Oregon ArtsWatch


Akropolis Reed Quintet: Strutting and strolling

Chamber Music Northwest stalwarts return for concert and community engagement


Nobody struts like the Akropolis Reed Quintet. The ensemble stands up when they play—unusual for wind players—and there are moments when they walk around the stage. Even when they stay in one place, they shake and shimmy and groove with the music. But mainly I mean that they metaphorically strut. When they play, the music has this brisk, bouncy, breezy, easy strolling quality…something the stuffy old term andante is supposed to signify, but usually doesn’t.

Akropolis, a Project Protégé Artist with Chamber Music Northwest, is a pretty ambulatory group in another way. Their October 8 Portland performance was the second time I’ve seen them this year, and they perform in Portland often enough to call it “a second home.” Sponsored by CMNW and Portland5, it was the ninth and final concert of this tour, and they’ll be on the road again next week. I caught them at Mount Hood Community College out on the far side of Gresham over the summer, playing for a bunch of suburban college kids in a venue that could hardly be more different from the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in bustling downtown Portland’s Center for the Arts. The Michigan-based group, which prides itself on reaching out to new audiences (and especially students), seems to love playing just about everywhere they can.

There’s something special about the tour-tightened, battle-sharpened vigor that a musical group acquires when they hang out together, play frequently, and tour obsessively. The Landrys—Matt on sax, Kari on clarinet—just got married, making this tour their honeymoon; the quintet feels very much like one of the vagabonding family bands of old. Yet they are also savvy entrepreneurs who maintain a busy schedule and an engaging social media presence, and they are about to release their third album.

Akropolis outreach presentation at VIBE East Winds during Chamber Music Northwest's 2016 Summer Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Akropolis outreach presentation at VIBE East Winds during Chamber Music Northwest’s 2016 Summer Festival. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

And it’s not just concerts. The Akropolis members are highly focused on their educational outreach endeavors, making clinics and workshops as much a part of their touring priorities as their more conventional concerts. They give workshops about the challenges of the music business in addition to their other outreach programs. In fact, this tour’s ninth concert coincided with the tour’s tenth educational event, a clinic Akropolis gave earlier in the day for local homeless youth advocacy groups New Avenues for Youth and p:ear.

This unity of education, performance, community engagement, and professional development is central to Akropolis’ mission. Despite all this “yeoman’s work,” as saxophonist Landry called it, when they took the stage at Winningstad Theatre, he gracefully thanked us for coming to their concert and not one of the myriad other shows happening nearby (some of them in the same building). “We’re glad you found us!” Landry, said with an easy grin.


Portland Baroque Orchestra review: Prodigal sounds

Historically informed orchestra reaches forward into the Classical and Romantic eras with abundant skill but sometimes insufficient forces


Who is the greatest classical music prodigy of all time?

If you answered Mozart, you’re not alone. You also probably didn’t attend the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s latest concert.

Because if you had, you might agree with the PBO’s leader, baroque violin superstar Monica Huggett, that the man who in his childhood was called “the second Mozart” was in fact greater than the first. That man? Felix Mendelssohn, born in 1809, 18 years after Mozart’s death.

PBO played Mozart and Mendelssohn. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

PBO played Mozart and Mendelssohn. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

No one — certainly not Ms. Huggett — would argue that Mendelssohn was a greater composer than Mozart. But as a child and teenager, Mendelssohn wrote music far beyond what Mozart composed at the same age. Is there anything in Mozart’s oeuvre to compare with Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, composed at the age of 16, or the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when Mendelssohn was 17? If you add the three Mendelssohn pieces played by the PBO, the case strengthens, for the young prodigy wrote them all between the ages of 12 and 14.

In fact Mendelssohn completed 12 string symphonies, in three to five movements, at that age, started a 13th, and for good measure also wrote a nifty violin concerto for string orchestra, running about 20 minutes. The PBO played one of the 12 (the 6th), the one-movement 13th, and the concerto in the first half of their “Mendelssohn & Mozart” program, October 14-16.


FearNoMusic review: Fond farewell

New music ensemble co-founder Joel Bluestone passes the sticks to his successor in a concert celebrating the percussionist's quarter-century contribution to Oregon music


Joel Bluestone walked onstage to thunderous applause and an immediate standing ovation.

“I haven’t played a note yet!” he demurred with a grin.

The applause at the September 30 show at Portland State university’s Lincoln Recital Hall wasn’t for the notes Bluestone hadn’t played yet, but for all those he had played over the 25 years since he and pianist Jeffrey Payne founded Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.

Bluestone (right) with FearNoMusic at the ensemble's final concert last spring at Portland State University.

Bluestone (right) with FearNoMusic at the ensemble’s final concert last spring at Portland State University.

In 1992, new music was “a legitimate entity to be afraid of,” current FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch said in introducing the percussionist. “We wouldn’t be here today if not for Dr. Joel Bluestone,” Bunch continued. “We all owe a huge debt to people like Bluestone, who has shown such generosity, with an open mind and an open heart.”

Although Bluestone will keep his busy schedule as a guest artist, including stints with San Diego experimental ensemble Swarmius and local Cascadia Composers group Crazy Jane, he will be “passing the sticks” to Oregon Symphony percussionist Michael Roberts; Bluestone told ArtsWatch he is retiring as FNM percussionist in order to explore new musical projects.

When Bunch asked him what music he wanted to perform in this, his final concert as a member of the group, Bluestone said, he first thought of all the solo showcase pieces he has played through the years. But, he said, as he thought about FNM’s long history, he reflected on the importance of his relationships in the group: “These are some of my best friends in the world!” He chose his program accordingly, selecting compositions by some of FNM’s composers-in-residence (including Bunch) and featuring personally meaningful collaborations with these musicians who have meant so much to each other. Bluestone’s selections celebrated his colleagues and highlighted his own enduring obsessions with melody, the color of sounds, and the charm of found and constructed instruments.


Oregon Symphony review: Study in contrasts

Oregon Symphony, guest conductor Nicholas Carter, and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin collaborate in an exhilarating ride from the heroic to the monumental


“Since Beethoven’s time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems. In some cases the composers have given us a program or have at least suggested what they had in mind; in other cases it is evident that they were concerned with describing or illustrating something, be it a landscape or a series of pictures. That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal.” — Jean Sibelius.

Marc-André Hamelin played Rachmaninov with the Oregon Symphony.

Marc-André Hamelin played Rachmaninov with the Oregon Symphony.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, the Finnish composer’s shortest and least monumental, was ahead of its time in 1907. Amidst a sonic landscape filled with the likes of Mahler and Richard Strauss, played by increasingly huge orchestras, Sibelius confounded even some of his most ardent supporters, who had expected more of the lush, Romantic sounds that had characterized his first two symphonies. In contrast to both his previous efforts and those of other leading orchestral composers of the era, he made a conscious effort to step away from the programmatic tendency he wrote about at the time.

Sibelius’s Third, which the Oregon Symphony performed at their sold-out Sunday matinee performance on October 9 using a pared-down orchestra of 58 players and running to 29 minutes, is therefore “pure music.” Like the symphonies of Mozart or Haydn, it relies on its classical structure and inner relationships for any abstract “meaning.” In all three movements, the composer gets great mileage out of small choirs of similar instruments (woodwinds, horns, cellos plus double basses) poised against the body of the orchestra. But it is the haunting second movement Andantino, with its recurring melody in six beats — now divided into three, now into two — that makes this symphony unforgettable. Australian conductor Nicholas Carter brought out all this movement’s beauty in admirably understated fashion.



Last weekend, Oregon Repertory Singers took a risk. The audience came in an act of faith to hear two unknown works (and one beloved). Would they go home satisfied – would their reward of loyalty also be an artistic one?

To open their 43rd season this past Saturday afternoon, ORS presented three works on one theme: pursuit of peace — in the world and in the heart. Two of the pieces, both masses, were based on the “L’Homme Arme” (The Armed Man) cantus firmus – recurring theme – which in turn was based on a six-centuries-old Burgundian secular tune. Italian 17th century composer Giacomo Carissimi and 71-year-old Welshman Karl Jenkins threaded and wove the tune into full length works.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Ethan Sperry led Oregon Repertory Singers and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

Beginning in 1460, in the Burgundian period of music, “L’Homme armé” served as the melodic center of more than 50 masses. Why? Because it was there and because the structure of the tune (tonic centered scale tones, perfectly suited to use in a round) is so user friendly — even easier than the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” lick.

First on the program, Carissimi’s Mass, from which the choir sang the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, is a Baroque adoption of the Burgundian theme. Now in his 45th year as organist and music director at First United Methodist Church, Jonas Nordwall, in his inimitable style, performed a fantasy on the cantus firmus, and segued seamlessly into the a cappella Carissimi. The effect was stunning and the choir, arrayed in a complete oval around the sanctuary, sang beautifully. But then, without pause, with the tones of the Carissimi Agnus Dei still ringing, they intoned the octave entrance of Agnus Dei, the choral transcription of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings.

Maestro Sperry, in his introductory remarks, brought up the word “risk”. And Sperry and the choir took several risks, with many rewards ensuing. The first risk was the simple act of encircling the audience with modified vocal quartets, to sing. The epic textures were plasticized by each section, ebbing and flowing perfectly.

Too, it’s a risk for any performing arts organization to put before the public something with which they are unfamiliar. But it must be done, otherwise we languish in repetition of only the known, therefore only the past.

Musically and spiritually, the centerpiece of the concert was the Jenkins mass, performed with the ORS’s recent partner, the Vancouver Symphony. Composed in 1999 and premiered in London a year later, the piece is populist and appealing, its melodies singable and harmonies moderate for a 21st century work.

Sperry himself came well armed: tempi were thoughtfully planned, and more important, pacing between movements was perfect, always moving forward. In this 59 minute work, with any amount of dead time, the movements can become unhinged. They didn’t.

Jenkins understands orchestration, and wrote music that wedded well to eclectic texts (Dryden, Swift, Tennyson, Kipling and Sankichi Toge and Muslim prayer) eliciting the varied emotions of conflict, war and peace.

The only drawback of this piece is the composer’s predilection for repetition, often iterating musical sections two or more times. Why? It comes off as self-indulgent.

The Vancouver Symphony was very strong and, if we look past several individual blips and blats, a few essential solos were very well played. Military fife was very effectively rendered by flutist Darren Cook; cellist Dieter Ratzlaf simply and serenely played the blessedly beautiful Benediction melody, which is then repeated in the voices.

Audiences will sometimes sit through a large work awaiting one melody, one movement, one breathtaking “so beautiful it hurts” moment. (See Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Paganini or Bernstein Chichester Psalms or Lauridsen Chansons de la Rose.) The Benedictus is one such moment in the Jenkins Missa, but other moments in this work surprisingly involved the percussion section. And a very fine percussion section it was – crisp, accurate and properly balanced.

Soloists in the Jenkins were very effective: April Vanderwal processing up the aisle, her light, almost boyish soprano perfect for the Kyrie. Several others delivered lovely snippets: Lisa Riffel, and Rich Vanderwal and Alexander Garcia among them. Wajdi Said movingly intoned the Islamic call to prayer following the opening movement.

This year’s edition of Oregon Repertory Singers is the best in a long while. Intonation, phrasing and balance/blend are superb; each section stays firmly within its own sleeve of sound. Dedicated to bringing some of the finest unknown choral works to the Portland community. Sperry and the choir may carry on their risk taking, and reward us all in the process.

Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.

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

Third Angle review: Riding the rails with Reich

Unusual rail museum venue adds dimension to new music ensemble's performance of Steve Reich's string quartets


It is not uncommon to hear classical chamber music performed in a museum, but on first sight it seemed absurdly incongruous to see an audience crammed between two rows of old trains listening to a string quartet play along with set of speakers.

Nevertheless, Portland new music ensemble Third Angle New Music decided to celebrate the composer Steve Reich’s 80th birthday under a massive creaking metal fan between rows of stately locomotive behemoths from another age on a rainy night down at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center on the east end of Portland’s newest bridge, Tillikum Crossing Bridge of the People.

Third Angle New Music played string quartets by Steve Reich at Oregon Rail Heritage Museum. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle New Music played string quartets by Steve Reich at Oregon Rail Heritage Museum. Photo: Jacob Wade.

The beauty of Reich’s music is that it is both formally engaging (in the purely musical dimension) and profoundly meaningful (in the extramusical dimension). In their fifteen years playing Steve Reich, Third Angle has become adept at bringing forth all that his music is and signifies, and this unique concert setting made for a profoundly moving experience.


Catherine Russell preview: Artful swing from the ground up

Renowned jazz singer's new album is grounded in her Harlem roots 


“Some people feel music from the top down; they’re not hip-shakers. They like the violins and long tones,” Catherine Russell, 60, said from her downtown Manhattan home in late September. “Some of us are more rooted in the ground. We hear it from the ground up. Music makes me want to move.”

Female jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Etta James and Dinah Washington were ground-up performers as well. Called “the best blues and jazz singer going today” by the Wall Street Journal, Russell can sing those stars’ signatures almost better than they did themselves. That’s jazz, that’s art: grabbing the past, moving forward with it, putting an individual twist on it.

Catherine Russell performs Tuesday in Portland.

Catherine Russell performs Tuesday in Portland.

Next Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church, Russell will sing with her trio — pianist Mark Shane, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and bassist Kerry Lewis – who have worked with her on her six solo albums. The show is part of PDX Jazz’s fully loaded fall series.


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