MAHLER: The Song of the Earth (MSR Classics)
Martingale Ensemble directed by Ken Selden

In the summer of 1907, a friend gave Gustav Mahler a copy of Hans Bethge’s “The Chinese Flute,” a collection of German translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry. The German translations of these poems well suited the great Austrian composer’s state of mind, his philosophy of life and death, and his desire to live fully and accept death – not without regret – but rather with the inevitability that there may also be renewal.

In fact, many Mahler works relate to his ever-present thoughts on death and on the meaning of the many beauties that exist in nature. No greater work by Mahler so amplifies these thoughts to us, for us, and on behalf of us all, than his setting of these poems, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). If there is joy in loving life and knowing death, it is in the intense passion, excitement, ecstasy and loneliness exhibited in such a work as this.

This symphony-song cycle’s six movements in many ways represent the apotheosis of what solo voices can do matched with an orchestra whereby both protagonists – voice and orchestra – are on a completely equal footing. And the added interpretation of a text brings yet another level of dimension to this piece that can rarely be equaled by any other work in the repertoire of this kind.


In the first of the songs Mahler set to music, for example, one stunning line of text closes off each of three stanzas: “Dark is life; dark is death.” After concluding the first phrase of this text in G Minor, Mahler drives the tension of this repeated text higher by repeating it in Ab minor, followed again but repeated in A minor as the movement concludes. This is so awesome. G-G#-A… the sequence of tones used frequently enough as an accompanying motive behind other major ideas, but now employed at a macro level. Was it planned, or did his genius just inevitably lead his ear to do this as a major structural element for the piece? It’s part of what makes this opening song a totally unforgettable experience.

Mahler originally scored “Song of the Earth” for a full orchestra with tenor and baritone voices alternating in each of the six movements. (Although the role of the tenor can be performed by a mezzo/alto instead, we know that he preferred male voices for his music.) But can a version for a much smaller ensemble compare to the power of Mahler’s original vision for large ensemble? This new recording by Portland State University music professor Ken Selden and a 14-member ensemble of top-rank Oregon classical musicians provides the answer.


Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

On a single May weekend, two Portland orchestras tried different approaches to renewing a venerable musical form


“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.


Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music


Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.


MusicWatch Weekly: In with the new(s)

Fall new music calendar, new class in classical music for general audiences, newly announced symphony conductor finalists, and oh yeah, concerts too

With Oregon’s music schedule still not fully recovered from its summer swoon, we’re taking the opportunity to add some other music news to this week’s previews.

First, the Eugene Symphony just announced the finalists to succeed music director Danail Rachev after his final season this year. Chosen from a pool of 250 applicants from 44 countries, each will lead an ESO concert this season as part of their audition. The assistant Conductor of the great Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Dina Gilbert, who’ll conduct the December 8 concert, also founded and runs her own chamber orchestra. Brooklyn’s Ryan McAdams, who’s won rave reviews for conducting orchestras in Europe and Israel, tries his baton January 26. Boulder native Francesco Lecce-Chong, who’s assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, takes his turn on the Hult Center podium March 16.


Gilbert, McAdams, Lecce-Chong.

Important: amid all their starry fellowships, awards, big-name mentors and glowing reviews, all three young conductors have worked with contemporary composers and new music — an essential quality for a 21st century conductor, especially one who aspires to join a line of renowned new music advocates that includes former ESO music directors Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero. Their success in Eugene surely contributed to what search committee head Roger Saydack (who led the last five searches) called “the strongest pool of candidates we’ve ever seen here,” which is saying something. That’s why the search for a second-tier orchestra conductor in a college town in the upper left corner of the US is really international news. ESO conducting alums go on to much bigger opportunities after a few years in Oregon. Like the song says: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you, Eugene, Eugene.”

Second, beginning this Sunday, ArtsWatch’s pal, esteemed former Oregonian music writer David Stabler, is leading a course in classical music appreciation we thought many of our readers might want to know about. It’s aimed at the general public. Below you’ll find David’s description of this Sunday afternoon’s first class. For more info, check his website.

Third, Portland’s Modern Music Maven Bob Priest, who’s happily reviving what used to be March Music Moderne in December, has issued his fall guide to Portland new music, which appears at the bottom of this post and is available at his Ear Trumpet website. It’s hardly comprehensive (Portland only, and avowedly tailored to the author’s admittedly idiosyncratic taste), but still immensely valuable to fans of 20th and 21st century classical music. We’ll have more extensive previews of most of these shows as the season unfolds.

On to this week’s previews.


ArtsWatch Weekly: thinking about Orlando, and the impact of art

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASSACRE. The latest one, unless another sneaks in before deadline, came in the wee hours Sunday morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a U.S.-born gunman carrying an assault rifle and claiming allegiance to ISIS opened fire, killing forty-nine people, wounding fifty-three, and then being slain himself in a shootout with police. He may or may not have been gay; several people reported that he was a semi-regular at the club. He was certainly homophobic. He may or may not have been a radical jihadist: initial indications are that he was acting as a lone wolf. Orlando’s is being called the worst mass shooting in United States history, at least by a lone gunman, and who knows how long that record will stand? (Other massacres have been more deadly, but not as quick or efficient: the Wounded Knee Massacre carried out in 1890 by U.S. Cavalry troops on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation left at least three times as many dead.)

We’ve been here before, over and over, from Sandy Hook to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Reynolds High School in suburban Portland to Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon, and on and on and on and on, world without end, amen, amen.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

It’s difficult to rank these atrocities – impossible, really – because whatever the body count, people are killed, survivors are shattered, worlds are torn apart. This one comes with an increasing sense of futility, a belief that the nation lacks the political and moral will to do anything about it. Here at ArtsWatch we won’t get into the political arguments of what can or can’t be done: those arguments are all around us, and by this point you know where you stand and how you will respond. I will say that some form of rational control on the sale of firearms, and a civilian ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons, are necessary in a civilized society. And I will note that this latest massacre hits cultural communities hard, because so much of the arts world has been invigorated and often led by GLBTQ artists and the creativity they’ve brought to dance, theater, music, the movies, literature, and visual art. So many gay people have been drawn to the arts, partly, because for all of its ordinary human quirks and bickering and biases and self-indulgences and jealousies and backbiting and exaggerations, the arts world is also open and generous and welcoming to talent wherever it rises. In that sense, we are all gay. We stand as one.


Weekly MusicWatch: Opera overload

Operas and operettas lead this week's Oregon musical offerings

When Portland Opera, like many other American opera companies, moved to a summer season this year, we expected an operatic effusion — but this week, it’s turned into a veritable eruption, with a handful of opera/operettas onstage around Oregon this week, including the world premiere of an original Oregon opera, and a pair of song concerts starring opera singers. Non operatic sounds also abound, and feel free to alert readers to more  in the comments section below.

Portland Opera's 'Sweeney Todd.' Photo: Corey Weaver.

Portland Opera’s ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

“Sweeney Todd” 
June 9 & 11
Portland Opera’, Keller Auditorium.
Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody tale of a wronged barber’s revenge.

The Bad Plus
June 9
Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Avenue, Portland
The Oregon return of one of jazz’s most popular piano trios, whose audience extends way beyond the jazz heads, thanks in part to their insistence on performing jazzy arrangements of contemporary pop and even classical tunes along with occasional jazz classics.

June 9-26
Mock’s Crest Productions, Mago Hunt Center, University of Portland, 5000 N Willamette Blvd. Portland
Another, less macabre tale of an exile who returns home and commits crimes, this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta takes a happier turn than Sondheim’s.

Mock's Crest Opera's 'Ruddigore' at University of Portland.

Mock’s Crest Productions’ ‘Ruddigore’ at University of Portland.

Refuge: A Concert for Syrians in Exile
June 10
Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave. Portland
Oregon Repertory Singers soprano Laurel Alyn-Forest joins composer/pianist composer Grisha Krivchenia to perform his new song cycle based on the words of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as refugee/exile-related music by Schubert and Allan Louis Smith. Ten percent of the proceeds go to Syrian refugee assistance organizations.

Organic Nation Listening Club
June 10
Artists Repertory Theater, Portland
Portland jazz keyboardist and storyteller David Ornette Cherry brings back another incarnation of his mix of reminiscence, jazz, funk, and stories, co-starring other Portland music legends and their memories. Read my ArtsWatch review of last year’s version.

David Ornette Cherry (l) and Norman Sylvester (c) starred in last year's production of Organic Listening Club.

David Ornette Cherry (l) and Norman Sylvester (c) starred in last year’s production of Organic Nation Listening Club.

“Via Lactea”
June 10-12
OperaBend, Tower Theatre, Bend
Based on the verse novel Vía Láctea: A Woman of a Certain Age Walks the Camino, by one of Oregon’s finest essayists/memoirists, Ellen Waterston, the world premiere of this new opera in English features music by Bend-based composer Rebecca Oswald. Central Oregon Symphony music director Michael Gesme conducts, with state direction by Nancy Engebretson and choreography by Michelle Mejaski. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder did a nice preview.


Whether you like your music sacred or secular, solemn or sassy, sincere or cynical, orchestral or chamber, contemporary or classic, indoors or out, this weekend’s Oregon music calendar has it.

Holcombe Waller, Friday and Saturday, Imago Theater, Portland.

We previewed the music in the Portland singer-songwriter’s ambitious multimedia Wayfinders project when FearNoMusic gave it a test run last November. Waller spent the intervening months honing the science-fiction themed show’s nonmusical elements during development residencies at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Seattle’s wonderful dance incubator and performance space, On the Boards and Portland’s Imago Theater.