Fidelity meets freedom as Chamber Music Northwest rocks Lincoln Hall

Mentioning the term “chamber music” among the uninitiated inevitably connotes images of lulling instrumental music heard countless times while waiting in elevators.

In reality, chamber music is among the most stunning of musical performance styles. By definition, chamber music is performance by a small ensemble of musicians, typically stringed, each individually responsible for their instrument’s part. When performed well the resulting sound is awesome.

Chamber Music Northwest awed concertgoers June 28 inside Lincoln Performance Hall presenting their prelude show to this year’s five-week Summer Festival, running now through July 31. House attendance was full for the concert, billed “A Trio of Trios.” Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart were represented under the artistic direction of David Shifrin, with Ida Kavafian on violin, Steven Tenenbom on viola and Cello Hall of Fame inductee Peter Wiley rounding out the trio. The musicians delivered a razor-sharp rendition of classical standards colored with liberty and inventiveness.

Shifrin and Wiley led a discussion with fans before the concert, answering questions and entertaining participants, but the meeting was really a chance for fans to listen in on a conversation between two genuine master musicians discussing their craft. The two commented on the challenges of interpreting musical standards that have stood for centuries while embracing the freedom of transcending rules.

“We think about a written language, like Chinese, where the same characters in the same language can be unrecognizable from one dialect to another,” Shifrin said. “And I was just thinking about how the same page of music can be interpreted so differently from one musician to the next.”

Under Shifrin’s direction, CMNW’s Summer Festival this year dedicates itself to finding the original in the familiar. The prelude concert focused on the five string trios Beethoven wrote before composing quartets and seeks to explore the possibilities of individualism while remaining true to the compositions.

Wiley discussed the dichotomy of literal musical interpretation and liberal improvisation. He then waxed on his own process of interpretation.

“As a musician develops, we learn more and more about freedom in music and we hope to get further and further away from the sort of strictness of it all,” Wiley said. “I mean, I’m at the point in my life, knock on wood, when I will let my music make me more and more free. When I decide that it’s musically right to be strict, then I’m going to be strict.”

The strictness of interpretation is among the most suspect of concepts when one considers two performances of the same piece will never be exactly the same. Performers try their best to stay true to what the composer wrote and to make the work brighter and more beautiful than even the composer ever imagined. None have been more influential in this respect than Beethoven.

The pivotal genius of Beethoven and his influential reach provide the basis for CMNW’s entire summer performance series this year. The Lincoln Hall show, in particular, focused on the similar trio notation of Haydn and Mozart and subsequent composers Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

“The challenge of presenting Beethoven’s music in context of our festival was to try to show a clear picture of the breadth and progression of his work, his inspirations and the work of those he influenced,” Shifrin said.

Violinist Ida Kavafian described Beethoven’s string trio as having a raw, honest, and challenging performance style, due in no small part to the individual responsibility of each player. In such close company and in such intimate venues, there is no room for a musician to make mistakes.

“String trios in general are particularly challenging, as the works are so difficult and the genre is so exposed,” Kavafian said. “In my case, I am playing a work of early Beethoven, which means that he was not yet suffering with the hearing loss that so affected his future works. Emotionally, the D major string trio is perhaps not as complex as some of his later works but it is technically incredibly challenging.”

Despite the sophistication of the work, few young people outwardly express appreciation for Beethoven today, much less live performances of a chamber trio. There is a group that appreciates Beethoven because they can appreciate his music, and then there is a smaller set that can appreciate how complex and truly brilliant the compositions are. Only a few can understand and appreciate the deliberation in his work.

When the brilliance in Beethoven’s work is ascertained, the master-level status allows for inventive interpretation. Chamber Music Northwest brought master-level interpretation to Lincoln Hall for their concert.