Chamber music fest warms up winter at NU
Winter Chamber Music Festival
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston
Jan. 11 to 31; all concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.
Single tickets $20-$30; series subscription $148
www.pickstaiger.org or (847) 467-4000
Updated: January 2, 2013 2:26PM
If it’s January, it must be time for the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University.
This is the 17th year chamber music fans will gather in the 989-seat Pick-Staiger Concert Hall along side Lake Michigan, heedless of the wind and weather, to enjoy performances by local, national and even internationally acclaimed chamber musicians.
The 2013 festival follows the established format, but also has several surprises. Its seven concerts will include the Chicago premiere of “Perpetual Chaconne,” featuring the Calder Quartet and Chicago Symphony assistant principal clarinetist John Bruce Yeh on Jan. 20. It was written by Yale-based Aaron Jay Kernis, 2012 recipient of Northwestern’s Nemmers Prize in Music Competition.
From the San Francisco Bay area, the New Century Chamber Orchestra with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg returns to conclude the festival Jan. 31 and the Boston-based ensemble, A Far Cry, will make its festival debut Jan. 18.
“I started planning for this year right after the 2012 festival ended,” said festival director Blair Milton, a Northwestern faculty member and player in the first violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 33 years. “I was also on a panel of judges at the Weimar Chamber Music Competition in November and I heard some good ensembles, so I’ve lined up one and maybe two of them for our 2014 festival.”
He also hears from ensembles eager to be part of this solidly established concert series. “They may send recordings or come through Chicago,” he said. “If they’re performing within a reasonable distance, I try to see them myself. That way I get a much better view of the way they relate to an audience.”
The Chicago premiere of “Perpetual Chaconne” is a work Kernis composed for clarinet and string quartet, commissioned jointly by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the La Jolla Music Society for SummerFest, and Chamber Music Northwest in Oregon.
Kernis is particularly pleased that “Perpetual Chaconne” will premiere in Chicago. “A few years ago Marc Heikrug, artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival requested a work for string quartet and a solo instrument from me,” he said via email.
The designated quartet was the Orion, he explained, adding, “and I chose to write the solo part for clarinetist David Shifrin, with whom I had a wonderful success with my previous ‘Trio in Red.’
“Later on I was delighted to learn that John Yeh and the Calder Quartet would be perform it in La Jolla,” he continued, “(and) I’m very happy that John and the Calders were so enthusiastic to add it to their concert at Northwestern.”
In fact, the performance is timed perfectly with the first year of Kernis’s two-year residency in Evanston that accompanies the Nemmers Prize.
Director of the summer program of the La Jolla Music Society is Cho-Liang Lin, a friend of Yeh’s from their days at the Juilliard School. “I’ve been a regular guest at Jimmy’s festival,” said Yeh, “and I played a work by Kernis with the CSO about 20 years ago. Lorin Maazel conducted us.”
So he and the Calder Quartet gave the California premiere of the quintet and will give the fourth performance of “Perpetual Chaconne.” “The first time I heard the piece is thought ‘wow,’” Yeh concluded. “It is a delight for me to play.”
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s New Century Orchestra played at the festival in 2011 and the internationally known violinist is pleased to return. “Ours is an ensemble without conductor,” said Salerno-Sonnenberg, “but someone has to take the lead and that’s me. They are completely in tune with each other. You can see it when they are on stage.”
The ensemble has 19 players, including Salerno-Sonnenberg, but at Northwestern they are playing Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen,” which requires four more musicians. The German composer wrote it in the midst of World War II as he mourned the bombing of the Munich Opera House and all that symbolized.
“This is a piece for 23 solo strings,” the violinist continued. “It is Strauss at his most glorious, a showcase for the orchestra.”
The high-profile soloist accepted the music directorship of New Century on a trial basis in 2008. “I had heard of them and knew they had no conductor,” she said. “Right away I was amazed at how incredibly well we worked together.”
Her goal was to move the ensemble to the forefront of the classical world. “Despite the economic collapse when many arts organizations just folded, we kept going,” she said. “We made recordings, we gave concerts in the Bay Area, we toured and we have a national radio presence.”
She also worked with composers. “In our second season William Bolcom wrote a violin concerto for me,” she said, “and so did Clarice Assad from New York.
“She also makes arrangements of pieces for us that we have no business playing,” added the violinist, “like ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’”
When complimented on her determination, she laughed. “I’d just say I was stubborn.”
Another chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, ensemble in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, will play what violinist Jesse Irons calls “a bunch of our greatest hits over the last six years.”
Their program includes works by Golijov, Arvo Part, and Biber, we well as William Walton’s Sonata for strings. “Only one person in our group knew the Walton,” Irons said.
He is one of the founders of the 17-member group, a conductor-less orchestra with rotating leadership. Its members call themselves Criers and show a strong independent streak.
Many of them are from New England Conservatory, but some studied at Curtis and Juilliard. “We do our own thing,” explained Irons. “We build from the ground up and play music we choose. We get input from each other and consider ourselves to be like a giant string quartet.”
Though they are unconventional in terms of organization, they have experienced success in traditional ways. They are educational partners with the New England Conservatory, have given more than 200 performances, recorded three albums, and are a presence on the Internet. They made their European debut tour in 2012.
Citing the highly-acclaimed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as the trail-blazer, Irons said “We are in debt to them. Thirty years ago they showed that musicians could run their own ensemble.”
Blair Milton established the initial Winter Chamber Music Festival in January of 1997 to commemorate the death of Johannes Brahms. That first program included numerous major chamber works by the great composer, including his Piano Quintet, with no less than Daniel Barenboim, then CSO conductor, at the piano.
“We couldn’t stick to one composer like that in subsequent festivals,” Milton said, “but I think we’ve managed to have a piece by Brahms in almost every festival.”
Sure enough, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor will be played in the opening concert of the 2013 Winter Chamber Music Festival.
For a complete list of festival offerings, visit http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/11/17th-annual-winter-chamber-music-festival-begins-jan.-11.html.