Brett Campbell

 

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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Eugene Symphony music director search: Next star?

Orchestra's successful track record of finding exciting young conductors has made it a national model

On Thursday, the Eugene Symphony auditions its final candidate for music director — in front of an audience of thousands at its Hult Center performance. Francesco Lecce-Chong will be the third finalist, chosen from dozens of worthy applicants, to lead the orchestra this season.

Francesco Lecce-Chong, rehearsing with Eugene Symphony musicians, leads the orchestra Thursday. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

Choosing a new Eugene Symphony music director is big news in Oregon, of course, but it’s also national news. That’s because the orchestra in a middling sized town far from cultural centers has launched the careers of three important American conductors:

• Marin Alsop, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, in Baltimore, who regularly conducts the world’s greatest orchestras.

• Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who now leads the Fort Worth Symphony and his own Latin American classical music ensemble and guest conducts major orchestras around the world.

• Giancarlo Guerrero, who’s winning an international reputation for showcasing new music with his Nashville Symphony, recently helping the orchestra collect a trove of Grammies for some of the new abundant new American music the symphony has performed and recorded during his tenure. (It’s too early to tell where Guerrero’s successor, Danail Rachev, whose eight-year term ends this spring, will go next.)

Former ESO music director Giancarlo Guerrero has energized the Nashville Symphony with new American music. Photo: Amanda L. Smith.

And the intensive, exhaustive process used to choose them all, largely created by local lawyer and arts supporter Roger Saydack, has become a national model — “he literally wrote the book” on picking a music director, says ESO executive director Scott Freck, noting that Saydack wrote the League of American Orchestras’ manual on orchestra MD searches. So who becomes the next ESO artistic leader matters — not just here, but nationally.

“There’s no more exciting time in the life of an orchestra than when we go through this process,” Freck says. “Every time we start from scratch. It’s a time of introspection and renewal.” Every seven or so years (which is about as long most rising stars would want to stay with a mid-sized orchestra), the search for its next director forces ESO to consider what kind of orchestra it wants to be, what music it wants to play, what role it wants to play in its community. Here’s how Eugene Symphony makes the magic happen — and what to expect from the three finalists if one of them is chosen when the process concludes this spring.

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Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant

After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet

The Persian poet Rumi told a version of the ancient story of three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. In Rumi’s telling, the three men, not blind but each holding a small, dim candle, meet in a dark room. Each discovers one section of what turns out be the elephant—tusk, tail, trunk—and decides that one thing is what the elephant is: smooth and hard or thick and long or a hairy worm. They argue over who’s right, and as they move closer together, the combined light of their candles enables them finally to put their pieces together and see the big picture.

Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch loves that version so much that he made it the basis for Aspects of an Elephant, the substantial new orchestral work that the Oregon Symphony commissioned and premieres this month.

“On one hand, it seemed timely, with the polarized political climate these days and how everyone’s talking in the dark without consideration of another perspective,” Bunch explains. “Also an orchestra is a really good metaphor for how diversity can be a strength. You have all these different instruments that seem like they don’t belong together, but when you get them all working together, it makes this amazing music.”

Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

It’s also an apt metaphor for Bunch’s own music and career. If you only heard him play and sing in his bluegrass band, you’d peg him as a folkie/Americana musician. If you spotted him in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony or with his Thunder Egg Consort, you’d think of him as a performing classical music violist. If you witnessed him teaching young Oregonians, you’d see him as a valuable mentor for the next generation. And if you heard any of the dozens of original works he’s created over the last quarter century for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instrumentalists, and singers, you’d think of him as one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms like the blues and European-based classical music.

The truth is, Bunch is all those things. He’s also a Portland native (1991 graduate of Wilson High), a Juilliard School graduate and 22-year-New Yorker, and, as of 2013, a Portlander again — and to hear him tell it, for good.

“In the three and a half years since Monica and I moved back, neither of us could have imagined it could have turned out this well for both of us,” Bunch marvels. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate and grateful. We’ve both been able to be involved in music community, people have been so welcoming and embraced us. It’s felt like the right decision for so many reasons. The kids love it here. We’re never going anywhere else!”

And why not? Despite initial trepidation that leaving New York, the center of America’s contemporary classical music universe, might limit his burgeoning career, Bunch and his wife, the accomplished classical pianist Monica Ohuchi, quickly became mainstays of Oregon’s contemporary classical music scene. And now with two of the biggest new works of his career about to hit the stage at the same time in Portland and Eugene, Bunch’s career has soared to an even higher summit than he reached in New York—and back then such observers as The New York Times and The New Yorker identified him as one of America’s most promising young composers, his works increasingly performed around the country and beyond.

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Portland State choirs: American classics and global rhythms

Internationally acclaimed singers perform American and world music in two concerts this month

The drums are pounding, a couple dozen choristers are frenetically dancing and ululating onstage, and the audience is clapping and cheering as the global beats erupt around them. When the song is over, the church reverberates with applause.

This isn’t your grandfather’s choral concert. Although it happened last spring, this could be almost any Portland State University choral concert from the past few years. Since director Ethan Sperry arrived in 2010, the university’s choral program has dramatically expanded in quality, range of repertoire, size, acclaim and, as last summer’s performance of a Sperry arrangement of a South Indian song demonstrated, sheer thrills.

Ethan Sperry leads PSU choirs in global rhythms.

The excitement extends beyond Portland. This summer, the chamber choir embarks for Bali for its latest international competition. On March 17, it will showcase that repertoire here in its hometown. And this weekend, it joins fellow Portland State choirs in a concert featuring American choral classics.

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In Mulieribus preview: from medieval to madrigals

Women's vocal ensemble's tenth anniversary season continues with madrigals, new music — and men

Like so many of the best musical ideas, Portland’s finest female vocal ensemble got its start in a bar. Recently relocated to Portland from Chicago, Anna Song was unwinding with her new friends from the choir Cantores in Ecclesia after a 2006 rehearsal when another Portland classical singer, Tuesday Rupp, met up with them after a rehearsal with a different group. They got to chatting, discovered a shared love for early music, and a desire to sing more intimate ancient repertoire for women’s voices. “If you choose the songs,” Rupp, a veteran of the city’s classical scene, told Song, “I’ve got the singers.”

A few days later, several of the city’s top female singers sang together at Song’s house  and enjoyed it so much that they decided to do it again — and again. “This is really so fun, we sound pretty good, and we’re having a good time” Song remembers thinking. “Why don’t we put on a concert?”

Anna Song, center, leads In Mulieribus in concerts March 3 and 4.

They rented southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri church for a solstice performance in December 2006. “I’ll take care of the logistics,” Rupp said, “and you take care of the music.” They needed one more thing: a name. A male friend suggested In Mulieribus for the all female ensemble, a Latin phrase meaning “among women.” Spreading the word via email in those pre-social media days, they were surprised when 150 people showed up. “This is crazy,” thought Song, accustomed to the rigid Chicago and East Coast classical music establishments. “It’s so easy!”

They certainly make it look that way. In the decade since that first informal concert, In Mulieribus has drawn ecstatic reviews and ardent applause from Portland listeners enraptured by their radiant voices and intrigued by the rarely performed repertoire they’ve sung several times per year for the past decade.

This weekend, Song leads In Mulieribus in tenth anniversary concerts that display both those resplendent voices and the group’s enthusiastic pursuit of ever-different sounds, including a first-ever venture into madrigals and a newly commissioned work by an Oregon composer.

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PDX Jazz Festival preview: Signs of life

Portland jazz scene remains vital despite popular club's sudden closure

The word is out: Jazz is dead. Why, it says so in La La Land, one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Even legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff died last month, shortly after Portland’s — and one of America’s — finest jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s, closed its doors for the last time, the latest in a string (Ivories, Brasserie Montmartre, Blue Monk, etc.) in recent years. Jazz record sales are tiny compared to hip hop and rock, and it’s been decades since the music occupied the center of popular culture. So long jazz, been good to know ya.

Not so fast. Jazz music and musicians are insinuating themselves into pop music (Kendrick Lamar) and movies (La La Land, Miles Ahead). Jazz musicians are embracing contemporary pop sounds and winning new audiences without selling out (Robert Glasper, the Bad Plus, Kamasi Washington, who played to a packed, diverse crowd at Roseland ballroom in December, and many others). Contemporary classical and pop musicians, including the late David Bowie on his last album, are including jazz musicians and ingredients in their work. In Portland, reports jazz’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. The music still resounds in the city’s cafes and clubs, and the 2017 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, which begins this weekend, offers one of its strongest lineups (see our recommendations below).

Mel Brown performs and leads ensembles at PDX Jazz Festival.

Rather than a crisis, what Portland jazz is going through now is actually “a hiccup,” says veteran drummer Mel Brown, a Jimmy Mak’s mainstay who’s leading several bands at this year’s festival. He worries that jazz mostly happens in restaurants with no stages rather than dedicated venues like Jimmy Mak’s. But having grown up in Portland playing jazz in Northeast Portland’s legendary Jumptown scene as a teenager, he’s seen these cycles before.

“We had a lot of clubs here, then rock came and everything went away,” Brown recalls of the days before went off to study with legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, perform with Motown, tour nationally before returning to Portland in the mid-1970s. “Now it’s trying to come back. We’ve got enough people pushing, but it takes time to really get the whole thing together.”

Kamasi Washington’s band drew a big, diverse audience to Portland’s Roseland Theater in December.

Jimmy Mak’s closing “does not reflect on the state of jazz in Portland,” insists festival director Don Lucoff, noting that the club closed not because it was faltering financially but because its building sold and its owner fell ill with terminal cancer before he could complete plans it to a new location this month. “Jimmy’s numbers, [local jazz radio station] KMHD’s numbers were up, our sales are up. It’s nothing to do with people not being interested in the music.” The festival shifted its Jimmy Mak’s performances to other venues, and the club’s former managers are busily putting together a new incarnation that jazz lovers hope will open before the year’s out.

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When Oregon met Arvo

With help from composer Arvo Pärt, Royce Saltzman wanted the 1994 Oregon Bach Festival to be his grand finale. It was nearly a disaster.

Editor’s note: From Feb. 5-12, Portland choir Cappella Romana presents Portland’s Arvo Pärt Festival honoring the world’s most performed living composer. The festival includes a chamber music concert by Third Angle New Music, several choral concerts by Cappella Romana, a film biography that airs this coming Sunday, February 5, and more. ArtsWatch is running a series of stories about the 81-year-old Estonian legend, beginning with a story by University of Oregon student Justin Graff, recounting his encounter with Pärt in Estonia and continuing with this story, originally published in Oregon Quarterly, about the Oregon Bach Festival’s commission of a new work from Pärt in 1994. Details on the festival events follow.

As Royce Saltzman boarded the plane that would take him to Berlin, he couldn’t help feeling anxious. Saltzman, executive director of the Oregon Bach Festival for a quarter century, had devoted his life to music. As a singer, his instrument had been his voice; as a conductor, his choir.

Now Saltzman played people — the performers, staff, funders, media, volunteers, and dozens of others who came together each year to create a two-week extravaganza of more than 40 separate concerts, lectures, and workshops that each summer drew audiences of more than 30,000. Note by note, year by year, he’d cautiously nurtured the annual classical music event into what the Los Angeles Times called “a musical enterprise virtually without equal in America.” His skills had earned him many accolades, including leadership of the U.S. and international choral organizations.

Roycs Saltzman

Yet as the plane rose from the Eugene airport in January 1993, Saltzman knew he was approaching a critical juncture. The Festival had made its reputation through sharp performances of centuries-old masterworks. But for the 25th anniversary edition to be held in June 1994, Saltzman wanted to add a new dimension: an original piece by a major contemporary composer. And he had someone special in mind: a 56-year-old Estonian whom many regarded as the world’s preeminent active composer. His name was Arvo Pärt, and securing a new work from him might propel the Oregon Bach Festival into the first rank of classical music institutions. A successful premiere concert from so prominent a musician would encourage other composers to submit their new works to the OBF — and that, in turn, could make it an internationally recognized beacon of great new music as well as great old music.
The ’94 festival was special to the 65-year-old Saltzman for another reason: it would be his last as executive director; he’d just announced his retirement. If he could get Pärt, Saltzman have an opportunity that every musician craves: to go out with a grand finale.

Only one thing stood in the way: Arvo Pärt himself.

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