Brett Campbell

 

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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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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