By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

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.

martingale-ensemble-das-lied

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.

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MusicWatch Weekly: jazz week

Blue notes flutter like autumn leaves through Oregon concerts this week, along with classical orchestral and chamber music

It used to be that Portlanders had to wait till winter’s PDX Jazz Festival to catch several strong jazz shows in a row. No more! Just check out this week’s improv-oriented offerings.

Jazzmeia Horn sings Wednesday night at Portland’s Old Church.

• Wednesday. One jazz’s rising young stars, Jazzmeia Horn (besides bearing the coolest first name ever) has won the two most prestigious international vocal jazz competitions, performed with top jazz artists, and regularly plays major NYC venues. PDX Jazz brings her to Portland’s Old Church Wednesday night.

• Thursday. Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble has been engaging in some cool collaborations lately, and the next one looks fascinating. Boundary-busting Portland composers Amenta Abioto, Sage Fisher (from Dolphin Midwives), and Floom’s Maxx Katz — whose music ranges from soundscapes to death metal to experimental improv — have scored new music to accompany the classic 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead, which they’ll perform Thursday night while the film and heads roll at Portland’s Holocene club. Rock those Halloween costumes!

•The pianist/guitarist team of Bryn Roberts and Lage Lund play their lyrical original music Thursday night at Portland’s Classic Pianos.

• Saturday. You may not instantly recognize the band name Circuit Rider, or even its leader, cornetist Ron Miles, but any jazz fan will recognize and revere the trio’s other two members: chameleonic / prolific Seattle guitarist Bill Frisell, and drummer Brian Blade. But Miles, who shares Denver roots with Frisell and who plays in Art Farmer’s lyrical tradition, really should be better known, and Saturday night’s trio performance at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel presented by PDX Jazz offers a rare and splendid opportunity.

• Sunday. The next night’s PDX Jazz show, this one back at Portland’s Old Church, is also a low-key winner. Danish guitarist/composer Jakob Bro (whose trio also includes bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron) recently released a pair of terrific albums on the great ECM label and make another highly recommended entry in this fall’s excellent PDX Jazz lineup.

For more jazz this week, check out the lineup at Eugene’s Jazz Station, which ArtsWatch’s Daniel Heila recently spotlighted.

Orchestra

Composer Andrew Norman

• One of the country’s hottest youngish composers, Californian Andrew Norman composed his 2015 “hyperactive fantasy” Split for the great LA pianist Jeffrey Kahane, who’ll perform it with the Oregon Symphony Friday at Salem’s Willamette University and Saturday through Monday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway Ave.

Fronting an orchestra that includes abundant percussion (timpani, kick drums, slapsticks, guiro, temple blocks, opera gongs, triangle, flower pot, washboard, wood blocks, brake drum, bongos, splash cymbal, vibraphone, ratchet, log drum, tin cans, spring coil), Kahane, a frequent Oregon visitor, plays (musically speaking) a prankster who gradually becomes “more the pranked,” Norman writes, “an unwitting protagonist trapped in a Rube Goldbergian labyrinth of causes and effects who tries, with ever greater desperation, to find his way out of the madness and on to some higher plane.” The concert also celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birth anniversary with three orchestral episodes from his lively 1944 musical On the Town and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony.

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Oregon Symphony: reaching for the stars

Orchestra's season-opening concerts range from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek' to a classical music superstar

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra started its season in September with two of the more unusual, less typically classical types of concerts it regularly produces. The first was part of the film-with-live-score series, always among the OSO’s most popular concerts; the second was an evening of overtures and songs and a favorite recurring guest star. The movie was Star Wars, the first and original (retitled A New Hope when the Empire Struck Back). The special guest was superstar soprano Renée Fleming, premiering a new song cycle by Kevin Puts and singing hits from her classical, cinematic, and Broadway catalogs (told you she’s a superstar).

The Oregon Symphony performed the score to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ while the film played.

In both concerts at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the OSO came out swinging for the fences, sounding sharper than I’ve ever heard it. And this weekend, the orchestra continues its live film score performances with that other long-running science fiction film franchise. More on that below.

Star Wars

It’s fitting that symphony orchestras have been saving themselves from oblivion by performing film scores by composers like John Williams, who is generally credited with reviving and saving the orchestral tradition in film music. Watching any movie, in a concert hall instead of a movie theater (or living room), with living and breathing musicians performing the score in person like any other symphony, is always multiple different experiences: concert performance as much as movie screening. When it’s Star Wars, you’re bumping elbows with a couple thousand other Star Wars fans, listening to supremely iconic music which is possibly more important than the film itself; these fans love this movie and its soundtrack as much as your average concert-goer loves Brahms and Beethoven, and the excitement in the Schnitz that night was, ahem, a palpable Force.

A film is a smorgasbord of varied art forms. To watch a movie is a plurality of experiences, driven by narrative and character like theater and literature, photographed and edited into an illusory farrago of moving pictures, decorated with an assortment of audio and visual effects, and given life with some sort of musical score. When opera first became a thing back in the 1600s, it got its name—which simply means “works”—from the way it combined music with other existing arts like poetry, dance, acting, and stagecrafty stuff like set design and costuming (not to mention the mechanical dragons, flying stages, and now the various multidisciplinary effects the 21st century has birthed). Now that film has supplanted opera as the most perfect art form (#sorrynotsorry), it’s only appropriate that one of the greatest would turn out to be the space opera Star Wars.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Star Wars itself is a plurality of experiences: it’s a fairy tale and a hero’s quest (several of them, in fact); it’s a gritty 1970s-style “used future” sci-fi picture, part of a lineage that stretches from 2001 to Moon; it’s a miracle of independent filmmaking, simultaneously a myth-making blockbuster and the work of an idiosyncratic auteur in love with documentaries and samurai movies; it was the first movie a lot of us fell in love with, and after 40 years and however many sequels/ prequels/ books/ games/ cartoons the first one remains the best (second best if you count Empire, but that’s an argument for beers and joints; fight me later).

Williams’s score adds to this all this rich profusion, and not just because it’s so damn good or because it marries that gritty realism to all the lofty, heroic, transcendent, mythological, Romantic ideals which are the film’s heart.

Huynh’s conductor’s score for ‘Star Wars.’

Williams is one of the Great Composers, with every right to steal from Stravinsky, Holst, and Bartók (as those composers in turn stole from Debussy, Wagner, et alia), and that makes him part of the same time-honored tradition as the rest of OSO’s normal repertoire (any ass can hear that). Raise the screen and I could believe this was just another symphonic poem, an evening-length concerto for orchestra by one of America’s most successful living composers. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that Williams generally doesn’t show up on “greatest American composer” lists like this one

All of this made it a distinct thrill to hear Star Wars performed on September 9 by the same orchestra we last heard playing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Although Williams’s score is customarily connected to the classical world with the formula “Wagner via Holst and Korngold,” the composers I hear the most in this music all showed up on OSO concerts last season.

• The tribal-mechanical percussion, the menacingly heraldic brass, the creeping weirdness of the low woodwinds: all are features of OSO’s old friend The Rite of Spring, and performed with the same sense of familiar immediacy.

• The mythological, melancholy strains of that immortal Force theme, the rebellious sentimentality of Princess Leia’s theme, the grand sweeping gestures and the heroic fanfares and the quiet intimate moments: all played with the deep spiritual sincerity the orchestra invariably brings to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.

• And when Williams’s score gets sciencefictional, it does so by operating in the complex 20th-century sound world the OSO already knows so well from Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Messiaen.

Renée Fleming

In its September 23rd opening concert, the OSO came out in fine form, starting the show with a bit of Richard Strauss (the tone poem Don Juan), the horns sounding especially wonderful, Teutonic trombones muscular and rotund, principal oboist Martin Hébert dazzling on his solo.

Renée Fleming came out in a glorious fuchsia Vera Wang gown and talked a bit about Letters from Georgia, a song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Fleming recounted the work’s inception in the letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz which Puts used as a libretto, calling them “very steamy, very powerful.”

Puts won his Pulitzer for his first opera, and operatic sensibilities shine all through Letters from Georgia. Right out the gate the orchestra plays a series of huge post-tonal sonorities, a big full modern symphonic sound, the world of Adès, Britten, Davies, Henze, Higdon; by contrast, most of the vocal passages were supported by clear instrumental textures, leaving space for the all-important melodies, giving Fleming’s voice and O’Keeffe’s words room to breathe. Huge moments would give way suddenly to very small passages: a tender duet between clarinetists James Shields and Todd Kuhns (the fourth song, “Friends”); a 4-mallet vibraphone solo from Niel DePonte (the closing song, “Canyon,” which was certainly the best of the five); a series of solo violin passages for concertmaster Sarah Kwak (including a comically gnarly bit of devilish fiddling during the second song, “Violin”). Throughout it all Fleming played the superstar, one voice against a hundred instruments, her performance alternately vulnerable and assertive, always beautiful and evocative, bold and individualistic but subservient to the text, the story, the music.

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Oregon Symphony 2018: bridging divides

Orchestra’s 2018 concerts, past and future, appeal to broader audiences than the stereotype suggests

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I went and heard the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi perform live six times during the first half of this year, from January’s Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to May’s season-closing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That’s more than once a month. By comparison, I have seen my favorite living rock band—Santa Cruz ikons Secret Chiefs 3—seven times ever. This regular attendance at the concerts of a single performing group is one of the things that sets classical music apart from its eternal sibling rival, popular music. You’ve got to talk to Deadheads and Phish fans to find that level of devotion in the pop world.

Zoo-bound: Conductor Carlos Kalmar with the Oregon Symphony.

I’ve come to have a few favorite OSO players. Timpanist Jon Greeney is a damn superstar, always in tune, always in rhythm, never too loud (important) but never too soft either (even more important). The cello section is anchored by a dynamite principal and assistant principal duo: Fear No Music’s Nancy Ives and Pyxis Quartet’s Marilyn de Oliveira. The brass section never fails to delight, especially the trumpet-trombone-tuba contingent, playing proudly from their risers behind the basses. I’ve come to expect something amazing from that crew every time: by turns bold and morbid in their February performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, gorgeously operatic all through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in May (gotta keep up with that tenorhorn soloist!), and downright revelatory in January’s performance of the brass-heavy Rite of Spring.

3D Sound & Star Attractions

The Rite demonstrated another important aspect of the orchestral concert experience: that huge, 3-dimensional sound, vastly varied timbres emerging from all across the stage (in visually identifiable ways) as the band’s 100-odd instruments and occasional voices interweave their solos and duos and tuttis and come together for big polychoral reverberations around the concert hall’s acoustically ornate cathedral of sound. All that makes even a good home stereo system sound like a pair of crappy used earbuds from the Goodwill bins. In the Rite, the brass section’s heralds and hunting calls resounded across the orchestra, trumpets tossing their call over the strings towards the horn section, buried down behind the other winds, harrumphing out their primeval wails in response. Glorious!

And then there’s the guest stars, and I don’t just mean big name soloists like Joshua Bell (blissing out on Bernstein’s beautiful Symposium in May), Natasha Paremski (thunderingly catlike on Prokofiev’s weird, playful Piano Concerto No. 2—another one with some fantastic brassin February), and Elina Vähälä (whose heroic, melancholy performance of Bartok’s brasstastically  anti-fascist Violin Concerto No. 2 left me stirred and genuinely terrified in January).

Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony’s percussionists teamed up in a John Corigliano piece last spring.

In April, percussion whiz and artist in residence Colin Currie returned for an amusing and impressive take on a too-long Corigliano concerto. A parade of local choirs ran all through the season, from the various impeccable groups Portland State churns out with perplexing regularity (I could listen to them sing Daphnis and Chloe forever) to emergency shelter intake form’s Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics and Maybelle Community Singers.

There’s also the extra-musical collaborations, something the OSO has gone out of its way to cultivate the last several years, culminating in grand experiences like the superprofusion of Rose Bond’s Turangalila in 2016 and Matthew Haber’s less overwhelming but still exciting video projections for the Rite.

And, of course, there’s all the popular music.

Popularity Contest: Apollo and Dionysus in the Concert Hall

Florida Man and famed humorist Dave Barry defined classical music as “music that is not popular.” It’s hard to say he’s wrong, in the sense that raving fans don’t generally scream and holler when Kalmar gets off a plane—at least not the way they do for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic. But Kalmar does get his cheers, as does the rest of his band, every time they play, every time they come on stage, sometimes several times in one concert.

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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

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

“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.

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Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

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

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

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.

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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.

eso-trio

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.

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