Prof. David Schiff is retiring from Reed after 38 years.
Prof. David Schiff is retiring from Reed after 38 years.

David Schiff, Composer

Reed celebrates the musical legacy of Prof. David Schiff with three concerts.

James McQuillen ‘86 | March 1, 2019

Professor, composer, conductor, and author of books on Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Elliott Carter, David Schiff retires at the end of this semester after 38 years at Reed. A three-concert retrospective at Kaul Auditorium celebrates his music on the eve of his departure.

Given his large and wide-ranging body of work, I asked him how he devised the programs. He replied simply, “They’re a combination of pieces I wanted to hear again and people I wanted to work with again.” Those people are legion, and these concerts bring many of them, celebrating connections with several ensembles with whom he’s worked.

His idiom ranges wide, prominently straddling classical and jazz, but reaching further at times. It’s a difficult balancing act, as these concerts will show. “The main distinction is the kind of performers I’m working with,” he said, “One of the things with classical players, they want to nail down a piece, they want to know where all the notes are. They want to have it sound the same every time.” This series will combine both jazz and classical modes, and Schiff will also do some conducting.

The series kicks off Tuesday, March 12, with Tonight We Improvise!. Co-presented with the wide-ranging Portland ensemble 45th Parallel Universe, it is, as the title suggests, the most jazz-oriented of the three programs, opening with the 2002 Singing in the Dark, inspired by the events of September 11th the year before. Its four movements set an improvisational sax line with string quartet, which plays much of the time in a meditative tone including sections based on music from Yom Kippur services, ultimately resolving in a combination of mourning and reflection. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich, also a prolific composer, played the premiere at Reed; he returns for this performance.

The electrically energetic pianist-composer Myra Melford joins Ehrlich in the second half for Road Maps, a three-movement quasi-concerto for improvising soloists with chamber orchestra, completed in 2014. In the first movement, “Mountains”, the piano contrasts with Schiff’s sophisticated, colorful orchestration in taut, craggy lines, letting loose with rapids of notes in the cadenza. “Rivers” has trumpet appropriately riding a flow, bobbing high and diving deep in fragmentary yet fluid conversation with the orchestra; “Clouds and Stars” features Ehrlich on sax and clarinet alongside shivery strings and chords of cosmic cool in the winds. Sounding simultaneously spontaneous and thoroughly structured, it’s a meeting of jazz and classical somewhere in Ellington’s neighborhood.

Love Songs picks up the series on Tuesday, April 23, co-presented with Portland new music ensemble Fear No Music. Also featuring the Reed College Collegium Musicum, the college’s chamber choir, Peace sets texts from Isaiah in Hebrew and English in sections forming an arc from calm to agitation and back. All About Love is a characteristically erudite work, in three stand-alone movements with interludes, based on texts by Petrarch, Louise Labé, Herman Melville, Marina Tsvetaeva, John Keats, Marcel Proust, and Elizabeth Bishop.

The music treats meter like taffy, constantly squeezing and pulling with rhythms that alternate from double to triple to quintuple, reinforcing the plasticity of the vocal lines. It also features a fascinating play of timbres, as with the instrumental interlude “Summer,” in which you can nearly hear the heat rising off the pavement. Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn and tenor Thomas Glenn, both celebrated and highly versatile, are the vocal soloists.

Chinn returns for the finale of the series on Thursday, April 25, Shifrin and Friends Play Schiff. David Shifrin is a gifted clarinetist and the artistic director of co-presenter Chamber Music Northwest, which has made Reed its summer home since 1973. Vashti, or the Whole Megillah, follows the festive tradition of the Purim spiel, adapting the story of the book of Esther into a tight, fun mini-opera for mezzo, clarinet, and piano, with touches of jazz and klezmer. (It’s also a piece with a personal note; Schiff wrote it for the bat mitzvah of his daughter Jamie.) Scenes from Adolescence, for instrumental quintet, is just what it describes, a journey into the emotional territory of teenage years that ventures into hard bop and Motown rock. The Divertimento from Gimpel the Fool, the opera based on Isaac Bashevik Singer’s tragically comic tale featuring literature’s greatest schlemiel, began the Schiff/Shifrin collaboration in 1982, when Shifrin suggested a chamber arrangement. Playfully adventurous and steeped in Judaic tradition, it is a signature piece.

All three concerts will take place at Kaul Auditorium at 8 p.m.; all will be preceded by pre-concert conversations with former All-Classical radio host Robert McBride at 7 p.m.; and all are free and open to the public.

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