‘Beethoven Effect,’ Still Felt Across Generations, Sparks A Chamber Fest

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Former Chamber Music Northwest artistic director and clarinetist David Shifrin joined colleagues in Portland-based composer Kenji Bunch’s ‘Ralph’s Old Records.’ (Photos by Tom Emerson)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Although he lived more than 200 years ago, Beethoven’s revolutionary music still reverberates. With that in mind, Chamber Music Northwest has made “The Beethoven Effect” the theme of its 2024 Summer Festival, presenting some of Beethoven’s important chamber works and exploring the music of composers who were influenced by his musical revolution. The five-week extravaganza (June 27 to July 28), under the artistic directorship of pianist Gloria Chien and her husband, violinist Soovin Kim, takes place at venues throughout Portland and features more than 60 works and 70 musicians.

Concert programs typically offer an intriguing mix of familiar gems and new works. Beethoven and Brahms are paired with a piece by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund in one program. Another places Beethoven and Bartók with a world premiere by Joan Tower. The New@Night concert series focuses exclusively on contemporary works, such as an evening with clarinetist-conductor-composer Jörg Widmann, including the U.S. premiere of his String Quartet No. 9, Study on Beethoven IV.

Since taking over the reins in 2020 from longtime artistic director David Shifrin, Chien and Kim have renewed Chamber Music Northwest with young, talented artists. The practice has been augmented since 2010 with a bevy of outstanding professionals who have participated in the festival’s Protégé Project. This successful endeavor has benefited many artists, including the Dover Quartet, Jasper String Quartet, Akropolis Reed Quintet, Viano String Quartet, violinists Benjamin Beilman, Bella Hristova, and Anna Lee, cellist Zlatomir Fung, pianists Yekwon Sunwoo and Chien, and composers Andy Akiho, Alistair Coleman, Chris Rogerson, and Gabriella Smith. This year’s protégé artists are bassist Nina Bernat, pianist Chloe Mun, violinist Claire Wells, and the string quartet Opus13.

Another successful initiative is the Young Artist Institute, which started in 2022 to mentor string players from around the world. This year’s crop of 16 teenagers will study with violinists Soovin Kim and Jessica Lee, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Peter Stumpf. In addition, the festival’s Collaborative Piano Fellowship provides two professional pianists the opportunity to accompany these artists in recitals.

The festival’s Commissioning Club has been a major player in making new music a vital part of the event. The 2024 Summer Festival will present seven new works, including world premieres by John Luther Adams, Stewart Goodyear, Kyle Rivera, and Joan Tower.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was performed in a unique arrangement for 11 players.

In his introductory remarks at the June 29 concert at Kaul Auditorium, Kim spoke ardently about Beethoven’s fiery and revolutionary music, which jolted listeners at its premiere. That passion was deftly conveyed in a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in a unique arrangement by Jopfen Music, a European publishing house that specializes in reductions for chamber ensembles.

With Kim leading an 11-member ensemble, Beethoven’s symphony caught fire right out of the starting gate. Violinists Kim and Lee, violist Cords, cellist Stumpf, bassist Bernat, flutist Amelia Lukas, oboist Frank Rosenwein, clarinetist Shifrin, bassoonist Carin Miller, hornist Jeff Garza, and timpanist Ian Rosenbaum delivered the goods with passionate intensity from the outset of the first movement. The second movement was calmer, exposing seamless exchanges of string phrases. The third movement showed off the woodwinds with especially perky pairings between the bassoon and horn. Fleet fingerwork by the entire ensemble flashed throughout the fourth movement with energetic playing that swept the music to a grand finale.

Portland-based composer Kenji Bunch’s Ralph’s Old Records, commissioned and premiered by Chamber Music Northwest in 2015, loosened up the atmosphere. It’s fun, yet tricky theme was inspired by popular tunes of the 1940s à la Hoagy Carmichael and Spike Jones that were a favorite of Bunch’s father, Ralph. A Pierrot ensemble (Lukas, Shifrin, Bunch, cellist Alexander Hersh, and pianist Monica Ohuchi) added whimsical asides involving novelty items, including kazoo, penny whistle, and store counter bell.

Paul Neubauer teamed up with pianist Alessio Bax to perform Brahms’ Sonata for Viola and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1.

The jaunty first number, “Chi-Chi Hotcha Watchee Stomp,” coupled a smooth clarinet line with a plucky cello. “Celestial Debris” offered relaxation with drifting clouds of chords. The sound of a folksy fiddle permeated “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” The swell of ballroom dance music dominated “When I Grew Too Old to Dream, Dream, Dream, One More Dream Came True” before segueing into “Off to the Foxes” with Shifrin generating Benny Goodman-like licks while Ohuchi tossed Liberace-esque flourishes from the keyboard. The entire ensemble perfectly executed stuttering fortes creating suspense before the end.

Making his 40th appearance at the festival, violist Paul Neubauer teamed up with pianist Alessio Bax to perform Brahms’ Sonata for Viola and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1 which the composer originally wrote for clarinet. Neubauer and Bax expressed the introspective and meditative qualities of the sonata’s first two movements to the max, interrupting periodically with bold, dramatic statements. The last two movements lightened the mood considerably with charming melodies that danced and stirred with panache.

Bax read the score from an electronic tablet, but he must have felt uncomfortable about turning pages with his foot. Next to him sat a woman who, to most of the audience, looked oddly immobile. In reality, she was holding a device which advanced the pages on the electronic score. Some in the audience may have wondered what she was doing on the stage, yet it didn’t stop them from applauding enthusiastically at the end of the piece.