Brett Campbell

 

Cascadia Composers preview: From Cascadia to Cuba… and back

Culminating a cultural and musical exchange, weekend concerts feature contemporary music by composers from Oregon and Cuba

In July 2015, when President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, Portland composer David Bernstein thought about music. Not the usual suspects when talking about one of the Western hemisphere’s most important musical traditions — jazz, Buena Vista Social Club, Desi Arnaz — but contemporary classical music.

It was a natural for Bernstein, who’d helped found Cascadia Composers almost a decade ago to provide performance, promotion, networking and other opportunities for composers in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, the organization had become one of the nation’s largest (60 members) and most successful, staging dozens of concerts featuring over 300 homegrown compositions in Portland and Eugene.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana last November. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

But they’d never attempted anything as ambitious as what Bernstein had in mind: sending Oregon composers to Cuba to have their music performed by Cuban musicians, and reciprocating with a Portland concert featuring American musicians playing works by today’s Cuban composers. Neither had anyone else.

“I’d known music of some Cuban composers like Leo Brouwer,” Bernstein explains. “I’d hear it played at various contemporary music festivals. I wanted to get to know what it was like now, and I wanted to get to know them.”

FearNoMusic performs music from Cuba on Friday.

This Friday, Bernstein’s vision becomes reality when Cascadia enlists the veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic to perform eight pieces by leading Cuban composers, with two in attendance, at its “New Pearls from the Antilles” concert. The following evening, they’ll hear new music inspired by Oregon at a second Cascadia Composers concert.

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Lou Harrison at 100: a global musical legacy, born in Oregon

Portland classical music groups have shamefully ignored the music of Oregon's greatest composer in his centennial year — but that's about to change

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 we becOme

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John Cage: “Many Happy Returns” for Lou Harrison

One hundred years ago Sunday, one of America’s greatest and most influential composers was born in Portland. This spring, concerts around the world are honoring the colorful musical legacy of Lou Harrison, who spent the first decade of his life here, and returned often after creating some of the 20th century’s most seductive and trailblazing sounds.

Lou Harrison (l) and his life partner and fellow Oregonian Bill Colvig.

During this birthday week alone, over a dozen tribute shows will be performed in California, where Harrison lived most of his long and fruitful life until his death at 85 in 2003. Other concerts have happened or will occur in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and many other places — including Lapland! Yet so far as we’re aware, not a single Portland classical orchestra or ensemble has bothered to program any of the music of the greatest composer to emerge from Portland during his centennial year. After all, Harrison’s significance is widely recognized elsewhere (as for example in a recent article by The New Yorker magazine classical music critic Alex Ross (the magazine ran a long feature profile of Harrison before he died), and a segment on National Public Radio) as a major figure in American music.

More important, Lou Harrison’s music matters now. We shouldn’t listen today merely because he was born in Portland, but because so much is simply beautiful: melodic, danceable, global in its influences and impact, played and danced to all around the country. He was an emotional guy, and his music bristles with emotion — sometimes angry, sometimes melancholy, often joyful, and all colors in between. That’s why it’ll always connect with listeners who come to music for an emotional, not just an intellectual experience.

Fortunately, an important Harrison event is happening here in June. We’ll get to that in a moment, along with information on how ArtsWatch can help Oregon musicians who want to delight listeners with the pioneering, tuneful, forward-looking music of Oregon’s greatest composer during the remainder of this centennial year — and beyond.

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‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure

New Portland composers' collective's debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences

Though their music differed from each other’s, Portland composers Stacey Philipps, Jennifer Wright and Lisa Ann Marsh had a lot in common. All three were accomplished members of the composers groups Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane Composers. Unlike too many 20th century classical composers, all three cared as much about what the audience experienced as what the creators wanted to express.

“We all appreciated each other’s music but also each other’s ability to make concerts engaging for audiences as well as esthetically appealing for all of us,” Philipps recalls. And they shared one more thing.

Burn After Listening’s Philipps, Marsh, Wright.

“We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

They decided to form a group called Burn After Listening. This weekend’s debut multimedia performances, Fire and Ice, promise to look nothing like a traditional classical music concert.

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Third Angle preview: Natural sounds

New music ensemble's 'Solo Hikes' shows feature nature-inspired commissions from Oregon composers

Oregonians love nature as much as they love music, so to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Third Angle New Music artistic director Ron Blessinger commissioned three Oregon composers to write solo pieces for members of the ensemble. “I told them that the subject was nature,” he says, “and they could take that word and run with it in any direction they wanted.”

A hallmark of nature is its diversity, so it’s appropriate that for Third Angle’s “Solo Hikes” concerts Thursday and Friday, the trio chose divergent paths. Portland composer Christina Rusnak, who has participated in various programs that put composers into national parks and other natural spaces, might equip her backpack with staff paper or a digital recorder to help her recall sounds she encounters on a hike. But rather than directly imitating the crackle of a campfire, she’s likelier to write music that conveys “the feeling of the fire… more like the sound of the experience” rather than the fire itself,” she explains. “As artists, we interpret the landscape.” Read Rusnak’s ArtsWatch story on landscape music.

Composer Christina Rusnak.

Rusnak’s Glacier Blue opens by evoking the feeling of approaching the mountains of Glacier National Park earlier this year, “a trip I’ve been wanting to take for at least 10 years, so there’s a lot of anticipation in the first movement,” she explains. The second movement uses plucked strings to suggest twinkling stars in the night sky over the mountains. Her composition’s emphasis on the highest and lowest ranges of the cello, performed by Marilyn de Oliveira, reflects the mountains’ soaring heights and the depths of the park’s waters.

The common element, she later realized: “the idea that mountains look blue, glacial ice looks blue, the waters can be teal or aquamarine.” When she would visit Oregon from Texas, Rusnak noticed that “Most places don’t have skies this blue. And in Glacier, they’re even bluer. So I decided to write about the night sky.”

Two nocturnal movements from Mahler’s seventh symphony proved inspirational, as did advice from a cellist friend in Pennsylvania — and substantial input from Third Angle’s cellist herself. “I told her, ‘Make it your own.’ How you communicate the feeling, the essence of the piece to the audience is more important than getting that dotted eight note perfect. It’s been great to work with her. She’s a tremendous musician.”

Weaving a Web

Even before he left Portland for graduate study in 2008, Matt Marble’s music followed an ancient tradition of music influenced by nature’s patterns, drawing inspiration from botany (such as the ways leaves grow on stems), geometry, crystallography, village design, and Western esoteric traditions like alchemy.

A page from Marble’s graphic score for ‘Arachnomancy.’

“A lot of the music I was doing before I left here was so rooted in Portland’s natural environment,” like using natural objects for instruments and performing outdoors, recalls Marble, who, like Rusnak, has contributed to ArtsWatch. “I stopped doing that once I got to Princeton. As soon as I moved back here last year, I was drawn to doing that again,” as well as frequenting Mount Tabor and other Oregon natural spaces. “It’s been great to reunite with that.”

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Music News & Notes: Operatic evolutions

Opera transitions, jazz laurels, music education, and other news in Oregon music

We went months without rounding up Oregon music news before last month’s N&N — and now, so much keeps happening that we need to do it again! Remember that we often slip news about Oregon music in Bob Hicks’s weekly newsletter and on our Facebook page, and we’re always looking for news about Oregon arts to share with our readers, so please keep us posted.

Opera Theater Oregon’s next stage

Opera Theater Oregon Producing Artistic Director Katie Taylor announced that she’s tossing the keys to the next generation of Oregon upstart opera makers: a collective including composers Justin Ralls and Anne Polyakov, baritone Nicholas Meyer and new music advocate Lisa Lipton. OTO Music Director Erica Melton and Film Director Jen Wechsler will remain with the company. Taylor approached Ralls about assuming leadership of the Portland indie opera company’s during development of an upcoming OTO production of his opera, Two Yosemites, opening this summer.

Meyer (l) and Ralls at a Portland preview recital for Ralls’s upcoming opera, ‘Two Yosemites,’ co-produced by Opera Theater Oregon.

The new leaders intend to “step up to meet the demands of reinvigorating opera in today’s artistic climate,” their press announcement declares. “With fresh ideas, relevant social commentary, and a love of accessible chamber music these new provocateurs plan to make their first opera with OTO a new and engaging experience geared to make an impact. Their first performance will feature a new outdoor opera in late summer. Look out for their newsletters, updates, and performance dates in the next few weeks.”

The transition marks the next step in OTO’s evolution since its 2005 founding by Angela Niederloh and Amy Russell. Under Taylor’s two terms of leadership (2006 to 2011 and 2015–17), the company enlivened the Portland music scene by producing or co-sponsoring visionary, often playful productions of both classic and new operas, often with inventive arrangements and scripts by Taylor (who’ll now turn to finishing up a book and short experimental opers in progress) and Melton. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more information on OTO’s new direction. With relatively new arrivals Cult of Orpheus, Ping & Woof, Opera on Tap, Opera Wildwood Concert Series, and (as we’ve noted in previous stories) new directions for Portland State University’s opera program, Eugene Opera (see below) and Portland Opera, it’s an exciting time for Oregon opera.

Grant prize winner

The national Jazz Journalist Association has named Portland pianist, composer, and professor Darrell Grant as one of its 2017 Jazz Heroes, an award given to people who further the art form of jazz in their communities. Longtime Portland jazz writer Lynn Darroch will present Grant with the award at the Portland Art Museum on April 30 — International Jazz Day. The event includes PDX Jazz’s Incredible Journey of Jazz program and a performance by Grant’s MJ New Quartet, which is touring the Northwest this month.

Pianist and composer Darrell Grant.

Q&A

Speaking of one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians, you can read a fascinating interview with Grant in Chamber Music America magazine. And there’s another informative new interview with a Portland composer, Dan Senn, in asymmetry music magazine, which will particularly interest fans of the influential Fluxus movement of the 1960s. And while we’re linking to good stories about Oregon music, check out long-time Portland classical music writer James Bash’s comprehensive overview of places to catch classical music for little or no cost — a welcome antidote to a problem ArtsWatch has long bemoaned.

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45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration

ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.

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Music News & Notes

Catching up with recent news in Oregon classical music

Note: this post has been updated after news of the passing of one of America’s great musicians.

We’re usually so busy previewing and reviewing performances that we rarely have time to catch up on other news in Oregon classical music. So as winter turns to spring, here’s a roundup of a few comings and goings of important figures on the scene, honors, and opportunities. If you have more news you’d like us to consider sharing with ArtsWatch readers, please let us know.

Steven Zopfi conducted Portland Symphonic Choir in Michael Tippett’s oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time.’

Transitions

Scott Showalter

• Whither Showalter? **Updated**
The biggest news in classical music so far this year is yesterday’s sudden departure of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s already legendary Deborah Borda for the New York Philharmonic, which she ran in the 1990s. Why is this news in Oregon? Because current Oregon Symphony president Scott Showalter’s previous job was Vice President for Development of the LA Phil, following stints as Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. A classically trained pianist, Showalter is a graduate of Stanford University and UCLA and has extensive experience in fundraising, which is now the primary job of orchestra CEOs, and a big reason why the NY Phil brought back Borda, a prodigious rainmaker as well as visionary. **UPDATE**: A symphony spokesperson says that Showalter has no plans to leave the OSO, which has enjoyed record ticket sales and donations under his leadership, and that he expects Borda to do great things in New York as she did in LA.

• PSU departure
Former Portland State University Dean of the College of the Arts Robert Bucker, an esteemed choral conductor, has been named Interim Vice Provost and Dean of the Faculty at New York’s prestigious Manhattan School of Music. A search is underway for his replacement.

Stephen Zopfi.

• Choir conductor change
Portland Symphonic Choir artistic director Steven Zopfi is departing after 14 years, as a result of a scheduling conflict with his work as director of choral activities at the University of Puget Sound. A search has commenced for his successor.

• Opera recovery
As Oregon ArtsWatch was first to announce publicly (you really should be checking our Facebook page!), Eugene Opera has cancelled its productions of West Side Story and La Tragedie de Carmen scheduled for March and May. The company announced last week that a small group of supporters has jointly pledged to donate a total of $60,000 when the company receives a matching $60,000 from other donors. The combined total of $120,000 is specifically earmarked to pay existing obligations to local artists, technicians, and businesses; it will cover about 75% of the current debt of $160,000. A separate $20,000 matching grant will begin funding the company’s next season.

• New opera series
Meanwhile, a new opera-oriented series has sprung up in Portland. The  Opera Wildwood Concert Series is a project of Luigi Boccia’s Vox Artis Foundation, which seeks to establish, organize and sponsor concert and lecture series, live and studio recordings, seminars and publishing/broadcasting activities through a specialized Youtube channel, in the U.S and abroad. Vox Artis also aims to provide encouragement, training opportunities, career assistance and financial support, including scholarships and awards, to promising and talented young singers and/or scholars,” according to its press release. The inaugural concert at Portland’s Wildwood Company on 3rd Avenue featured promising young opera singers. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for the latest developments with this new company, and other news in Oregon classical music.

Opportunities

Piano Day
Pianists are invited to sign up for Portland Piano International’s Piano Day — the first such celebration in the US. For the last two years, other countries have celebrated the 88th day of the year (corresponding to the number of keys on a standard piano), March 29, in 20 cities across the globe. Now, from noon – 10pm, pianists will play a total of 1000 minutes of piano music of all genres at four locations in the Portland Metro area at different times: the studio at All Classical Radio, the atrium at Portland City Hall, the platform at the Washington Park MAX Station (260 feet underground!) and the stage at Alberta Abbey. Pianists of all ages and abilities will perform on some of the City’s best pianos. The events will be free to the public, but each performer will be raising funds from the community with a minimum goal of $10 per minute played. The funds raised will be used to support the educational programs of Portland Piano International. Sign up to play or sponsor a pianist at http://portlandpiano.org/piano-day.

Battle of the Bands.
The Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) is accepting registrations for its second annual Battle of the Bands competition, which happens Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. Eight employee bands, sponsored by their companies, will perform in front of friends, family, co-workers and a panel of celebrity judges as they vie for the title of Best Company Band and other prizes. The event will raise more than $80,000 for RACC’s annual Work for Art campaign.

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