Brett Campbell

 

Loving the chaos

Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s annual traveling summer series In A Landscape brings classical music to Oregon’s wild places, helps bridge urban-rural divide

Hunter Noack grew up in Sunriver cherishing both classical music and outdoor Oregon. His mother, Lori Noack, directed the Sunriver Music Festival, which each year included top American classical pianists. “Growing up in central Oregon, I spent all my time outside when I wasn’t practicing,” Noack remembered. 

For the past few years, Noack, now 30, has found a unique way to combine his twin passions. Beginning last month and extending through September, Noack will be bringing a 9-foot Steinway piano and 300 pairs of wireless headphones to some of Oregon’s most beautiful outdoor spaces. While audience members gaze out onto scenic vistas, they’ll hear him performing live piano music by Romantic composers like Liszt, impressionists such as Ravel and modernists including John Cage, whose placid 1948 composition In a Landscape gave the series its name. 

From his Sunriver childhood, Noack followed a prodigy’s path: Michigan’s famed Interlochen Arts Academy for high school, then music conservatories in San Francisco and London. In 2013, a mutual friend introduced him to Portland pianist Thomas Lauderdale after a concert there by his band Pink Martini. They became friends and then partners, which brought Noack back to Oregon to live with him. Since then, Noack has performed in various settings, including shows with Oregon Ballet Theatre and Northwest Dance Project. Read my ArtsWatch feature on Noack and IaL’s origins.

Hunter Noack at Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Photo by Bridget Baker.
Hunter Noack at Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Photo by Bridget Baker.

Another World

But his passion project has been In a Landscape. The wireless headphones (funded by a grant from Portland philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer) allowed him to re-create a concert hall sound (for “persnickety classical music fans”), unimpeded by ambient noise such as wind, bawling babies and arid open-air acoustics. And it permitted listeners to enjoy classical music amid natural beauty, rather than confined inside a formal concert hall.

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Oregon Bach Festival: riding out the storm

Venerable music institution mounts its 49th summer festival amid leadership transition and uncertain future

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival has lately been looking a bit like a Blah-ch Festival. If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership. Happily, that’s on the way, with the festival having laid off controversial executive director Janelle McCoy and reversed her much-derided decision to institute a rotating directorship or leadership by committee (the last two years), instead of replacing the respected artistic director she railroaded out of town for never-explained reasons

This year’s program, like last year’s, was put together by an artistic committee of music faculty and other UO personnel chaired by McCoy. Her job was made no easier by university-imposed cutbacks that left the festival nearly bereft of star power and big splashy productions and commissions. Yet some highlights shine — if you know where to look.

Beyond Bach

While named after an 18th century master, the festival does provide some space for new sounds, or updates on old ones. My top recommendation for the entire festival: Portland composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s The Territory, which we reviewed here after its second Portland performance. Kudos to the festival for featuring a major recent work by a top Oregon composer. Grant and jazz ensemble perform in Soreng Theater July 12.

On July 2 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of America’s most acclaimed new music ensembles, Brooklyn Rider string quartet, plays one of the greatest of all chamber works, Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, plus five new commissions on the subject of healing written by some of today’s leading composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun.

Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Portland Cello Project has been making a classical instrument hip for over a decade. They also play Beethoven, but mostly new music, and it more often comes from hip hop, rock and other pop artists. A big draw wherever it goes in on its many tours, the ensemble returns to OBF June 29 with a program featuring music by Radiohead, John Coltrane, and more — including, of course, J.S. Bach himself. 

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Makrokosmos Project: expansive vision

Fifth annual festival of 20th and 21st century music creates and relies on community

When Portland native Stephanie Ho first heard Makrokosmos, the massive, four-volume cycle of amplified piano and percussion music written in the 1970s by one of America’s greatest living composers, George Crumb, she thought, “I haven’t lived on this Earth until I heard this music,” she remembered. 

Years after that epiphany at Oberlin College’s prestigious music school, Ho and her husband and piano duo partner Saar Ahuvia decided to play Crumb’s mega-masterwork to inaugurate their first Portland festival — which they named.

Makrokosmos Project turned out to be an apt name for their annual five-hour, come-and-go-as-you-please music marathon, which happens for the fifth time from 5 to 10 p.m. this Thursday, June 27, at Portland’s Vestas Building. A macrocosm is a social body made of smaller compounds — in this case, a series of five 30- to 45-minute concerts with breaks for locally sourced vino, vittles, and conversation. And the expansiveness the name suggests also alludes to the broad audience the festival seeks for new and often unfamiliar music by creating a relaxed, communal experience.

E Pluribus Unum

The festival started because Ho and Ahuvia, a married couple who live in New York City, visited Ho’s native Portland each summer to catch up with family — and nature. Their friend Harold Gray, the Portland State University professor and pianist who founded Portland Piano International, suggested that “instead of only doing so much hiking, we should do something musical, too,” Ahuvia recalled.

Stephanie & Saar performing in Portland.

After all, as DUO Stephanie & Saar, the pair of powerhouse pianists had earned a national reputation for their performances of classical and contemporary music. Since moving to New York in 2004, they’d staged performances in “strange venues” like World Financial Center and One Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, Bank of America building in LA, (le) poisson rouge in NYC (the old Village Gate – a grungy indie-rock club), Knockdown Center in Queens (an old doorknob factory that has been transformed into a gallery and performance space), and the basement bar of the now closed Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. “If any place was up to that, it was Portland,” which is all about keeping it weird.

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The Sound of Changing Times

ArtsWatch welcomes new music editor; predecessor reflects on Oregon’s blossoming contemporary classical music scene.

A concert is never about only the music. Otherwise we’d just listen to a recording on headphones. At Pyxis Quartet’s Feb 15 concert at Portland’s Old Church, which on that rainy evening felt like the most consequential performance I’ve attended in Portland, the music offered some splendid moments. But there was much more at stake.

The most important was the event that sparked it. The concert was an artistic response to the horrifying homicidal 2017 stabbings on Portland’s Max train. One of the survivors, poet Micah Fletcher, already known around Portland State University as a superlative poet even before he became famous in a way no one wants, performed his original poetry, which also inspired all the compositions on the program, including Nicholas Yandell’s opening Crisis Actor.

Nicholas Yandell and Pyxis Quartet perform at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Milton Bliss.
Nicholas Yandell and Pyxis Quartet perform at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Milton Bliss.

Just before the composer intoned Fletcher’s words as part of the performance, the lighting turned blood red. That chilling extra-musical effect (made possible, not incidentally, by contributions to the Old Church that allowed a new lighting system that dramatically enhances the music performed in that essential Oregon arts venue) added a dimension to the performance by evoking the bloody attack that inspired it.

Both poetry and music were commissioned by Pyxis’s parent organization, 45th Parallel Universe. That is: they paid some of Portland’s most accomplished artists to create this artistic response to the terrifying crime against our community — a wholly admirable act of artistic and community vision. They put their money where their morals were. They saw their community attacked — and they responded in the best way artists can, with original creations that directly defied it. Many moments in that concert rose to the occasion, and as a whole, it helped me engage with the still unresolved feelings the killings provoked.

What made that possible was the vision of 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer, who conceived the concert, composers Yandell, Kenji Bunch, Bonnie Miksch and Texu Kim, supporters like the invaluable and indefatigable Ronnie Lacroute, ticket buyers, and above all poet Fletcher, who insisted on being more than a victim. These committed community members deserve our deepest gratitude.

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Music Notes: transitions & triumphs

Summer roundup of recent news in Oregon classical and jazz music

Oregon’s leading classical music public radio station All Classical Portland has launched a brand-new second radio network, for children. The International Children’s Arts Network (ICAN) is a 24-hour radio service and, the station announcement says, is the first of its kind in the US. Designed for young listeners, the network features music, poems, and literature from around the world, locally produced and curated by All Classical Portland. “ICAN provides an audio destination where kids can be inspired to listen, dance, color outside the lines, and create their own adventures,” ICAN Program Manager Sarah Zwinklis said in a press release. “Much of the content on the network will be presented by children – we believe in the power of these young voices.” Listen online at allclassical.org/ican or through an HD Radio.

The station also operates a free arts journalism mentorship program that selects three high school age (ages 15-18) students from Oregon & SW Washington to be Youth Roving Reporters each year. From September – June, they’ll learn how to use recording equipment in the field, attend two arts events, conduct interviews with artistic leaders or performers, and learn to produce their interviews for radio broadcast. As ArtsWatch has previously reported, it also operates JOY: an Artist in Residence program, which includes a young artist residency.

Laurels & Shekels

• Speaking of All Classical Portland, Metropolitan Youth Symphony presented the station its 2019 Musical Hero Award in April. The station’s On Deck with Young Musicians program has featured dozens of MYS musicians in performances and interviews with All Classical Portland host and producer Christa Wessel.

• The Oregon Symphony presented its 2019 Schnitzer Wonder Award to Mariachi Una Voz of the Hillsboro School District. Launched in 2010 and including strings, brass, and singing, the group’s mission is to promote cultural understanding and community unity through music education and performance. Participation is free and open to all Hillsboro middle- and high-school students. It has performed on more than 100 school and community events, performing in venues as diverse as the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts theaters, the Moda Center, major regional cultural festivals, and schools, libraries and hospitals.

“Every child who wishes to learn to play a musical instrument should have the opportunity,” said founder and manager Dan Bosshardt in a press release. “The students that find their way to our group have inspiring personal stories. They have very supportive families that often do not have the financial means to provide transportation, instruments, lessons, or private instruction.”

• ArtsWatch congratulates a pair of Portland choral music leaders who just scored major national awards from Chorus America. Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon won the 2019 Botto Award named after Chanticleer founder Louis Botto. She “has captained a bold organizational shift—from its original mission exploring links between music, art, poetry, and theatre, to a new focus exclusively on presenting concerts that promote meaningful social change.”

Katherine FitzGibbon leading Resonance Ensemble

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At its best, theater makes magic happen onstage. Fairy tales do the same on the page. So I had high hopes for a pair of short-run May Portland theater productions that updated magical children’s tales. Unfortunately, while each provided sporadic moments of stage sorcery, neither could overcome decidedly un-enchanting scripts.

Mermaid Meets Music Man

Portland indie theater company Broken Planetarium specializes in cheerfully low budget enchantment. (“We’re trying to get beyond ‘scrappy,’ impresaria Laura Dunn noted in a quick pre-show fundraising appeal.) Its fabulous Atlantis made rough magic from cheekily low-fi design, a compelling story set on a post-climate catastrophe flooded New York City rooftop, and Dunn’s delightful original folk songs.

Laura Christina Dunn in ‘Sirens of Coos Bay.’ Photo: Sophia Diaz.

BP’s latest show, Sirens of Coos Bay, takes H.C. Andersen’s ever-popular The Little Mermaid to the 1990s southern Oregon coast town, where the curious creature from the deep (“I want stories I have never known,” LM sings at the outset) encounters a local rock band whose frontman must fall in love with her if she’s to survive on dry land. 

Scriptwriter Dunn draws on her immigrant mother’s memories of the setting’s time and place to weave in evocative details about the timber wars, spotted owl, economic decline. Torn between the bickering boys in the land band, on one fin, and on the other, a female a cappella chorus of fellow mermaids who can’t understand why she’d give up undersea immortality, she also confronts her lover’s own demons, depression and addiction induced by his hometown’s sense of isolation and limited horizons.

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Classical music programs largely consist of endlessly recycled old classics by composers who are (a) European, (b) male, and (c) white. Florence Price is (e) none of the above. The 20th century African American composer does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s (d) — dead. 

But today, Price’s music is, against all odds, coming back to life, including Tuesday when Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs one of her symphonies. What’s more, Price’s resurrection is inspiring today’s young composers to create new music, and the concert features some of that, too — including a world premiere just composed by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays music of Florence Price, Katie Palka and more Tuesday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first symphony by an African-American woman ever to be performed by a major American orchestra. (Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about Price and other neglected African American composers.)

But Price’s music, like that of so many composers of color in her time, was ignored by most orchestras and seldom played after her death in 1953. When one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores, and ignited an ongoing rediscovery of her music.  

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