Brett Campbell


MusicWatch Weekly: pan man returns

Steel pan master and composer Andy Akiho's Chamber Music Northwest appearances highlight Oregon's sizzling musical weekend

Andy Akiho’s previous Chamber Music Northwest appearances with percussionist pal Ian Rosenbaum revealed both performance virtuosity — on the 39-year-old New Yorker’s unlikely instrument, the steel pan — and also a distinctive and appealing compositional imagination. In one of the summer festival’s highlights, Akiho’s Wednesday night Alberta Rose Theatre showcase of originals written over the past decade combines his steely pan with various other instruments: flute, marimba, violin, magnets (!). His half-hour long LIgNEouS Suite features string quartet and marimba, sometimes played with dowels, and a really big rubber band.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre last year. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Akiho’s LIgNEouS Suite repeats at Thursday’s CMNW concert at Reed College featuring the Dover Quartet, along with one of Haydn’s spirited Op. 20 string quartets and Borodoni’s second quartet. Akiho’s Deciduous repeats at Friday’s New@Noon program at Portland State, which includes recent music by contemporary composers, including a pair of thirty-somethings: Roger Zare’s Escher Triptych for violin and cello, inspired by three M.C. Escher prints, and William Neace’s jazzy little Variance for solo trumpet. The show also includes Steven Hoey’s Other Voice for solo bassoon and renowned Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov’s haunting Mariel for cello and marimba.

CMNW’s weekend concerts Saturday at Reed College and Sunday at Portland State look way back to the early 20th century in French music, including compositions by that Russian exile, Igor Stravinsky. His delightfully Faustian narrated septet Soldier’s Tale ranges from rags to Russian folk to faux jazz and other devilish rhythms. Along with Stravinsky’s three little clarinet solos from the same period, the show features another theatrical arrangement, Jacques Ibert’s The Gardener of Samos, Debussy’s slinky Syrinx for solo flute, and a rarity by another early 20th century French composer who died too young (26), Jean Cartan’s perky, Poulencian Sonatine for flute and clarinet.

Composer Andy Akiho.

More Debussy — his powerful valedictory Violin Sonata — highlights CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows, along with still another welcome new Andy Akiho original, Lost on Chiaroscuro Street for clarinet, violin, cello and piano — the same instrumentation Messiaen famously used for his landmark Quartet for the End of Time, which partly inspired Akiho’s melodious creation. Alexander Sitkovetsky and CMNW’s own sterling clarinetist David Shifrin lead a strong cast of performers.


Third Angle New Music: New directions

New music ensemble's leadership transition offers opportunity for reboot

Third Angle New Music’s final 2017-18 season concert was titled “A Fond Farewell.” The title came from an Elliott Smith song, appropriate for a concert devoted to re-imaginings of the late Portland singer/songwriter/guitarist’s music.

But it was appropriate for another reason: the season’s end also marked the end of the 17-year tenure of 3A’s artistic director, Ron Blessinger, who had run the organization for more than half of its existence. (Given the abruptness of the February 20 announcement and his departure, I’m not so sure about the “fond” part.)

Whatever the circumstances, Blessinger has a lot to be proud of. Board president David Machado praised Blessinger’s “innovative programming” and extensively chronicled his and the organization’s joint achievements during his tenure, including recordings, dozens of commissions of new works, residencies with leading composers, a new record label and commissioning fund, tours to Asia and New York, collaborations with other arts institutions, and much more.

Former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger is now directing 45th Parallel.

For me, another hugely valuable contribution that took place during his tenure was the Frozen Music series that reimagined where and what a concert could be. Third Angle’s team of Blessinger, executive director Lisa Volle and all its musicians and staffers, going back to its previous incarnation as Virtuosi Della Rosa, deserve credit for making Third Angle one of Oregon’s most valuable musical assets, one of the two longtime beacons (along with its younger comrade FearNoMusic) of contemporary classical music — and a sustainable, forward-looking Oregon arts institution we should all care about.

But after 17 years, it’s time for a new direction. The position announcement was circulated nationally, the organization’s board of directors has appointed a selection committee to winnow the applications, and the board will choose the next AD this summer.

As with any turnover in leadership, this one presents a tremendous opportunity for organizational reinvention. Whoever succeeds Blessinger at Third Angle will bring a new vision, and I hope they choose one that acknowledges several important changes—and challenges—in Oregon’s musical landscape since the last search 17 years ago.

None of these challenges and shortcomings are unique to Third Angle; they plague most of our classical and contemporary classical music institutions. But Third Angle is a special institution in Oregon arts, and its rare impending leadership change presents a dandy opportunity to discuss them.


MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.


MusicWatch Weekly: festivalpalooza!

Festivals erupt this week in Oregon with Makrokosmos, Oregon Bach Festival, Astoria Music Festival, Salem World Beat Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, PianoPushPlay and more

Acclaimed piano duo Stephanie & Saar once again return to Northwest Portland’s Vestas building Thursday to collaborate with Portland Percussion Group and other Portland performers in a five-hour marathon show. This time, the Makrokosmos Project 4: Dadapalooza program features one of the mid-20th century’s groundbreaking works: John Cage’s justly celebrated Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Even listeners befuddled by Cage’s later detour into aleatoric (chance) music can appreciate the restrained, mysterious beauty the composer conjured from his modifications of the piano’s strings and hammers.

Stephanie & Saar performed with Portland Percussion Group last year at Makrokosmos.

The cheerfully overstuffed extravaganza also includes another 20th century classic: the third Makrokosmos composition by project patron saint and Pulitzer Prize winner George Crumb: Music for a Summer Evening, written in 1974 for two amplified pianos and percussion, plus new music by Gregory Hutter, Karen Tanaka, Portland’s Texu Kim (the Portland composer’s dazzling 300+ MicroVariations on a Bach Theme, one of my favorite local discoveries this year) Wang Jie and more. It’s the kind of event where you can wander in and out as you please, sample food and wine, the better to sample unfamiliar yet often enticing music of our time. Search our site for our extensive previous coverage to get an idea of what it’s like.

A piece that would have fit snugly into Dadapalooza would have been George Antheil’s 1924 Ballet Mecanique, whose sirens, airplane propellers, percussion-laced orchestra player piano, and crazy rhythms — scandalized Paris, sparked riots, delighted surrealists and avant gardists, and made the young American composer’s reputation as the Bad Boy of Music, which became the apt title of his autobiography. After returning to America, he wrote an advice column (!), collaborated with actress Hedy Lamarr on the technology that much later made wi-fi possible (for which he was short-shrifted in last year’s documentary Bombshell) and mostly wrote film music.

But recently, Portland violinist and Antheil scholar Hannah Leland learned about some previously unknown music from the mid-1940s that Antheil wrote for a German-American violinist friend. With her pianist partner Aimee Fincher, their Duo Odéon (named after the Paris street where Antheil, who died in 1959, lived above Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore) recorded a splendid new Sono Luminus album of that music and more. Their album release party at Portland’s Santé Bar, 411 Northwest Park Avenue, features Antheil’s exuberant, virtuosic mid-century music from their ebullient new recording Specter — think sassy Prokofiev with an American twist. The bar is creating two craft cocktails, the Odéon and Specter, for the occasion.

PianoPushPlay’s annual free kickoff event at the Portland Art museum courtyard brings together ten donated pianos that have been wonderfully weirded out by local artists, and they’re played by various local pianists (classical, jazz, pop) and even random passersby who sign up. They keep them out in the courtyard for anyone to play as they walk by, and at summer’s end they’re auctioned off and donated to local  schools, community centers etc. Paste the name into the OAW search field to read our previous coverage.

Pianopushplay founder Megan McGeorge poses next to a piano she donated to the cause at last summer’s opening event.

Saxophonic Sequels, Festival Fever

“It cries, sighs and dreams,” wrote Berlioz. “It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.” The French romantic composer was talking about the then-newly invented saxophone. We had an outbreak of sax attacks a couple weeks back and now the saxes return Wednesday night with Chamber Music Northwest’s musical-theatrical show Adolphe Sax and the Creation of the Saxophone at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The latest in CMNW’s recent run of theater about music, this one features actor Harold Dixon, the dynamic young Kenari Saxophone Quartet, and a story with live music about Sax’s life and instrument.

Kenari Quartet performs at Chamber Music Northwest

Kenari plays recent pieces for sax quartet by Corey Dundee (inspired by the young composer’s struggle with depression) and John Leszczynski plus a viola solo by the great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and a duo by Daniel Temkin (inspired by a childhood memory box) on Friday’s New@Noon concert at PSU, which also has a viola solo and violin duo.


The Art of the Pandol

An Oregonian from Sri Lanka strives to create America’s first giant, Sri Lankan-style Buddhist shrine -- in his Beaverton garage


One hour to sunset. Beaverton’s Sri Lankan New Year festivities known as Vesak pick up momentum. Cashew curry, dal curry, fish balls crowd the counter while coconut sambal and a pot of spiced rice march up the driveway and through the garage into the kitchen, carried by women from Washington County’s small Sri Lankan community, which numbers about 500.

In the garage, a growing squadron of fellow Sri Lankan-Americans offers advice to the two engineers working on a seafoam blue drum criss-crossed with inch-wide strips of shiny metal, coiled like a geometric Minoan bracelet around Cleopatra’s arm. About four feet across and ten inches in diameter, the drum is part of a mechanism that resembles a player piano roll.

“Screwdriver! No! Flathead!”

The only English words as one engineer’s son digs through a tool box. The squadron of eight Sri Lankan-American men staying out of the way erupts in advice, but we don’t understand Sinhalese and the two engineers continue dancing around each other; quiet, efficient, calm.

About one million blue coated wires connect the drum mechanism to the twelve-foot tall yellow shrine looming over the driveway, blocking the house’s front door, because it’s also ten feet wide.

Thirty minutes to sunset, marking the beginning of Vesak on May 26th this year — the celebration of Buddha’s life, enlightenment and passing — to be inaugurated with the lighting of this massive yellow shrine.

Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi and his Flasher

The shrine is called a Pandol. The seafoam blue drum mechanism is called a Flasher. Four-hand drawn and painted four by four foot panels show the story of Sama: one panel for each chapter. A banner at the bottom credits the family and community members who helped design, draw and build this work of sacred art. Buddha perches atop, serenely blessing all 1,800 lights attached to the panorama that honors him. Above him flutters an American flag.

Driven by the drum mechanism with its 79 bicycle spokes, like cat whiskers brushing against the criss-crossed metal strips as it rotates, the lights will dance around the shrine like a kaleidoscope. If, that is, everything goes as planned.

Red ribbon warns us to stay on this side of the Pandol-in-progress. One of us is on the forbidden side snapping pictures of the sheets of three by three foot, precisely drawn plans stapled to the garage wall. A white piece of 8.5 X 11 inch paper hanging on the red ribbon instructs, “In case of fire: Dump sand stored in the pail on the fire.” If this doesn’t work, “Contact Jeevan immediately and / or call 911.”

This is the story of Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi’s quest to create what he believes to be the first Sri Lankan Pandol in America.

Jeevan is not, officially, an Artist. He has no degree in art. He does not speak of his “practice” or “making work” or hang out in Portland’s art hipster neighborhoods. He earns a living for himself and his family by working as a civil engineer in a Washington county tech firm.

But if you define artist as someone who creates art, who sees the world in a different and more original way than most others, who diligently, even obsessively, applies craft and skill to that slant vision, and who builds an object of beauty that dazzles and moves others, what other word applies?

What if you yearn for an art form from your birth land and there’s nothing like it around you in your new homeland? What if you’re meticulously rigorous as an engineer, but your artistic sensibility doesn’t quite fit the corporate culture mold? Someone who steps outside the expected stereotypes — tech company number cruncher, middle-class suburbanite, first-generation-Asian- immigrant professional success story? How long does it take to make Art in a new home where it has never existed before?

For Jeevan, it took six months, or possibly 37 years. He has 15 minutes left.


‘World Builders’ review: when worlds collide

Badass Theatre Company’s production of Johnna Adams’s play explores alternative mental universes before falling back down to earth

As the audience files in, Whitney and Max sit silently at opposite corners of the stage, lost in thought.

In fact, we soon learn they’re deeply immersed in their respective fantasy worlds — the condition that, Whitney informs us in relatively clunky blatant exposition, landed them both in this sterile patient lounge. As part of a research project they’ve been reluctantly enrolled in, they and the (unseen) other patients must take their prescribed experimental medication intended to eliminate their fantasizing — or face involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Dunkin and Tidd in Badass Theatre’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

But what if they don’t want to give up their imaginary worlds? And even if the treatment works, how will these damaged people cope with mundane, messy reality?

That’s the provocative set-up for Johnna Adams’s World Builders, which Badass Theatre is staging through June at southeast Portland’s Shaking the Tree Theatre. It’s a fascinating concept and a promising play that offers tantalizing glimpses into alternative mental realities, before losing its way when reality returns.


MusicWatch Weekly: festival season

Summer festivals bring old and new sounds to Oregon -- including music by Oregon composers

It’s not just the thermometer that’s heating up — summer music festival season is officially underway, bringing with it music by Oregon composers.

Wednesday’s Astoria Music Festival concert at Astoria’s Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center, 588 16th Street, features a dozen works by Cascadia Composers, including David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, ArtsWatch’s own Jeff Winslow and Matthew Andrews, and more. Some of the performers — including Delgani String Quartet, pianist Asya Gulua, singer Catherine Olson and more — are among Oregon’s finest.

Monica Huggett and Adam LaMotte headline Astoria Music Festival’s baroque concert.

Other Astoria shows feature a whole lotta Bach, including Saturday’s highly recommended all-Bach concert featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist and director Monica Huggett, fellow PBO violinist Adam LaMotte, star baroque flutist Janet See, and excellent keyboardist Janet Coleman on harpsichord. Chopin Competition gold medalist Ilya Kazantsev and award winning cellist Sergey Antonov play more Bach Saturday, with live painting by Astoria’s own Darren Orange. Antonov and pianist Cary Lewis perform Bach’s viola da gamba and harpsichord sonatas on equal tempered cello and piano Tuesday. Kazantsev plays a Rachmaninoff recital Thursday, and joins other festival stars in Shostakovich and Schubert Friday. Puccini’s classic opera Tosca Sunday afternoon at lovely Liberty Theatre features several Met soloists including Richard Keller and Angela Brown.

The other major highly recommended, locally sourced concert this week is Saturday night’s Cult of Orpheus album release at southeast Portland’s TaborSpace. The new album from one of Oregon’s most distinctive musical voices, Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s splendid new Sacred Works I: The Emerald Tablet touches on subjects from Sufi song cycle to medieval mystery cults and more. Check out some tracks at the Cult’s YouTube channel.

Resonance Ensemble brings to a close a fascinating season that squarely and obliquely addressed some of today’s most pressing issues with “BODIES” Sunday afternoon at northeast Portland’s Cerimon House, 5131 NE 23rd Ave. An official event of Pride Northwest, the program includes selections from a major recent work Considering Matthew Shepard, by Craig Hella Johnson, who directs the superb Austin-based vocal ensemble Conspirare. Other highlights include music from Dominick DiOrio’s The Visible World, a composition about marriage equality from diverse historical perspectives and from composer Laura Kaminsky’s As One. Along with the top-notch Resonance regulars, guests include erstwhile Portlander Stephen Marc Beaudoin back on a visit to sing pieces by gay composers, pianist David Saffert, and Resonance poet in residence S. Renee Mitchell performing an original work written for this show.

Resonance Ensemble performs Sunday afternoon at Portland’s Cerimon House.

Astoria isn’t the only coastal musical extravaganza. Siletz Bay Music Festival tees off at Lincoln City Cultural Center with a Wednesday recital featuring violinist Asi Matathias and pianist Victor Stanislavsky in sonatas by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Saint Saens and more. Tuesday’s show offers Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata and Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak with pianist Mei-Ting Sun in Cesar Franck’s ever-popular Violin Sonata. Sun returns for Friday’s all-Beethoven piano recital and Sunday’s chamber music concert featuring 20th century sounds by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Francis Poulenc’s sparkling Clarinet Sonata featuring the great jazz clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Kwak then joins the fun for Schumann’s famous Piano Quintet.