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July 10th, 2002 Grant Menzies | Theater
 

Through a Sax Darkly

A week of premieres places Oregon on the concert map.

     
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It says something rather extraordinary, either about the luck of the draw or the richness of Oregon's classical music scene, that in the space of one week we could experience three premieres, from Portland to Eugene, by two of the nation's most dynamic composers. Two-thirds of those premieres were couched in the splendid company of Chamber Music Northwest Festival concerts--David Schiff's Consolation and Singing in the Dark, scored respectively for solo clarinet and alto saxophone with string quartet--while Chinese composer Tan Dun's Water Passion After St. Matthew served as a crowning jewel of the Oregon Bach Festival.

Schiff's Consolation, performed Monday night at Reed College, is a movement from his clarinet concerto, Canti di Davide. Composed as a tribute to the late great pianist and conductor David Golub, the concerto premiered in Virginia last year with clarinet virtuoso and CMNW artistic director David Shifrin as soloist. For Kaul Auditorium's more intimate space, Schiff sized down the score to comprise Shifrin's clarinet and the Miami String Quartet's Ivan Chan, Cathy Meng Robinson (violins), Chauncey Patterson (viola) and Keith Robinson (cello). The result strengthened this writer's belief that Shifrin is one of the few musicians around who can communicate through his instrument a language as satisfying as that which animates great theater, all without speaking a word. But if Shifrin fulfills music's promise of an emotional Esperanto, Schiff does, too.

Consolation gives the clarinet a searching vocalise that wanders through lush string harmonies and textures, in a seeking (rather than achieving) consolation. Thanks to the Miami String Quartet as much as Shifrin, the music glowed with the effort of the search.

The four-movement Singing in the Dark, performed Thursday in Kaul Auditorium by saxophone wizard Marty Ehrlich and the Miami String Quartet, was cooler than Consolation but no less luminous, conjuring a flickering trance-state of ecstasy and despair. Like Shifrin, Ehrlich is a communicator of supreme ability: When his throaty tones weren't channeling Billie Holiday, they were mirroring the crystal clarity and technical pizazz of Shifrin's own artistry. Singing also gave the Miami String Quartet a full bag of technical tricks--Ehrlich's lyric cantilenas and jagged jazz riffs were met head on by the string players' vibrant virtuosity.

The concerts offered plenty of other gems. On Monday, soprano Lucy Shelton performed a bittersweet "Shepherd on the Rock" (Schubert) with Shifrin and pianist Jonathan Biss, and a joyfully extroverted reading of Luciano Berio's multilingual "Folk Songs," with first-class support from Shifrin, flutist Ransom Wilson, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Sophie Shao, harpist Heidi Lehwalder and percussionists Niel DePonte and Gordon Rencher. The Miami String Quartet (with Neubauer) laid heart on sleeve in Brahms' Quintet No. 1 in F Major. Thursday night, Wilson, Neubauer and Lehwalder painted silver moonlight in Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, while Biss, Shao and violinist Daniel Phillips ignited fireworks in Beethoven's Trio No. 6 in B-flat Major.

Tan Dun's Water Passion, which had its American premiere Friday in Eugene, was composed in 2000 to mark the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death. Like Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Water Passion has one foot in church and the other in the theater: as dramatically riveting as it is spiritually profound. Illuminated water-filled bowls, serving as visual symbols and multipurpose musical instruments, formed a cross, its four quadrants peopled with the black-clothed members of the Bach Festival Chorus. Three breathtaking percussionists--David Cossin, Charles Dowd and Gordon Rencher--joined superb string soloists violinist Todd Reynolds and cellist Maya Beiser, with Yuanlin Chen manning the electronic sampler. Two superhuman vocalists--bass Stephen Bryant and soprano Elizabeth Keusch, embodied dramatis personae ranging from Jesus to Satan, with the composer at the podium.

What followed was the Gospel of St. Matthew pared down to lean human proportions and vital human emotions--call it the Tao of Jesus--clothed in a sound world as brilliantly stylized as Peking opera. The singers, consummate technicians all, romped through sibilant consonants and elastic vowels like kids in the surf, against a score bristling with sound effects both terrifying and hypnotic, and all bathed in light melting from house-fire orange to twilight blue. Role-playing took on new meaning as people themselves seemed to become instruments: percussionists doubling as dancers, vocalists as instrumentalists, chorus as storm, thunder and the sweet trill of water.

At the end as at the beginning, after a resurrection chorus of sudden, tender beauty, we had real water, that element that, in the words of Tan Dun's text, holds "the sound of innocence." After a two-hour theatrical tour de force, the primal simplicity of that sound, fading into darkness, was the most moving, and inspiring, of all.

 
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