Chamber festival brings hot music to a cold month

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January is now the month for the mid-winter Walla Walla Chamber Music Winter Festival, which takes place over a generously stretched Martin Luther King weekend, this year on Jan. 16-19.

Let me say a few words about the music first, then give you the specifics of the festival.

First, what is chamber music and why should we like it?

Basically, it’s “one-to-a-part” music, usually done with violins, viola, cello and piano. These are the basics. Add-ons are clarinet, string bass, flute, harp, guitar, oboe — and others come up from time to time.

One-to-a-part means that the players are completely exposed; they can’t step out for a measure to figure out where they’re supposed to be. Bare naked music: you better look good.

It being quieter, chamber music happens in smaller rooms the audience is closer to the action physically and emotionally.

It’s visceral, gripping. If you are not yet drawn into the world of classical music, this is the door.

Timothy Christie, artistic director of the Chamber Music Festival, always does a brilliant job of putting together a program of wide musical variety with some sort of thematic unity.

For the winter festival he brings in a guest ensemble to combine classical and contemporary music. And for anyone put off by “contemporary” music as something freakish and tuneless, that’s not what I mean here. This year he brings in two guests: oboist Dan Williams of Seattle and the world renown strings of the Harlem Quartet. Together they’ll throw a zinger of a program.

Mozart’s “Oboe Quartet” carries the oboe into its lyrical, shepherd’s pipe realm. Here, the oboe is a singer, accompanied by an elegantly assembled accompaniment, alternately bright and melancholy, but not despairing. The last notes are so graceful that they raise again the question: did Mozart ever make a false step?

The Harlem Quartet will play Maurice Ravel’s masterful “String Quartet.” Ravel wrote it in Paris in 1904, submitting it for two academic awards: two rejections. This just after the Parisians were roundly, even viciously, rejecting the artists Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Cezanne, in favor of painters such as William Bouguereau and Ernest Meissonier. (All who have even heard of these favorites, raise your hands.)

At our remove in time we can only wonder what they must have been thinking in either their artistic or their musical judgments.

There’s a thread.

The innovative painters were derisively dubbed “impressionists,” since they painted only sketchy impressions. Ravel and his friend Claude Debussy have also been called “impressionists.” We can hear why: like the painters, they renounce the comfortable 19th century certainties —musically, the language of Brahms and Wagner, with the focus on romantic harmony — and instead emphasize the surface, the moment.

Ravel’s music often washes through chords; they seem secondary to the effects he is achieving. One of my favorite movements, sometimes used in movies, is the second movement of this quartet, with its heavy reliance on pizzicato, or plucked, strings. The plucking underlines the lyrical, continuous nature of the bowed strings. Hold your breath for the furious, yet teasing, ending.

The other major work to be presented this month is Benjamin Britten’s oboe quartet. I didn’t know this work until I began to write, and I discovered it with surprise and delight.

As Christie puts it, the oboe in the Mozart “Oboe Quartet” (same instrumentation) contrasts with Britten’s as a shepherd’s pipe is to a snake charmer’s — that hypnotic, almost sinister, character rising to the surface. The interplay between the oboe and the strings is amazingly different from Mozart’s — spooky, smooth, or jumpy.

There are eight events from Jan. 16-19. Check the festival’s website at wwcmf.org for details, but the biggies are:

Jan. 16 — Portrait of the Artist (Dan Williams) at Sinclair Estates, 109B E. Main, 6-7 p.m., $15.

Jan. 17 — Tasting Music: Harlem Quartet, (Ellington, Strayhorn, Marsalis) Charles Smith, 35 S. Spokane, 6 p.m., $15

Jan. 18 —Tasting Music: Williams + Festival Artists, (Mozart) Foundry Vineyards, 1111 Abadie St., 6 p.m., $15

Jan. 19 —Series Concert: (Britten, Mozart, Ravel). Gesa Powerhouse, 111 N. Sixth Ave., 7:30 p.m. (doors open 6:30). $20 adults, $8 children, $45 families (up to four children).

See you at all four?

John Jamison teaches in the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College and serves on the board of the Walla Walla Symphony. He retired to Walla Walla in 2003 from a teaching career in Seattle. He can be reached at john@studiodosrios.com.

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