Oregon ArtsWatch


‘Snow Queen’ review: Frozen journey

Though some tweaks are needed, premiere performance of Eugene Ballet's dazzling new original production of H.C. Andersen’s classic tale shows promise


After years of dreaming and ideation, Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen premiered last weekend, a dazzling spectacle of stagecraft that was most compelling in its moments of pure, unadorned dance.

Yuki Beppu as Gerda in Eugene Ballet’s ‘The Snow Queen.’

It’s the largest production in Eugene Ballet Company’s 38 years, featuring the longest commissioned score — by Portland composer Kenji Bunch — in Oregon’s history. Every bit of the artistic effort, from sets to costumes, props to animations, was labored over by more than 150 artists and designers from the Eugene community, under the vision of inimitable EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble.

EBC clearly has poured its heart into this story about a girl name Gerda, whose friend Kay disappears one day, inspiring her to go on a mission to find him.


Tallis Scholars review: Enlightening and enthralling

Still going strong after 44 years, acclaimed English vocal ensemble lives up to its name and reputation


Since their inception 44 years ago, The Tallis Scholars have led the way in performing choral music of the Renaissance. Under founder and director Peter Phillips, the English ensemble has made almost a hundred recordings of the great composers of the 15th and 16th centuries, won every possible award for quality and generated a wagonload of ecstatic reviews. So let me join the crowd by acclaiming their most recent Portland concert on April 4 (their sixth, always in St. Mary’s Cathedral) as superbly sung, brilliantly interpreted, and carefully programmed.

Heard in person, their sound, always impeccable on recordings, takes on added luster and range of volume. It’s always a fresh thrill to hear these ten singers rise from a whisper to a fortissimo; it’s a big sound, made possible by fine voices but especially by the cohesion of the singers, who are absolutely in synch with one another and therefore project a united sonic product that twice or six times as many singers in a less “together” choir would not be able to muster.

The Tallis Scholars’ latest Portland appearance nearly sold out St. Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Cappella Romana.

Over their decades, the Mr. Phillips and his Scholars have educated their public in their chosen field of music, otherwise intimately known only to organists and choristers in England and select parishes in America. In doing so they have created a small army of amateur musicologists familiar with a fair sampling of the big names in Renaissance choral music, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), whose music appears on at least a dozen of the Scholars’s recordings, and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), on half a dozen. In this Portland concert presented by Cappella Romana, Palestrina was represented by a Pater noster and Gibbons by a Magnificat and a Nunc dimittis.

Also present for the musicologists’ delectation were the less familiar: Hieronymus Praetorius, John Sheppard, Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jakob Handl), Jean Mouton, Johannes Eccard, and Andres de Torrentes. Not a few of the Scholars’s audience attend with learning as much on their minds as appreciating fine singing, and such ancillary figures are crucial. The nearly sold-out cathedral at St. Mary’s was full of local singers, conductors, music educators, and other aficionados.

In Metamorphosis, the Scholars repeated a program they had done a number of times in England. Built around four essential texts of Christianity — Magnificat, Pater noster (Our Father), Ave Maria, and Nunc dimittis — done variously in Latin, English, Russian Church Slavonic, and German, the concert featured eight selections in the first half (Magnificats and Pater nosters) and nine in the second (Ave Marias and Nunc dimittises). A special treat was the presence on the program of 20th-century composers Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), and John Tavener (1944-2013).


‘Music of the Forest’ preview: Old growth, new music

UO Music Today Festival concert features contemporary Oregon music inspired by old growth forest soundscapes


In the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, an hour east of Eugene, you’ll be visually immersed in an iconic landscape of towering old-growth Cedar, Hemlock, and moss-draped Douglas Fir. But close your eyes and open your ears and a rich acoustic environment is revealed: whispering treetop breezes; distant snapping sounds of animals traversing twig covered trails; bird calls echoing through the forest with insects buzzing above the ground; all this against the rhythmic beat of fast flowing water over a rocky terrain.

Oregon Composers Forum members finding musical inspiration in old growth forest. Photo: Michael Fleming.

One rainy fall day, a group of UO composition students ventured into this soundscape to listen, meditate upon, and sketch musical ideas while soaking up the inspiration the forest provided. The creative results from this and subsequent journeys back to nature, will be heard on Saturday, April 22 during the Music of the Forest concert, the third of nine events scheduled during the 2017 Music Today Festival on the University of Oregon campus.


Llyr Williams review: Pace setter

Welsh pianist's performances of music by Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov demonstrate exquisite control of tempo and pacing


It’s been a great season for piano playing in Portland. We’ve had Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough, probably the two finest pianists in the world today, with the Oregon Symphony. We’ve had the talented duo Stephanie & Saar plus a bunch of local pianists playing Fredric Rzewski’s monumental The People United Will Never Be Defeated in Portland Piano Company’s Makrokosmos Project. We had young George Li, who may be the successor to Hamelin and Hough, in Portland Piano International’s valuable series. We had Wu Han playing chamber music and a concerto in Chamber Music Northwest’s Passions United program. And others from Jeffrey Kahane to Anderson & Roe and more.

Now comes Welshman Llyr Williams, again with Portland Piano International, in two different recital programs in PSU’s Lincoln Hall on April 1st and 2nd. Besides great technical skill and interpretive flair, what distinguishes these pianists from lesser colleagues and from each other?

In earlier ArtsWatch reviews I’ve described the playing of Hamelin, Hough, the pianists in the Rzewski show, Li, and Han. What, then, makes Mr. Williams different?

Llyr Williams performed at Portland Piano International.

Granted, among players of this calibre, differences are subtle. On the evidence of the April 2nd concert, Mr. Williams shows great and seemingly effortless technical brilliance, but so do Hamelin and Hough. The Welshman is a sensitive and bold interpreter of disparate composers, but so are all the others. Along with superb technique and heartfelt music taste, what especially distinguishes Mr. Williams’s playing is a remarkably fluid sense of tempo and uniquely keen feel for pacing, an attention to the distance between the notes that makes his choices, however phrased, seem inevitable.

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 7, the so-called “Grand Sonata,” this ability took the form of making a seamless whole of a movement containing wild contrasts in tempos. In the second-movement Largo con gran espressione, Beethoven’s key change from E-flat to C signals an entirely different approach, an invitation to a sort of smooth and cantabile playing that Beethoven favored over the earlier Mozartean style of crisp attack, more suited to the harpsichord. Here Mr. Williams created a lovely and almost (but not quite) static tonal picture that was one of the highlights of the afternoon’s concert. Thereafter, in the third and fourth movements’ Allegros, his rhythms and tempos produced a suave, if restrained, conclusion. The Fourth is an early (1797) Beethoven sonata that, despite its title and length, ends quietly.

In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, written in 1809 on a generous commission from another composer and pianist, Muzio Clementi, the scale is smaller: just two movements totaling ten minutes. In this merry piece, dedicated to Beethoven’s  friend Countess Theresa Josepha Anna Johanna Aloysia Brunsvik de Korompa (whew!), the composer briefly introduces the opening of a favorite tune of his, Rule Brittania, and also jumps with abandon from feathery passages to louder chords. Mr. Williams rendered these with his customary feel for the relationship of contrasting notes, a technique that tied the sonata together as if it were a single (if many-faceted) musical statement.

Two more of the greatest composers for piano occupied the second half of the program: Chopin and Rachmaninov. Representing Chopin was the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, one of the Pole’s most lauded compositions. Here Mr. Williams preserved his seemingly innate attention to pace while giving us, in the slow passages within this 13-minute piece, a sort of lyricism quite different from Beethoven’s, a signature Chopin dreaminess. Lovely playing.

Sergei Rachmaninov made his appearance in a rarer presentation: ten of the composer’s 24 preludes, written in all the major and minor keys in partial emulation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin’s Twelve Preludes. Rachmaninov’s pieces, which range from two to five-and-a-half minutes in length, are more often used as concert encores than programmed together. They show the range of Rachmaninov’s composing skills and tastes, emphasizing tonalities and rhythms more than his better-known cantabile melodies, familiar from his piano concertos. Mr. Williams moved from one to another, from Largo to Allegro to Moderato to Lento, with a keen sense of contrast and easy grace.

The final selection, Op. 23, No. 2 in B-flat Major, marked Maestoso, was a true showpiece that enabled our pianist to end with an appropriate flourish, bringing the audience to their feet in the first of two standing ovations. The second of these ovations came after a short, delicate encore by Edvard Grieg, which earned concert-goers a second Grieg piece by way of farewell.

Recommended recordings

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 4
Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon 4778806), 2013.
Sviatoslav Richter (Alto ALC1158), 2011.

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 24
Claudio Arrau (Testament SBT21351), 2004.
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon 413766-2), 1984.

• Chopin, Fantaisie in F minor
Murray Perahia Plays Chopin (Sony Classical Masters 88843062432), 2014.
Michelangeli Plays Chopin (Opus Arte OA0940D), 1962.
Wilhelm Kempff, Vol. 10 (Documents 297641), 1954, 1958.

• Rachmaninov, Preludes
Rustem Hayroudinoff (Chandos 10107), 2003.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 4676852), 1975.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon piano music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Väsen preview: Swedish spirit

Power folk trio’s exuberant mix of tradition, progressive artistry, and rock solid chops  breathes new life into Swedish traditional music


In 1989, at a gathering in Røros, Norway, nyckelharpa player Olav Johansson met guitarist Roger Tallroth on his way to take a shower, as legend has it. The two Swedish folk musicians spent a storied evening and night jamming together, to the delight of the crowd that gathered to hear them.

So impressed was Olle Paulsson that he started a new record label, Drone Music, to record the fledgling ensemble. Johannson joined violist Mikael Marin and Tallroth to record their first CD together, Olov Johansson: Väsen. People started asking to book the group “Väsen” and the name stuck. “Väsen” means spirit or essence in Swedish (akin to Finland’s sisu) and a more appropriate name could not be found for the Swedish powerfolk trio’s vibrant sound.

Väsen performs in Portland, Ashland and Eugene.

Väsen, which performs April 15 at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, April 19 at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, and April 20 at Eugene’s Shedd Institute, crafts original compositions and arrangements of trad tunes that bridge the gaps between folk, power pop, classical, and melodic jazz. Building on Swedish folk music roots, the high energy trio (quartet in Europe when joined by percussionist André Ferrari) play the type of new Nordic folk music that rides on syncopation, accented weak beats, odd meters, and dense string-driven heterophony with crooked tunes similar to the Quebecois dance tradition.

Folk revival

As with other folk music festivals in Scandinavia during the 1970s and ‘80s (Kaustinen Folk Fest in Finland and Folkemusikkveka in Norway), Gärdesfesten, the Swedish Woodstock of 1970, gave a folk revival in the country added momentum as interest in traditional Swedish music and dance grew. Though the movement slowed in the late ‘70s, a resurgence of interest in the polka in the ’80s pushed new ensembles into the public eye and the new dance venues gave them an opportunity to hone their playing.

Väsen is a product of these times. Back in the day, nyckelharpist Johansson and violist Marin sat at the feet of such Swedish folk music notables as Curt and Ivar Tallroth and Eric Sahlström of the Uppland region. Within a few years of taking up nyckelharp in 1980 at age 14, Johansson was considered a master player. In 1990, the year after meeting bandmate Tallroth, he won the championship in both traditional and modern categories at the Nyckelharpa World Championships at Österbybruk, Sweden.

A composer, producer, and arranger who has been a Swedish national fiddler since 1983, Marin has played under Leonard Bernstein and collaborated with artists such as Mikael Samuelsson, folk rockers Nordman, and Kronos Quartet. He plays in the duo Marin/Marin with his daughter Mia Marin.

The old time dance lilt of Swedish folk tunes is given punch and drive by Roger Tallroth’s 12-string rhythm guitar constructions that thicken the texture of the bowed instruments while securing the downbeat—sexing it up with satisfying syncopated accents—and taking the harmonies a bit farther afield than Grandpa Ole might approve of. Tallroth is a bit of an iconoclast, having developed his own unique style of playing. His signature ‘Tallroth tuning’ and ever changing style of rhythm guitar have influenced string players in the Nordic/Scandinavian folk scene for years.


The Ensemble review: Children of their time

Portland vocal ensemble performs a pair of Passion settings composed half a millennium apart 


A Palm Sunday program offered by the Ensemble of Oregon brought two disparate renderings of a Passion, one about Jesus, the other not –  to Portland’s Old Church. Apart from their shared theme of redemptive suffering, the only similarities between these choral works, composed almost 500 years apart, were the four sonorous voices of Catherine van der Salm, Laura Beckel Thoreson, Nicholas Ertsgaard and director Patrick McDonough. Both pieces were unmistakably children of their respective eras.

The Ensemble performed passion settings by Lang and Lechner in Eugene, Portland, and Vancouver WA.

The first was the 16th century a cappella Story of the Passion and Suffering of our One Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ” (“Historia der Passion und Leidens unsers einigen Erlosers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi), set in precise sequence by Austrian composer Leonhard Lechner, with a modicum of cuts to the text from the Gospel of St. John.

Lechner was a disciple of the justly more famous Orlando di Lasso, but judging from this Passion, quite a bit less adventuresome. Di Lasso, who had the freedom and interest in writing secular pieces, was able to introduce more innovation of harmony and style. Perhaps Lechner, whom we have to thank for cataloging di Lasso’s works, did not feel such freedom from within the liturgical setting. To today’s ears, the repeated cadential formulae and predictable harmonic movement, make for a stasis bordering on the quotidian. Looking back through the lens of Bach’s Passions (St. John and St. Matthew, the two fully extant ones), we are struck by any lack of word painting, much less the harmonic development that had appeared by the time of the high Baroque, some 125 years later, as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

McDonough inserted chorales from that masterpiece, linking this early polyphonic work to a musical “grandson,” J.S. Bach. It was a good move, breaking up the Lechner. The chorales were transposed from the original so as to move harmonically smoothly within the Lechner key signatures; this placed voices quite high in the vocal range. But all the singers made easy work of that. Ms. Van der Salm was especially adroit in the higher soprano range.

The Passion was sung from the back of the sanctuary of the Old Church which turned out to be a nice acoustic. Two drawbacks, however. First, lack of optics, no visual stimulus. Second, McDonough acting as singer (bass) and conductor was facing his three colleagues, which created occasional balance problems.

On the other hand, it was well performed by our four vocal artists, the tuning and phrasing always in sync. The quartet then carried this elegance into their portrayal of The Little Match Girl Passion.

A Passion for Our Time

David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, the main draw of the program, is set in the dead of winter. In some ways an opera (and soon to be performed in that guise by Portland Opera in a full production with sets, costumes, lighting and original orchestration), it tells the Hans Christian Anderson story of the bereft little girl who leaves her home to sell matches, and ultimately freezes to death on New Year’s Eve, after experiencing visions (hallucinations?) of her long-dead mother, a holiday goose walking towards her, and a flaringly lit Christmas tree.

If the Danish tale of H. C. Anderson seems an unlikely fit for Passion week, consider David Lang’s decision to invoke the spirit of the choruses of the St. Matthew Passion in his composition. “What would it be like to tell the passion story, but take Jesus’ suffering out and put some other person’s suffering in?” Lang has said.  “Would that make the story universal?”

One particular musical reference is the serene benediction of “rest soft” in the final movement “We sit and cry” which evokes the “Ruht Wohl” lullaby chorus conclusion to the Bach St. Matthew.

Composer David Lang.

Fragmented in its handling of text and music, and minimalistic in many movements, it comes across something like an e.e. cummings poem. The music is brittle, ice cold, stark, passionately and painfully exquisite.  Its jagged, pointillistic deliveries were perfectly rendered by all of the singers. Dissonances cut like knives through the thin harmonic textures, the clangy minor and major seconds and sevenths evoking the spikiness of the winter, and heightening the emotion of the suffering here.

There were no drawbacks, nothing missing, in the performance of Lang’s Little Match Girl.  Each singer played at least one percussion instrument, so there were two layers of musical multi-tasking going on all the time. The singing and the playing were terrific. This is a piece for its time, and not just because of it being Passion Week. It speaks to homelessness, poverty, and yet somehow, hope and dignity.

Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer. Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

Read Brett Campbell’s 2011 profile of David Lang. Read his and Jeff Winslow‘s ArtsWatch reviews of Portland State Chamber Choir’s performance of the choral version of Lang’s Passion.

Want to read more about Oregon choral music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Music Today Festival preview: Incubating and showcasing new music

University of Oregon student ensembles and distinguished guest artists premiere tomorrow’s music today


A concert of music by women composers, a celebration of music by one of the 20th century’s most influential American composers, Pauline Oliveros, the premiere of a new chamber opera, music inspired by the soundscape of an old growth forest, and two highly regarded festival guest artists highlight the 2017 Music Today Festival (April 19-May 13) at the University of Oregon.

Student ensembles play contemporary classics and premieres of new music at this year’s Music Today Festival. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The biannual event, founded by UO professor Robert Kyr in 1993, has evolved from a time when the School of Music and Dance offered few performances of contemporary music to this year’s nine concerts organized and hosted by the Oregon Composers Forum. The OCF is a cadre of graduate and upper division student composer-performers in the school’s composition area who have the opportunity to collaboratively produce numerous music events throughout the year.

“Our program is one of the few in the country that gives student composers the opportunity to create and perform their own music and that of their colleagues with contemporary music performers of the highest caliber,” says Kyr, head of the UO Music Composition area. This year’s great artists include renowned soprano Estelí Gomez and clarinetist James Shields with other New York new music specialists. “We are thrilled to feature composers and performers from our student-run new music ensembles programs that focus on themes of contemporary significance and are relevant to the lives of today’s listeners.”


All concerts take place at 8 pm in Aasen-Hull Hall on the University of Oregon campus and offer free admission except where noted.

Wednesday, April 19

Sonus Domum Ensemble
Sonus Domum offers a program of cross-disciplinary and improv-based music celebrating the memory of Pauline Oliveros, who died last year, with three pieces by the late composer as well as new works in collaboration with dancers and visual artists by Jordan Jenkins, Michael Fleming, Michael Dekovich, Nikolai Valov, Luke Smith and Faith Rawson.

Friday, April 21
Oregon Composers Forum Concert IV
8 p.m., Beall Concert Hall
Three solo pieces, two duets, a quartet, and two quintets reveal the exciting diversity of instrumentations and styles that characterize the music being composed by today’s young composers, including Brent Lawrence, Paul Rudoi, Nicholas Pietromonaco, Nikolai Valov, Martin Quiroga, Trevor Thompson, Susanna Payne-Passmore, and Daniel Daly. This concert will be live streamed.

Saturday, April 22
Composing from the Old Growth Forest
Last fall, six members of the Oregon Composers Forum visited, listened to, meditated upon, and sketched musical ideas inspired by the soundscape of the old growth H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest just east of Eugene. The Music Today Festival premieres new works based upon on those experiences featuring pieces for pre-recorded soundscape, solo flute, narrator, percussion, solo trumpet, soprano, guitar, violin and steel tongue drum by composers Brent Lawrence, Luke Smith, Justin Ralls, Susanna Payne-Passmore, Michael Fleming, and Nikolai Valov. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s full preview.

Saturday, April 29
Ova Novi Ensemble
Ova Novi, whose mission is to present music by women composers, features music by Judith Weir, Marianna D’Auenbrugg, Sasha Kow, Susanna Payne-Passmore, Hildegard Westerkamp, Samantha Gans, Chi Wang, Kellyn Haley’s arrangement of songs by Nadia Boulanger for trombone and piano, and a selection of songs by Minnesota composers Jocelyn Hagen, Mary Ellen Childs, Edie Hill, Libby Larsen and Abbie Betinis.

Friday, May 5 – TaiHei Ensemble
The TaiHei Ensemble explores and enhances international dialogue through the creation and performance of music inspired by world music and cultures. Featured in this MTF concert is Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s Piece for Cello and Piano, influenced by non-Western musical elements, and Lied by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa for flute and piano. Additional music by members of the Oregon Composers Forum and the Intermedia Music Technology program will be performed. (TaiHei pronounced “tie-hey”, means “peace” in Japanese).

Saturday, May 6 – ECCE
Now in its 12th season, Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s MTF concert features works by its three aesthetically diverse co-coordinators. Ramsey Sadaka’s Scenes from the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke includes an invigorating solo violin with six-person mixed chamber ensemble. Tarot / Suite of the Major Arcana by Joseph Vranas is a set of songs based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, with text by Daniel Erburu Reardon. Extinction by Stephen Medlar is a 40-minute story in five instrumental movements that tells a tale of how humanity’s time on earth comes to an end. The composer notes, “It is a product of my intrinsic anger and frustration with the ever-growing trend in the celebration of ignorance and devaluing (or perhaps even disregarding) of intellectualism.”

Guest soprano Esteli Gomez premieres 8 new compositions. Photo: Kyle Scripnick.

Sunday, May 7
Guest Artist Esteli Gomez
Admission: $10 general, $8 students and seniors
Known for her interpretation of early and contemporary music with what the New York Times calls a “clear, bright voice,” soprano Esteli Gomez and fellow members of the contemporary octet Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy award for best chamber music/small ensemble performance in 2014. Her MTF program includes new music composed specifically for her by OCF composers Brent Lawrence, Michael Fleming, Paul Rudoi, Luke Smith, Cara Haxo, Ramsey Sadaka, Daniel Daly, and Emily Korzeniewski and features vocal pieces combined with a unique range of instrumentation ranging from electronic components, celesta, toy piano, to vibraphone.

Guest artist James Shields and friends premiere music by UO composers. Photo: k.mari.

Wednesday, May 10
James Shields and Friends
Kyr describes James Shields, clarinetist with the Oregon Symphony, as “one of the most electric and engaging clarinetists in the contemporary music scene. His performances are extraordinary in their virtuosity and sheer brilliance.”  Shields is bringing with him two equally inspiring musicians, Laura Metcalf (cellist) and Conor Hanick (pianist), both prominent in the New York and national new music scenes, to perform music by UO composers, two virtuoso showstoppers by Magnus Lindberg (Steamboat Bill, Jr. for clarinet and cello, and Trio for clarinet, cello and piano); Grab It! by Jacob TV; Now I by Matthias Pintscher; and Parkour by Paul Brantley.

Saturday May 13
The Banshee, a chamber opera by Daniel Daly
3 p.m., Aasen-Hull Hall
The final offering of the Music Today Festival is a semi-staged performance of a new chamber opera, The Banshee, composed by Daniel Daly. The drama revolves around the legend of the Banshee, a character from Irish legend whose keening is a herald of death. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s full preview.

For more information on events, call 541-346-5678 or visit School of Music and Dance Concerts and Events online.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 

Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.