One of the many perks of being the intern at All Classical Portland is the opportunity to interface with the vibrant arts community and the listening audience we serve. That is, I get to go to free concerts. I recently worked the All Classical table at a couple of Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival concerts, and, though the performances were certainly worthy of review from a musical standpoint, the audience reception of the chosen works were what piqued my interest the most.
The concerts I saw were “Artistry & Innovation” and “A Little Night Music” on July 20 and 22, respectively. Both of these programs were structured similarly to most of the concerts throughout the season: they paired some repertoire standards with some more adventuresome 20th-Century and contemporary works. The contrast of old and new was particularly marked on July 20, when a world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s “Four Seasons” for Mezzo-Soprano, Clarinet and Piano Quartet on a text by Edna St. Vincent Millay was bookended by Bach’s Flute Sonata in B Minor and selections from The Art of the Fugue. Tara Helen O’Connor and Pei-Yao Wang performed the flute sonata beautifully, and were duly recognized. The entire atmosphere of the hall changed, however, from the beginning of Liebermann’s piece, which opens with a strident, upward gesture from the piano. The audience was engaged in the piece, which is accessible, but far from conservative, through the final bars, at which point a standing ovation for mezzo Sasha Cooke and the composer, who was in attendance, felt anything but obligatory.
Resuming my post at the All Classical table, I chatted casually with some audience members who were entering our CD drawing. Their response to the first half of the concert was largely praise for Cooke’s performance of “Four Seasons” and surprise at the potent lyricism and expression of Liebermann’s composition. One concertgoer called the piece “very melodic – not atonal like a lot of new music.” While I certainly can’t deny the lyricism, the second half of her comment illustrates a failure of the classical music establishment to move past the stigma – and vocabulary – it gave to new music a century ago.
It is true that “Four Seasons” is not atonal of the early Schoenbergian variety, but it (like the Joan Tower and György Ligeti works played at the next CMNW concert I attended) is just as harmonically distant from the Bach on the same program as it is from the thorny atonal music of the early 20th Century. Many of Liebermann’s works delve into polytonality and other modernist devices, but these certainly do not preclude his lyricism. In fact, the Liebermann piece achieved a much more immediate, emotional impact than did The Art of the Fugue, which was somewhat clumsily broken up by explanations from the violinist, Daniel Phillips, of Bach’s manipulation of his fugue’s subject. As often as contemporary classical composers are accused of elitism and writing overly academic music, it is interesting to note that Liebermann’s work in a post-tonal idiom was effective without such an explanation.
While I was unable to take a statistically sound poll of the audience at the CMNW concerts I attended, I did notice that a particular buzz surrounded the newer pieces on the programs, and this was definitely true of the younger members of the audience, few though they were. As is frequently the case, many of the musicians on stage were a generation or two younger than the average audience member, and their performances of the newer works certainly seemed more inspired than the tried and true pieces from the canon.
Perhaps the reception of such commissions, particularly from younger composers, like Liebermann, can provide some insight to the classical music community. James McQuillen writes in The Oregonian that the Club Concerts project “hasn’t made much of a dent in CMNW’s audience demographic” (i.e., an aging demographic) simply by updating the presentation of classical music. Updates to the content, on the other hand, may prove a bit more alluring to younger audiences. For my part, at least, these top-notch commissions are what will keep me coming back, even when I no longer get a free pass from All Classical.