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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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by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Opening night at the final classical concert of the Oregon Symphony season showcased two masterful works bursting with the drama and imagination that make composers Gustav Mahler and Kurt Weill especially popular today. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D  and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins were not popular in their own times and places, however. 

Mahler’s audiences at the premiere in Budapest in 1889 were confused and overtly put off by the unconventional work. The 29-year-old, who had been engaged in his conducting career for almost a decade, went on to make numerous changes until the formal publication in 1888, with the “final” version completed in 1896 (although tweaked by Mahler for years to come). The year it premiered, Mahler, born an Austro-Bohemian, also received the conducting post he had long coveted, the Vienna Hofoper (Vienna Opera). He balanced composing and conducting for the rest of his short life. 

Storm Large joined the Oregon Symphony for Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in 2012. Photo: John Rudoff.

Two generations later, Kurt Weill was experiencing tremendous success in the German Weimar (post World War I) culture as a composer of stage works. Born in Germany in 1900, his professional career blossomed in the 1920 – 1930 period. Though he composed several traditional “classical” works, which showed influences of Mahler and Stravinsky, Weill earned popularity for his politically and socially charged stage works, one-act opera, vocal music and musical theater.  

But by the time he completed his Seven Deadly Sins, the Weimar republic had collapsed, Hitler came to power, and Weill’s music was reviled in Nazi Germany. Mahler’s earlier music was also labeled degenerate and banned. Both composers were Jewish and subjected to the anti-Semitic social/political climate in their homelands. As Jews were not allowed to hold high positions in Vienna in 1889, Mahler “converted” to Roman Catholicism. 

Weill fled the country in 1933, taking his art to Paris, where Seven Deadly Sins was commissioned and premiered that year. The rebirth of Mahler’s music would come after World War II, aided by an American conductor named Bernstein. 

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‘Cycles of Eternity’: In Mulieribus spins out a winner

Portland vocal ensemble's new recording features music by contemporary choral composers

by BRUCE BROWNE

A great CD needs to have at least four components: first, an excellent group of musician-singers; second, a great acoustical space; third, a gifted producer and fourth, a superb recording engineer. The latest release by In Mulieribus, Cycles of Eternity, boasts all these attributes.

  1. The nine women represented on the CD (some are on only a few tracks; there are usually seven total in concert) are first-rate singers, able to sing in the highest and lowest ranges with tonal beauty and nuance.
  2. The Proto Cathedral of St. James the Greater, in Vancouver, Washington, is one of the finest acoustical spaces in the Pacific Northwest. This recording takes full advantage of its resplendent ring time, which supports the singers’ voices throughout their ranges. 
  3. & 4. Producer Blake Applegate and recording engineer Rod Evenson are a talented duo who together help provide balance and focus throughout the recording process. Applegate is a long time director of Cantores in Ecclesia, and this year was guest director with Cappella Romana; Evenson has recorded most groups in town at live performances, and for CD.

This CD’s focus is a departure for the Portland women’s vocal ensemble, representing choral works by 21st century (and a few late 20th century) composers instead of the Medieval and Renaissance works that dominated their four previous recordings. Several have been commissioned over the past years by IM, and get their first “hearing” here. It’s a first class selection of composers, reflecting what’s been going on in the past thirty years on the choral scene, without pandering to the vox populi of, say, the Whitacre/ Lauridsen/ Gjeilo orbit. The former two are likely the most performed choral composers in the past 25 years.

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Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

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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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