Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Byrd Ensemble review: corona of sound

Seattle vocal ensemble bathes Portland audience in clear, clean choral singing

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

When a choral tone bath is washing over me, I smile broadly, sometimes even giggle. Can’t help it. It’s a visceral reaction to a corona of sound. It envelops the audience, draws us in.

I smiled a lot Sunday afternoon, October 28 at Portland’s St. Stephens Catholic Church. The Byrd Ensemble, using just 10 singers, poured a program of motets that was clear and balanced in every way. The Seattle-based choir’s sound is clear, clean, never manufactured, without a wayward wobble in the pitch. The singers collectively exploit a brighter part of the color palette, enabling perfect intonation and balance.

Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble sang Renaissance and contemporary music in Portland.

This is clearly conductor Markdavin Obenza’s sound ideal. The sound is not an accident. It is cultivated. Several of these artists, including Mr. Obenza, had their start in the Northwest Boy Choir, and that, much like the English boychoirs in cathedrals over the years, is formative in their listening and the sound production they bring us.

Not to say they are trying to sing “like” a boy choir. This is an adult sound with a boy choir temperament. When excellent singers sing with their ears, sing into the mini acoustic among their colleagues, something magical can happen. A macro acoustic like St. Stephens is the perfect venue for a small group like this. And so, at the beginning tones of William Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine, I nearly giggled. At the end of the motet, the audience gave this opening piece a 30-40 second ovation.

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An Introvert’s Guide to Portland Book Festival 2018

Advance preparations for the Portland Book Festival are advised.

By KATIE TAYLOR

As a typical book-loving wallflower, I find festivals overstimulating and at times overwhelming, but when it comes to books, they’re important. In America, things loved by quiet people have a way of being ignored, shouted over, trampled on and phased out. Events like Literary Arts’ Portland Book Festival (formerly Wordstock) make a dazzling public smile their umbrella over a very private love, and by doing that, help keep that love safe, strong and thriving.

The Portland Book Festival can start to close in on the bookish introvert. But you can beat this! Preparation is the key./Photo courtesy Portland Book Festival

With some 62 book-related events loaded into a single 10-hour day, Portland Book Festival is an unparalleled opportunity, even for those of us who don’t like to leave our couches, teapots and teetering stacks of books. So gird your loins and screw your courage to the sticking place, my friends—you still have a few days to prepare. And prepare you must!

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Art review: Resistance begins inside

The six artists in 'The Work Continues' at PCC Sylvania’s North View Gallery respond to the political crisis by investigating their own identities

By LUSI LUKOVA

The Work Continues, at PCC Sylvania’s North View Gallery (the exhibition closed on Saturday), emerged from a unanimous functional depression felt by its six artists and two curators. We may easily guess the source of this unrest, even without curator Sam Hopple’s explanation that this artistic survey first took form in 2016 as a direct response to a numbness following the Presidential election.

“The Work Continues” (installation view), 2018; PCC North View Gallery/Image courtesy of Maria T.D. Inocencio

However, the manner in which these six artists chose to further engage with this unsettling environment—through a complex exploration of identity—gives this show its place in contemporary art activism. Each of these artists, through their own respective processes and mediums, toggles the question of “Who are we?”—as artists, as advocates, and as humans. Tapping into something deeply personal, each piece in this show is a vulnerable and raw demonstration of art that does not compromise.

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Oregon Symphony preview: puppety ‘Petrushka’

Creative director Doug Fitch enhances Stravinsky score with puppets and other theatrical elements

This weekend, in the season’s first batch of SoundStories concerts, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra performs Petrushka in a puppety production directed by visual artist Doug Fitch. The OSO excels at this “classical-plus” sort of thing: classical music plus movies, classical music plus theater, classical music plus rock music, classical music plus animated light show. And it’s funny how the last time OSO brought in puppets, that was a Stravinsky show too: last year’s Perséphone.

Doug Fitch’s puppetry enhances Oregon Symphony’s ‘Petrushka’ this weekend.

Igor Stravinsky’s musical score for Petrushka is endearing and entertaining, but pretty bland compared to the composer’s best stuff; that’s what makes it an ideal candidate for the classical-plus treatment (same goes for the Perséphone score, for that matter). It’s far from Stravinsky’s most boring score (that would of course be Pulcinella), but sitting as it does between the backward-looking genius of 1910’s Firebird and the forward-looking genius of 1913’s Rite of Spring, Petrushka (composed 1910-11) is often remembered—at least by music nerds—as “the one where Stravinsky discovered polytonality.”

It has no moments as memorable as Firebird’s “Berceuse” and “Infernal Dance,” nor anything as thrilling as Rite’s thunderously morbid dance rhythms and oh-so-catchy primitivistic earworms. But none of that is really a fair criticism, because despite the music’s genesis as a sort of battle between piano and orchestra, Petrushka is (as Diaghilev correctly intuited when he first heard it) primarily theater music. We are not meant to sit passively in a concert hall (or on the sofa) and simply take it in through our lazy ear holes. We are meant to watch it. We are meant to feel it.

It’s also important to remember that Petrushka is not really about Stravinsky anyways: as Fitch points out in this sound-buggy video, the original ballet was a collaboration between artists working in varied disciplines—most importantly librettist slash set- & costume-designer Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine—and that interdisciplinary complexity carries forward into his integrative production with the OSO.

Because Fitch’s Petrushka, originally developed at the University of Maryland and since streamlined for travel, is more than a puppet show. His production (presumably even in the reconfigured touring version he’s bringing to the Schnitz this weekend) retains the theatrical ballet vibe by directing the musicians to get up and move around, stand up for solos, dance and scream, put on silly hats. All of this also adds to the story’s carnival spirit; the action takes place at the fair, after all. The OSO is hardly a staid and uptight orchestra in the Old World tradition, but they’re still considerably more formal than, say, The Polyphonic Spree. It’ll be amusing to watch them put on costumes and fake beards to get all (belatedly) Halloweeny and celebratory.

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Austin Hartman: conversing with Beethoven

Pacifica Quartet's new violinist explains why the group is tackling all Beethoven's string quartets this week in Portland, and why chamber music matters

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Violinist Austin Hartman joined Pacifica Quartet last year— just in time to embark on performances of Beethoven’s complete string quartets, which the ensemble brings to Portland State University in a series of five concerts presented this week by Friends of Chamber Music. The quartet has impressed Oregon listeners in several previous visits. In the second of our stories about this monumental cycle, ArtsWatch asked Hartman why these quartets and this series are so special, about his journey in classical music, and more. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Oregon Arts Watch: I’ve heard it said that there is Beethoven for people who have lived life, and there is Beethoven for people who haven’t. That rings pretty true for me. How do you see that idea in the quartets?

Austin Hartman: Beethoven is a unique composer in that there is something for everyone. People coming to it for the first time can enjoy it in a fresh and new way, and certainly Beethoven gives you plenty to unpack as a new listener. And then, just as it is with other great master composers, these quartets provide lifetimes of exploration into what it even means for us as musicians. What do these experiences mean? How do we go about bringing out the greatest depth from this composer? And then for the listener: how does that relate to my human experience? This man is exploring a range of human emotion and is writing it at different points.

Pacifica Quartet corners the Beethoven quartet market this week at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Each of the early, middle, and late periods speak to a seasoned listener more powerfully at different times, and I think that is the other benefit of the cycle. It’s like sitting down to have a long conversation with someone — the longer you sit there and talk to them, the more you get to know them. And the way you relate to that conversation might be very dependent on how your day has been going.

OAW: Each concert in the festival you’re playing here in Portland is its own microcosm: each one features early, middle, and late quartets. How did you decide to do it that way, and how has that changed how you play them?

Hartman: Someday we would like to try and do it in a linear way and figure out what that experience is like, and just watch a composer age in the progression of the quartets. The size and scope of the works would be interesting. We would have to figure out how to divvy up some of the late quartets—they are certainly much longer than the earlier ones. And there is no less challenge there: all of the quartets are challenging in different kinds of ways for the performer. And for the listener too.

I think one of the benefits of mixing it up the way we are doing it in Portland is the fact that it really gives concert-goers a sample from each period, and it makes the listener really be on their toes. Certainly the late quartets push listeners in a very different way than the early quartets do.

I’m sure part of the thinking in putting it together this way is we are having a balanced evening, balanced in terms of different keys, different characters, so we aren’t putting all the dark and stormy weather ones together. There are rays of sunshine in the middle. It is interesting that a majority of the quartets go out on a major note: it’s almost like Beethoven just couldn’t allow the suffering or the darkness to sit there.

So part of it has to do with the character and keys and how they relate. It’s really through that lens that we put these together this way.

OAW: How do you treat a cycle of quartets as a single work? It’s so much music to have in your head at one time. And your interpretation of the cycle must develop over time, in the same sense that your interpretation of a single quartet develops over time.

Hartman: You’re preparing not only to present concert after concert, but really to get yourself as a performer ready to engage with the entire scope of the project. With Beethoven, you’re dealing with a man who is expressing his entire life in sixteen quartets, starting with his early works and his youthfulness, and ending with some of the challenges he faced in his later years. As a performer, getting ready to take that on, it’s probably like an actor getting ready to step into character, trying to grapple with the range of experiences this composer is expressing. And then our hope is that we as a quartet can give the listener an opportunity to go on that journey with us and get to know the composer better.

It grows us over the course of the project—certainly, doing it you get to know Beethoven very intimately. His repertoire demands the highest level of technical proficiency and musical depth, and I think we grow a lot. This is a process that will take many lifetimes to figure out and understand completely, but it’s our hope that in our time with the audience, we can all work together to catch a glimpse of who Beethoven was and the impact that he had.

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PSU Chamber Choir: connection through competition

A participant in the award-winning choir's trip to a major competition in Argentina finds that the most rewarding musical moments don't always happen onstage

by AARON RICHARDSON

The Portland State University Chamber Choir made it to San Juan, Argentina for the San Juan Canta International Choral Competition and Festival from August 16-20. I sang bass in the choir, and as much as we enjoyed the competition, for me, the best part of the experience didn’t actually happen onstage.

The Portland State Chamber Choir, led by Ethan Sperry, has won awards both nationally and internationally in its 43 year history. Last year, we placed first in the Bali International Choral Festival in Indonesia. That was an unforgettable experience because there were over 150 choirs creating amazing music together, and we were the singers who took home the gold.

This summer was the first time the choir had ever competed in South America. One of our previous grad students and section leaders grew up in Argentina, and her mother was a conductor of the host choir at the event, named Coro Arturo Beruti. We were all looking forward to sharing the music that we worked so hard on with other choirs from around the world.

Warming Up

Before the competition, we took a tour of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.The city has so many music houses it looked like they were on almost every block of downtown. To prepare us for the competition, we first at one of the oldest and most famous opera house in South America, called Teatro Colón in downtown Buenos Aires on August 13. When we looked up in the music hall we performed in, we saw chandeliers twenty feet high, filling the room with light, and vibrant paintings on the ceiling, as well as the walls. The main stage faced thirty rows of seating, set up as an oval with all chairs leaning towards the stage, resulting in the sound surrounding listeners from every angle. Many famous singers have performed on the main stage since its opening in 1908. To be given that opportunity to sing in the main hall is one that I will never forget.

PSU Chamber Choir tearing it up in San Juan, Argentina.

We arrived at the competition in San Juan, Argentina on August 15 for the opening ceremony. The main hall at the Auditorio Juan Victoria consisted of a state with eight built in risers and a pipe organ behind the stage. At the opening ceremony, each of the ten groups sang one piece each as an introduction.That way, we were able to see how each choir performed and then to mingle afterward.

The next day, for the start of the festival, we had a concert featuring the choirs that weren’t competing called the Friendship Concert. The highlight for me was a Vocal Jazz Choir from Mexico named Vox Populi Project, who effortlessly used a variety of techniques to make their voices sound like different instruments like trumpet, sax, trombone. They sang pieces from Duke Ellington, Enrique Segarra and more, including an a capella rendition of Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” They looked like they were having a blast on stage, and put everyone at ease and relaxed for the competition the next day.

Competition and Communication

The competition day was filled with a lot of music, workshops and lectures from conductors and composers. While we were competing, we had the chance to talk with members of the other choirs. Though we were the only choir from the United States, many of us were able to communicate well with the others, since most of them were university students and could speak English. We also had a couple of students who spoke Spanish, so there was barely any communication barrier throughout the competition.

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Oregon Symphony: borrowed batons

Guest conductors lead orchestra’s October concerts

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Guest conductor Jun Märkl dashed out onto the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stage, cueing the snare drummers mid-stride as he hopped up onto the podium and launched the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi—your Oregon Symphony Orchestra—into our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience and most of the orchestra got to their feet, hats in hands, everyone singing or at least humming. Classy move, Märkl.

Märkl continued the October 1st concert with a few words about the OSO’s world premiere of its latest commission, Chamber Music by Living Composer Katherine Balch. “It’s a special piece,” Märkl said. “This orchestra is very committed to new music and to creating new music.” He gestured to the full orchestra and joked about the seemingly contradictory title: “you may wonder why we have such a big orchestra here.” Balch’s music, he explained, is meant to convey a chamber-like intimacy in which we might “come together and discuss certain things, whispering to each other.”

Märkl also issued a light-hearted warning: “there will be no melody, but very beautiful sound experiences, very unique.” A good warning for an audience which is adventurous, sure, but generally in more of a Messiaen sort of direction; Balch’s music was sparse and, as promised, amelodic. Yet it was a compelling amelodicism, a shimmering sonic blanket quilted from microswaths of richly colored acoustic fabrics, harmonic in an aggressively non-functional way, halfway between the John Adamses. Waves of dazzling brass, swelling out from muted trumpets and trombone glissandi, surging across the stage to the horns. A sine tone emerged from a pair of intent trumpets and threaded its way around the orchestra through wavering winds and spectralist strings. The sudden ending was ruined, perhaps, by an overhanging cymbal (quickly muted).

Märkl’s conducting style was equally well-suited to Haydn as to Balch: a light, precise, attentive approach that had him leaning into each section, carefully communicating dynamics and character around the orchestra. It paid off early in the short symphony (No. 83, aka “The Hen”) with an exquisite, Westworldy theme that shimmered around the first movement (Haydn’s myriad brief symphonies are packed with such delights). The two of these back-to-back are just about everything I love about this orchestra: cool, stylish, brave, confident, afraid of no music new or old.

Jun Märkl conducted the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Christiane Höhne

Copland’s piano concerto opens with a bold, dissonant brass fanfare—that Big Iconic American Sound—and the OSO brass delivered the gooseflesh as they always do. Soloist Inon Barnatan came out all Americana with a clustery, Cowellesque solo and a bunch of boogie-woogie business, his playing loudly graceful, never thundering but never timid. The concerto’s overtly Gershwinesque moments are all so much cleaner than actual Gershwin—that familiar whitewashed Copland aura—but Barnatan grooved it up and dressed it down. Winds and brass got into weird Dixieland multi-soloist passages, super corny stuff but played well, all of it no doubt directed (in jest perhaps) Bernsteinward. If it had been just a little dirtier, if the folkishness and syncopations had gone a little further in a Khachaturian/Bartók direction, this might have been a truly great piano concerto. Ah, but then luscious strings bring back that tortured tritoney melody and a recurring, distinctly non-jazzy clarinet solo, the return of the brass all massive and Milhaudy—that’s when we hear the true Copland, the modernist hiding inside the populist.

Barnatan’s solo encore blew me away, an inventive set of variations on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” the timeless tune emerging slowly from behind mega-fast flourishes and cascades of Messiaenic post-tonal strangeness.

Inon Barnatan performed with the Oregon Symphony

It’s easy to pick on poor Brahms, born in the wrong decade, always looking over his shoulder, always fighting the future, perched perilously on Beethoven’s shoulders, invariably building better than he knew. He’s at his best when he can match his knack for witty musical ingenuity to his heartfelt gemütlichkeit and sublimated sturm und drang, which is why his symphonies are better than his piano music (#sorrynotsorry). Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick said of the Fourth Symphony, “it is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

String players seem especially fond of Brahms, and the OSO’s strings played with warmth and a playful gravity; the winds got all dark and chewy, with a restrained melancholy like Tchaikovsky in a warmer climate. Hearing this symphony an hour after Haydn’s brought to mind the composer’s fundamentally nostalgic gaze, this last Romantic, the first neo-Classicist. Rapid mood changes suffuse the symphony, but it’s never anything too drastic — Dionysus well restrained by the more sober Apollo, two gods relaxing in a warm cabin in the forest with a stack of Handel records. After a stirring third movement that got every Yes fan in the audience all excited, the closing movement arrived with its enduring passacaglia, a low and hypnotic flute solo from Martha Long, and finally some damn trombone action, a beautiful trio supported by horns over sweet low basses, a gooey, fudgey Brahms brownie.

Eastern European Excursion

On October 14, OSO presented its 17th performance of the season—a season which started barely a month ago—and celebrated the release of its new album Aspects of America (featuring Kenji Bunch’s Aspects of an Elephant, commissioned and premiered by the OSO last year). The evening featured no American composers though (not even Bernstein), instead offering two suites from Polish composers, a concerto by a Finnish composer, and a symphony by a Russian composer. You’d think such a lineup would be unbearably dreary (especially on such a balmy mid-autumn Portland evening), but the music mostly played against Western stereotypes. Wojciech Kilar’s exciting and pastoral Orawa contrasts with the more dramatically sinister music he is best known for, and Witold Lutosławski’s playful Little Suite similarly contrasts with his better-known, more bombastic orchestral works. Meanwhile, dour old Dmitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is a very a personal ode to joy, a merry celebration of the end of the brutal second world war. Sibelius will, of course, always be Sibelius.

Guest conductor Michał Nesterowicz, scorning both podium and music stand, stood there in his long dark coat and led the orchestra in Lutosławski’s modernistic folk suite from memory. After the little drum rolls, piccolo solo, and savage pulsations of “Fife” and the oboe duet against galloping brass “POW” chords of “Polka,” the “Song” featured solos by clarinet, flute, and oboe, with low pizzicato strings under distant trumpet fanfares, brooding bassoons, and a soaring melody in the violins. The closing “Dance” started out all tromp-trompy before plunging subito into some deliriously gorgeous string melody straight out of Hollywood, passing to lovely oboe and insanely beautiful brass, creeping up on a sudden ending like a whirling child collapsing to the floor after spinning in exuberant circles.

Nesterowicz deigned to bring out a music stand for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, soloist Karen Gomyo afoot at his elbow. Through frosty muted violin chords and snowy candlelit clarinet, Gomyo floated defiantly on the concerto’s mercurial, tragic-heroic theme. The adagio brought on lovely winds and a superbly bel canto horn section underneath the violin’s tortured, virtuosic love song. The allegro’s 16th-note triplets, jagged barrelling rhythms, and high harmonics: the proud, boastful displays of a suitor, Sibelius in love, a shivering Romeo in a frozen garden, Cusack on the driveway with his eternal boombox, Cyrano with his mortal head wound.

I checked the program to discover who had inspired this towering, tantric orgy of frustrated desire—the face who launched those thousand notes—and learned that what we’d just heard was the composer’s bittersweet farewell to an instrument he had tried—and failed—to woo and master. No wonder his concerto sounded so forlorn! This intense narrative quality shone all through the wonderful performance given by Gomyo, Nesterowicz, and OSO that night—a large-scale counterpart to the ersatz chamber concerto violinist Jennifer Frautschi made out of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at CMNW this summer.

Karen Gomyo played Sibelius with the OSO.

You can hardly be blamed for thinking of vampires when you think of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar—as one of the century’s most adroit dual film-concert composers, he’s largely known outside the concert hall for his ominously delightful score to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and dozens of other soundtracks, including a few for real-life vampire Roman Polanski). But Orawa, for string orchestra, ratchets down the drama to depict the scythed grass and shepherd dances of Poland’s Tatra Mountains. A perpetuo moto violin solo from concertmaster Sarah Kwak hovered over shimmering violins, toggling back and forth between a pair of close tonal centers, a little like Miles Davis’s “So What.” Suddenly the strings started sawing away, tramping on the harvest, a European hoedown, Bartók meets Copland, then big closing chords and the whole orchestra shouting “hey!” It sounded like film music, of course, which is to say it was music with emotional depth and a good balance between dramatic momentum and evocative tone painting. It was over practically before it started, making me want to run home and listen to Kilar’s magnificent Magnificat.

Apparently a decade of purges and war were enough to take some of the bite out of Shostakovich’s signature satirical symphonic style. His ninth—in a simultaneous celebration and rejection of Beethovenisch neunheit—is joyful, sure, but also rather unbeethovenically brief and jolly. Nesterowicz conducted from memory again as a sunny piccolo solo opened the symphony, highlighted by summery snare drum and spry solo trombone; later, solo violin contended with punchy brass; a clarinet solo became a duet over strolling low pizzicati, and the soloing soon spread to flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet. (There are a handful of great orchestral composers whom OSO plays regularly and brilliantly—Mahler, Haydn, Stravinsky—and Shosty is probably the best of these). In the largo, the low brass got their moment, leading to a long, slow solo from bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood that brought us finally around to the allegretto’s Haydnisch cavorting and Felliniesque circus routine, a light fast coda of jugglers and sword swallowers, a big troika climax, ta-da!

Coming Soon

OSO has a whole mess of Tchaikovsky coming your way in the next few weeks. This weekend, it’s his damoclean Fourth Symphony, opened by still more Bernstein (may his centennial never end!) and Split, Andrew Norman’s piano-vs-orchestra melee, composed for Gabriel Kahane’s dad Jeffrey. November opens with three performances of Doug Fitch’s puppet production of Petrushka; those concerts feature yet another Haydn symphony along with some Walton and Honegger. Then, on November 8th, superstar composer-arranger-conductor Steve Hackman (of Brahms v. Radiohead and Bartók v. Björk fame) brings another of his pop-classical mashups to the Schnitz: this time, Tchaikovsky faces off against Drake.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com

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