SHIFRIN READY TO PASS BATON
To work at a job for 40 years is one thing, but to commute to a job for 40 years is quite another. David Shifrin has not only commuted to lead Chamber Music Northwest as artistic director, he has commuted from the East Coast.
Mostly, it's to be here for the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival for five weeks.
"I've always rented a place in Portland — Eastmoreland, Sellwood, Northeast, Northwest, downtown several times," he says. "You get to know the city that way, the character of the different districts, and it sure has changed."
Shifrin lives in Connecticut, and he teaches at Yale University. So it wasn't possible for him to move here, but "I've had some regrets that back in 1980s when you could pick up a house for a fraction of what it would cost today that I didn't do that."
Come post-Summer Festival 2020, Shifrin will depart Chamber Music Northwest. The transition plan has been put into place, as the organizers recently named his successors — Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim, a married couple, musicians and organizational leaders in their own right.
It's a sentimental time for Shifrin, 69, although he still has the 49th and 50th Summer Festival to administer. Chamber Music Northwest and its Summer Festival have national reputations, Chien and Kim confirmed, much to the credit of Shifrin.
"David Shifrin and Chamber Music Northwest together are iconic, and we grew up knowing these names," Kim says. "It's an organization of such national importance, it has helped shape the classical music field. It's a great honor and tremendous responsibility" to replace Shifrin.
For classical music fans, and perhaps the thinking music person, it doesn't get better than Chamber Music Northwest, a nonprofit that stages and promotes chamber music performances — small ensembles of woodwinds, strings and brass in events throughout the year and highlighted by the Summer Festival, mostly at Kaul Auditorium (Reed College) and Lincoln Performance Hall (Portland State University).
Chamber Music Northwest brings high-quality professionals and proteges (through its Protege Project) to the city to perform classics and hidden masterpieces.
It was founded in 1971, and then in 1981 Shifrin became artistic director. Shifrin at the time had been successful with orchestras in Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles.
"It's been my longest professional association," he says. "I've been teaching at Yale for 32 years. Chamber Music Northwest predated that. ... I'm sentimental, but it's time. I'm ready, but I'll miss it."
Back in 1981, "it was at a very high level then, but more modest scale in terms of activity and budget," he adds.
"We played three times a week during summer and that was it (for the festival). Early on we would play for audiences of 150 to 200 people. It really, really grew and we started repeating concerts — at Reed College, Catlin Gabel School, Portland State," Shifrin says. "Now Chamber Music Northwest presents a concert every single day of the five-week (festival) season, plus dozens of concerts throughout the year and outreach and educational events."
Chamber Music Northwest always has emphasized the composing greats in the chamber music canon — Shifrin's favorites are Mozart and Brahms — while devoting itself in recent years to new music. Shifrin says the group has commissioned about 100 composers to produce new works as world premieres.
It's not just classical. Some visiting musicians have included Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Mark O'Connor.
As artistic director, it's Shifrin's job to choose all the music, musicians and venues on the Chamber Music Northwest year-round schedule. He manages to do it from his home on the East Coast, but he also has logged thousands of airline miles coming to Portland.
"Chamber Music Northwest has been able to provide world-class performances because of the nature of what chamber music is," he says. "The amount of great music written for small groups allows you to do world-class performances with a smaller budget. Our friends at (Portland Opera) and (Oregon Symphony) have much larger houses to contend with. Chamber music is unique in that respect. It's portable, you have the ability to do a great performance at almost any size venue and vary from one to two musicians to a small orchestra."
Shifrin isn't retiring in 2020, it's just time for him to cut back on some of his work. He teaches at Yale, runs the Yale Chamber Music Society and Yale's annual concert at Carnegie Hall as artistic director, and still performs as solo clarinetist. He's performed all over the world. He might even return to the Summer Festival as a performer — he's part of a trio with Chamber Music Northwest members.
"I'm getting older and my kids are getting older, and after doing it for 40 years, it seemed like a good round number to call it good," he says. "I decided five years ago that 2020 would be my last season, and it's also the 50th anniversary of the festival and the year that I turn 70. I feel great, feel I can do it for many years, but it's better to step down when you feel like that."
Chamber Music Northwest and the Summer Festival will be in good hands with Chien and Kim, who live in Boston. They have distinguished careers as performers — Chien, 41, a pianist, Kim, 42, a violinist — and serve as musical directors.
They are co-directors of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Vermont. Chien is artistic director of the String Theory series in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has been director of the Chamber Music Institute of the [email protected] Festival in California since 2010.
They have played here; Chien had been a member of the Protege Project.
"David has played an important role in our lives and inspiration," Chien says. "We each started a chamber music organization on our own, and we didn't know each other back then, but we both invited David in our first season. He's helped shape my own music career.
"We feel very fortunate where it's positioned right now and how open and inviting everybody has been with us," she adds, of Chamber Music Northwest.
The duo see themselves building on the group's repertoire and programming. "We don't feel like we need to rewrite the book and need to fix a broken organization," Kim says. "That's such a luxury for artistic directors to walk into."
Says Chien: "The beauty of this transition is that we have almost two years, which gives us a lot of time to get to know the city and organization better." And to get used to the commute.
"It'll take a lot of TLC on everybody's part," Kim says. "But it's so much easier to stay in touch in today's world. There will be some cross-country travellng, and we'll have to give up some touring. But part of the appeal is that we will be in Portland at least six weeks every summer, and we'll be together with family — our two children.
"David will get to be with his family, and so will we."
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