it, at Chamber Music Northwest in 2019: More than 100 clarinetists – pros, proteges and students from all over the world – played a raucous finale of Vivaldi, Edgar, Mahler, and Sousa on Portland’s mid-city Park Blocks to end a week of clarinet collaboration. “I’ll never forget it,” he said of that festival highlight.

This year’s virtual concerts, which sent Shifrin digging through archives, marked the end of his CMNW tenure. “It was quite a nostalgic journey if a great deal of work,” he said. “It was shock to be in a position to replace something that we’ve done for almost 50 years (CMNW started in 1971 under violinist Sergiu Luca), but everybody is doing that, adapting to the changes the virus has brought.”

The 2020 online festival pulled in 50,000 people – the most ever to hear its music – for 18 live streaming concerts, according to CMNW executive director Pieter Bilotta. On the last festival evening July 26, Shifrin soloed in American composer David Serkin Ludwig’s swansong to Shifrin called Berakah, which means “blessing” in Hebrew. Ludwig, who is the grandson of pianist Rudolf Serkin, introduced his composition by saying that “David is a blessing for his incredible musicianship.” And at the end of the concert, longtime CMNW musicians bid him an online farewell. All Shifrin could say, brushing away a tear, was, “You got me.”

Shifrin, in 2019, performing with CMNW’s new co-directors Soovin Kim (violin) and Gloria Chien (piano.) The new team is planning the 2020 season.

Pianist Gloria Chien and her husband, violinist Soovin Kim, are taking over CMNW’s artistic leadership and planning the next season. Both former CMNW protégées and performers, they have run chamber music events including the 12-year-old Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, VT, and Chien’s String Theory at the Hunter  in Tennessee. Shifrin helped launch Chien’s first String Theory in 2009 by performing there.

Kim, a teacher at New England Conservatory, says that he and Chien hope to stress young people’s musical education and carry on Shifrin’s legacy, adding that the Oregon festival is “among the most important chamber music organizations of the last 50 years. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build on its legacy and help to shape the cultural landscape of Portland for another generation.”

Shifrin has faith the Boston-based couple will “brilliantly meet the challenges” of CMNW’s future. “Either one alone would have been a great choice,” he said. “Together, they are a powerhouse team. They do so much great work without seeming that they are strained or stressed. I have utmost confidence leaving CMNW in their hands.”

“We’ll take care of the house you built,” Chien told Shifrin in her virtual farewell.

A well-loved leader

What has made Shifrin such a beloved leader of the year-round program with its flagship summer season that has burgeoned into a prestigious, well-attended festival? A number of Shifrin’s music colleagues answered, many of whom have known and played with him for decades. The most consistently mentioned characteristic, in concert with his artistic vision and superior musicianship, was his generosity.

“For four decades,” said festival executive director Peter Bilotta, “David has shared his passion, his enthusiasm, his friendship and himself with so many audience members, so many musicians, so many composers, so many young emerging artists. He’s been a constant mentor, teacher, collaborator, advocate and supporter of others to help CMNW and the whole field of American chamber music grow from a kernel of an idea 50 years ago to an incredibly exciting, vibrant, and thriving art form.”

Steven Tenenbom, violist and Orion Quartet member who has been playing with the festival since 1988, said Shifrin has “the combination of a very strong artistic vision and the willingness to ask for suggestions from others. So many people today are micro managers, unwilling to reach out. David has no musical detractors because there is nothing to detract. He is a mensch.” Tenenbom premiered contemporary works by Aaron Jay Kernis and Marc Neikrug, among others, at CMNW.

Violinist, violist and composer George Meyer, son of the renowned bassist Edgar Meyer, said his dad “has been in my ear to make sure that I pay attention to David’s mastery of phrasing. He has an uncommon beautiful fineness of control that made an impression on my dad.”

Cellist Peter Wiley, a former member of the Guarneri Quartet and Beaux Arts Trio, and former principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, cited “first and foremost (Shifrin’s) exceptional musicianship. He has a knowledge of the repertoire and connections to great musicians worldwide. His creative programming is key.” He has played often with Shifrin at the festival since 1990.

Shifrin expanded the clarinet repertoire through commissioned works by Stephen Albert, Bright Sheng, William Bolcom, Joan Tower, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, David Schiff, Bruce Adolphe, Lalo Schifrin, and many others.

“He is a master of taking us on a journey while making us feel safe at the same time,” said flutist Valerie Coleman, founder of Imani Winds quintet. “I am among those who know and trust David’s artistic vision, which has led audiences to being introduced to not only other women composers such as Hannah Lash and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, but wind ensembles and percussionists like Andy Akiho.” Coleman is the composer of Shotgun Houses, commissioned by Shifrin. She was named 2020 Classical Woman of the Year by Performance Today.

Shifrin started the festival’s protege program about 12 years ago, and, as he says,  “We formalized something that happened naturally with cross-pollination, inspiration, mutual admiration, and an opportunity to give young musicians who have finished schooling to play with luminaries.” The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York had a similar program since the mid-90s. Shifrin led CMLC from 1992-2004 and still plays with them.

Festival director Bilotta credited Shifrin with integrating jazz into the classical repertoire, commissioning and premiering “dozens of jazz-based composers, including Portland’s David Schiff and Darrell Grant. [Shifrin] has commissioned more than 100 new works from composers ranging from Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom to emerging young composers [including George Meyer, Valerie Coleman, Katie Agocs, and David Ludwig] who are giving a new voice to chamber music.”

Angela Allen writes about music for Oregon ArtsWatch in Portland, OR. She is a published poet and photographer, and on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her web site is AngelaAllenWrites.com