The Portland Chamber Music Festival runs for only a couple of summer weeks, but it occasionally asserts its presence with one-off concerts during the rest of the year. Lately, the frequency of those concerts has been increasing, which is a good thing: Apart from a couple of string quartets, a piano trio, faculty and student ensembles and occasional imports by Portland Ovations, there is not much chamber music here in the fall, winter and spring. In an ideal world, where raising the funding necessary for a major expansion is not an issue, the festival would reconfigure itself as a year-round enterprise.

Johnny Gandelsman Photo courtesy of Portland Chamber Music Festival

This year, the organization began its post-festival activities early – less than a month after the Aug. 17 finale – by presenting a solo recital by violinist Johnny Gandelsman at Cove Street Arts on Thursday evening. Gandelsman is a founder of Brooklyn Rider, an innovative string quartet that plays both standard repertory and new music, with an emphasis on the latter, and is heard frequently in other contexts, too, most notably as a member of the Silkroad Ensemble, a group that explores music (old and new, traditional and composed) from the ancient trade routes running from Asia to North Africa and Western Europe. He also runs his own record label, In a Circle Records.

Gandelsman’s “Bach Along the Silk Road” program touched on a few of his associations, including a fascination with Bach that has already yielded a superb recording of the six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin (on In a Circle) and will soon extend to a recording of his transcriptions of the Cello Suites, as well as three works written for him this year, two by composers (or, at least, on subjects) with Silk Road roots.

Opening with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G (BWV 1007) was an interesting choice: You would expect a violinist to give pride of place to a work written for his own instrument. But Bach was fairly agnostic about scoring, often reconfiguring works for multiple instrumental combinations. So as familiar as the suite’s dark-hued, heftier cello version is, Gandelsman’s violin performance was illuminating, and not out of keeping with Bach’s own practice.

Taken at consistently brisk tempos, the suite’s seven movements sounded lighter and brighter, and thoroughly natural on the fiddle. And as one might expect, Gandelsman brought the same qualities to it that can be heard in his accounts of the violin works – subtle shifts in coloration and dynamics that highlight the real magic in these pieces, which is the illusion of counterpoint, despite the fact that the score is, for the most part, a single line of music.

Gandelsman created that illusion unfailingly, both in the cello work that opened the concert and in the Partita No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1002), one of the solo violin works, which closed his program. The acid test here was the Chaconne that ends the work, a movement generally agreed to be a peak of the Western repertory. Essentially a set of variations on a repeating harmonic sequence, the Chaconne is monstrously difficult. Gandelsman walked a fine line here, moving through the piece as if its challenges were nothing to him, while also maintaining the tension and focus that those challenges yield. He succeeded remarkably, with a fluid performance that seemed both soulful and virtuosic.


The first of the new works Gandelsman played between the Bach suites, Akshaya Tucker’s “Pallavi: A Meditation on Care,” is a fantasy on a Hindu devotional song, and begins with hints of its origin – a drone on the lower strings that serves as the backdrop for a sliding melody that even a listener unfamiliar with the quoted song would identify as Indian. But that Indian accent does not hold the spotlight for long; Tucker moves toward more thoroughly Western figuration in a piece that grows increasingly virtuosic.

Dana Lyn’s “a current took her away” is essentially an ecological essay. The “her” in the title is a bit of plankton, loosened by warming oceans and carried off. It is a gentle piece at first, the plankton bobbing like a feather on a breeze. But this is also a showpiece for a master fiddler, and it grows increasingly involved, playing to Gandelsman’s strengths, which include the kind of clarity necessary to keep the plankton in focus while other underwater activity swirls around it.

Lyn’s work was a world premiere, commissioned by Gandelsman and the festival, as was Layale Chaker’s “Sinekemān.” The work’s title refers to a Turkish fiddle, and there are moments when that instrument’s sound is hinted at. Mostly, though, the piece is a richly chromatic and increasingly dense-textured meditation, with fleetingly modal passages that come as reminders of its multicultural inspiration, which Gandelsman played engagingly and with a supple approach to balance and coloration.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

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