Angela Allen

Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Night concerts at the Pearl District’s Armory allow musicians to show us their edgier sides and their edgier works. Forget black tie, just settle in and relax – though you will be challenged by the music at these very informal events.

No exception was the refreshing July 12 performance with exuberant pianist Stewart Goodyear, gonzo clarinetist Anthony McGill, and CMNW’s hard-working artist-in-residence group, Catalyst Quartet.

The happy-hour concert ended with the Catalyst Quartet’s phenomenal collection of 1- to 2-minute miniature string quartets, written by nine contemporary composers (11, if you count the competition winners). They included the eminent Joan Tower’s urgent bumblebee-like “A Short Flight” and ended with a work by young Los Angeles composer and percussionist Paul Mekailian, whose piece, “A Future in Process,” was a co-winner in the CQ competition. Mekailian represents the next generation of composers as a fulltime music student at UCLA and aspiring film-score writer.

These “CQ Minute” pieces were designed to match the short attention spans of digital listeners and to respond to our visual senses (a video album is in the future). Some of us heard several of them in a CMNW spring Catalyst concert at the Old Church (see my review). The miniatures never get old – or shorter.

Aside from Tower and Mekailian, composers included violinist, composer, and onetime Catalyst member Jessie Montgomery, whose “Build” reflected its title with a strong ever-moving movement. Montgomery, by the way, was the Chicago Symphony’s composer-in-residence this past season–the last of Riccardo Muti’s tenure–and has worked with Oregon-based Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival for a couple of summers as its visiting composer, as has Tower (read my profile of Montgomery for WVCMF here).

Portland composer and percussion magician Andy Akiho’s “Presidio,” written with whimsical pizzicato phrases, and Caroline Shaw’s rising and falling “Bittersweet Synonym” were other highlights. Composer Kevin Puts’ “Emerge” proved the most heartrending with its melancholic beauty. Each piece contrasted with the others, giving each standalone status. “It’s amazing how one-and-one-half minutes can feel so different in different people’s voices,” said Catalyst violinist Karla Donehew-Perez, taking turns with her fellow musicians in explaining the music.

The first part of the evening was introduced by high-spirited and hard-driving pianist Stewart Goodyear. A composer and a concert pianist, he played his Piano Sonata, created at the age of 18 for his Curtis Institute of Music graduation recital. It included strains of techno music, Canadian folk songs and Latin fusion – not to overlook a ballad-like second movement that captured pop music reconstructed from slow-dancing with his date. “My youthful exuberance wanted to pull out all the stops and create the most difficult piano work ever composed,” he said in the program notes.

Well, it was difficult, and at times he pounded away. Certainly our hearts pounded along with his performance. Later, he showed his sensitive, ultra-attuned side in a July 16 concert at Lincoln Performance Hall, where he flawlessly played Florence Price’s 28-minute 1936 Piano Quintet in A Minor with Catalyst Quartet, interacting with his fellow musicians at every crucial turn.

Sandwiched between Goodyear and Catalyst was the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, joined by pianist and CMNW co-artistic director Gloria Chien, who can accompany just about anybody with grace. They played two pieces – the first, a James Lee III composition called “Ad Anah?” In Hebrew, the words mean “How Long,” as in how long are we going through these troubled times, McGill explained. Though resonant in a dark way, the more exciting piece was its follower, “The Blue Bag,” composed by Black composer Adolphus Hailstork, one of the first African American composers to have his symphonic music showcased by American orchestras. He composed the jazzy piece, personally, for McGill.

Hailstork mentioned in the program notes that as he was composing he “carried the images and music-making of four classy sassy ladies of song: Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Ella Fitgerald and Aretha Franklin.” The six-minute piece for clarinet and piano was a gift to those late jazz giantesses and to McGill himself.