MusicWatch Weekly: Musical Estivation 

Your compact guide to this week’s slim musical pickings 

It’s been a little quiet around here lately, with so few classical/jazz/world music concerts that we couldn’t muster enough words to fill a weekly preview last week, and not much more this week. Better to be outside anyway, and if you need noise, well, there’s always the presidential campaign to tune into. But fear not, the music scene begins to revive next week, and we’ll provide your guide. And as always, if you know of other musical events of interest to ArtsWatch readers, please add them to the comments section below. We now return to our regularly scheduled estivation.

Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale (l) joined Hunter Noack at the other piano in the landscape of Portland's Director Park.

Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale (l) joined Hunter Noack at the other piano in the landscape of Portland’s Director Park.

“In a Landscape”
August 31, Stein-Boozier Barn at Memorial Park, Wilsonville, and September 1, Cathedral Park, Portland.
Read my ArtsWatch preview of the last two shows in Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s inventive outdoor series, the first featuring chamber music (Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert), the second sporting piano music by Ravel, Cage, Schumann, Liszt and poetry readings.

Waterfront Concert
September 1
Tom McCall Waterfront Park, 1020 Naito Pkwy. Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the Oregon Symphony-sponsored annual kickoff to the classical music season, featuring many of the city’s choirs, orchestras and ensembles; click the link above for the full lineup. Running from 1230 pm till dark, it will be simulcast on All Classical Portland (KQAC 89.9 fm), although you won’t be able to see the fireworks that way….

Music and fireworks will light up Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park Thursday.

Music and fireworks will light up Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park Thursday at the Oregon Symphony’s annual outdoor extravaganza.

Bobby McFerrin Get Well Concert & Community CircleSong 
September 1
Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave. Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the audience-participation edition of the monthly Festival of the Unknown dedicated to the ailing singer and spearheaded by one of his proteges.

Farewell Bash
September 1 & 2
Vie de Boheme, 1530 SE 7th Avenue, Portland.
The southeast industrial district’s little wine bar that hosted so many classical, jazz and world music shows bids adieu, a victim of the city’s arts affordability crisis.

Lamiae Naki and Nat Hulskamp perform at Seffarine's concert.

Lamiae Naki and Nat Hulskamp perform at Seffarine’s concert.

Seffarine, with Randy Porter
September 2
Jimmy Mak’s, 221 NW 10th Ave. Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the splendid Middle Eastern music duo’s collaboration with the eminent Portland jazz pianist and other fine musicians.

September 4-6
Horning’s Hideout, North Plains.
The annual gathering of tribes includes some fine folk-world music oriented musicians (Delhi2Dublin, cellist Adam Hurst, and more as part of a multi sensory experience in a sylvan setting.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Music News & Notes

Recent happenings in Oregon music

Been awhile since we rounded up recent news in Oregon classical music, so here’s some items that lit up our screens in recent months.

Laurels and Plaudits

• Composition Champ. University of Oregon composition professor Robert Kyr was one of four American composers to win this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters $10,000 Arts and Letters Award for outstanding artistic achievement by a composer who has arrived at his or her own voice.

Mia Hall Miller

Mia Hall Miller

Wonder Woman. Pacific Youth Choir founder and director Mia Hall Miller received the Oregon Symphony’s 2016 Schnitzer Wonder Award, a $10,000 prize that “honors an individual or organization that directly works to build community through the next generation of artists and/or student musicians.” Now in its 13th year, PYC boasts almost 300 singers in 10 choirs.

Violin Virtuosa. Portland violinist Fumika Mizuno is the only Oregonian selected among the 109 young musicians (age 16-19) from across the country for the fourth annual National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. It’s her second stint with the NYO, which (after a training residency in New York) performed with the great pianist Emanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall in July, then played concerts led by Valery Gergiev at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in Montpellier France, Copenhagen, and Prague.

• Operatic ascent. Portland tenor A.J. Glueckert was one of six winners of the $10,000 George London awards, one of America’s oldest vocal competitions.

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams. 

Eugene jazz musician Tony Glausi. Photo: Tyler Sams.

Trumpeter on the rise. Eugene jazz trumpeter and composer Tony Glausi has been named the recipient of the 2016-17 Laurie Frink Career Grant, a biennial $10,000 award to give a “young brass player an opportunity for serious study or to undertake a creative project.” One of America’s most revered brass instrument teachers, Frink, who died in 2013, played in some of the finest jazz orchestras (including those of Maria Schneider, Benny Goodman Orchestra, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, John Hollenbeck, Darcy James Argue and more), performed with Broadway orchestras, co-wrote the definitive book on trumpet improvisation, and mentored some of today’s top trumpeters including Dave Douglas and Ambrose Akinmusire. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch profile of Glausi.

The Marylhurst Chamber Choir performs at the 2016 Cork International Choral Festival.

Choral Voyagers. Marylhurst University’s premiere choral ensemble, the Marylhurst Chamber Choir, was one of only 34 choirs from around the world, and the only American choir invited to perform at the Cork International Choir Festival in Cork, Ireland in May. It placed third to choirs from Sweden and Turkey in a close contest for the placed third in the festival’s top honor, the Fleischmann Award and won the Peace Award for the choir that best embodied the spirit of the festival.


Keep the Fire Burning

Save theater that deals with urgent issues from languishing in 'development hell’

  • July 5: Police shoot and kill a black man, Alton Sterling, for selling CDs in front of a convenience store.
  • July 6: Police shoot and kill a black man, Philando Castile, as he reaches for his driver’s license. He bleeds to death as his girlfriend captures it on her phone and beams it to Facebook.
  • July 6: A black man is harassed, profiled, and beaten by police in an American college town torn by racial and class division. Protesters march; violence erupts.
  • July 7: A black man, Micah Xavier Johnson, opens fire on police officers, killing five.

The third entry on the list happened only onstage, in a workshop production of Running on Fire. I saw black playwright Aurin Squire’s searing new play-in-progress at Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center just hours after police killed those two unresisting black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, the latest in a long, horrific and continuing string. As in Squire’s play, Facebook videos played a critical role in igniting national outrage.

Next morning, I awoke to grimmer news on the radio: echoes of gunshots recorded in Dallas on July 7, during a peaceful protest of those killings. Five police officers were murdered in the ambush, others wounded in what could have been a scene from Running on Fire.

Running on Fire's workshop production at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

‘Running on Fire’ in workshop production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

For those of us participating in the O’Neill institute, the coincidence of the real events and what was happening on stage was wrenchingly clear. We couldn’t stop discussing it, and how the country seemed to be returning to a state of rage and division reminiscent of Los Angeles’s riots over the police beating of Rodney King. We were in the disturbing center of creative cHal’s.

Isn’t that what we want art to do — speak to society’s deepest and most urgent issues? For those few of us who saw it, Running on Fire could and did help us understand and emotionally process the terrible events of those few days. But there’s little chance that others, especially here in Oregon, will be able to see the show until months (or maybe years) after the news has grown cold.

Meanwhile, the world races by at the speed of a tweet. Heated exchanges about today’s racial justice crisis constantly ricochet around the internet or the dinner table and pulsate through political campaigns. All could be bolstered or complicated by the insights Running on Fire could provide and the responses it would provoke.

But for the play to make an impact, someone would have to trust it right now, as it is. Someone needs to put this play on stage now. And this flies in the face of America’s typical “development hell” model for new plays, which often requires scripts to be workshopped and refined for years before they finally get in front of an audience.)

Of course, development is important. Incubators like the O’Neill Center, which for five decades has nurtured nascent plays by emerging playwrights, from August Wilson’s earliest triumphs through Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and more, play a vital role in American theatre. Squire’s new play will likely benefit from refinement and reworking, based on the feedback possible only after a play hits the boards — the kind he’s now received from the O’Neill workshop performance.

But how long should a play gestate? As playwright Christopher Hampton recently said, “I think the problem for writers is your play tends to get workshopped to death. These are the things that people haven’t done before or said before or expressed in this particular way, and people are alarmed. And they should be. My fear [is] that it all takes away those jagged edges that really cut into the audience.”

Those jagged edges are what get people talking. And when a play confronts the issues that people are talking about, producers and theaters should value timely passion over the quest for perfection.

Even with its early-version flaws, Running on Fire already crackles with visceral immediacy and in-your-face intimacy. However, if it takes three or more years for Squire’s artistic response to American racism to reach Oregon, or even Broadway, America loses a critical opportunity to grapple — on a deeper level than journalism or politics provide — with one of its most urgent issues. If there is going to be more development, let it happen fast. The shootings continue. Black men are dying now. America needs to see Running on Fire right now. Not three years from now.

A version of this story appeared earlier in TDF Stages.

William Byrd Festival: Fervid finale

Cantores in Ecclesia's closing concert creates a cohesive combination of words and music


“Which is more important? Words or music?”

Having recently seen Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, in which the central theme is this very question, I have been pondering this point. As a choral conductor, my art is dealing with words and music. And so, unlike the inconclusive conclusion to that question in the Strauss opera, I have the definitive answer – at least for today.

William Byrd.

Words convey thoughts and ideas, to elicit response, to provoke emotional reaction. Choral music set to text, unless the text is your Toyota owner’s manual, is often set in a manner that complements or enhances the understanding of words.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams also led Cantores in Ecclesia at last year’s William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

All theorizing on the above points is for naught, however, unless the performance itself is revelatory. Correct notes, careful tuning and the exacting entrances and releases are essential as part of an ideal artistic experience. This is what Cantores in Ecclesia provided in the final concert of Portland’s annual William Byrd Festival last Sunday. The settings of biblical texts they sang show how enmeshed Byrd and his English Renaissance colleagues were in the words, from the overall arching form and long phrases down to the smallest detail. Several structural factors, stylistic norms, contributed to the emotional expression.

The pews at northeast Portland’s beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral were filled with the loyal festival goers who braved the 102 degree heat in the window-cooled sanctuary. Had Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams known, he might have programmed Thomas Morley’s “Fire, Fire” just for comedy relief. We were treated instead to the glorious choral and organ works of Byrd and his English contemporaries and successors. The construction of the program was very intelligent, especially, in hindsight, given the draining effect of the temperature, with excellent balance offering wonderful range of emotional involvement.


“In a Landscape”: Music, memory and Oregon beauty

Pianist Hunter Noack's new project brings classical music to Oregon's outdoors

Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood….
The moon moves along above tall oak trees

A few years ago,  Hunter Noack invited trees to an indoor concert. The Oregon-born pianist was performing Transfigured Night at London’s Barbican Center, and Arnold Schoenberg’s famous 1899 composition musically depicted a poem set in a dark forest — so Noack brought in 50 trees, playing the music as audience and actors dramatizing the story wandered through the impromptu indoor arbor.

“People responded to hearing classical music in a different environment,” Noack recalled, “so I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to to use the actual outdoors?’” in a performance.

Noack performed at Tryon Creek State Park in Portland. Photo: Bobby Bonaparte.

Noack performed at Tryon Creek State Park in Portland. Photo: Bobby Bonaparte.

This month, Noack, who now lives in Portland, is realizing that idea with “In a Landscape,” nine performances of classical and contemporary music in outdoor locations in the Portland area.  Instead of bringing the trees to the music, he’s bringing music to the trees. But the series, which began this past weekend and continues through September 1, is more than just alfresco classical music. It also uses today’s technology to augment the musical experience and connects today’s listeners (including some new to classical music) to a vital part of America’s artistic heritage, and to its perpetrator’s own childhood.


Treasures from the Desert, part 2: Singing Shakespeare

Ideas for Portland from Santa Fe's renowned summer choral festival


“The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds…Let no such man be trusted.”

While the works of Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson are the only surviving settings from Shakespeare’s time, the playwright’s words have been set and sung throughout the ages since. Shakespeare was indeed “[held] in perfection but a little moment” for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s August 4 performance of “Sounds and Sweet Airs,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was outstanding.

Guest director Richard Sparks and 16 members of the Desert Chorale brought to bear their mutual authority, bringing out the subtle and elegant settings of some of the finest chorale settings of Shakespeare’s text. Outstanding among the selections were the Songs of Ariel by the Swiss composer Frank Martin and Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams (coincidentally, the same 20th century composers paired in Portland’s Oregon Repertory Singers’ concert this past spring).

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare's words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

Richard Sparks led the Desert Chorale in choral settings of Shakespeare’s words. Photo: Chelsea Call.

The Vaughan Williams was the best I’ve ever heard, live or otherwise. One of the gifts of the 20th century English composer’s a cappella choral music is its accessibility to singers and audience. Vaughan Williams’s technique balances a rich and varied harmonic [palette] with an intuitive sense of what is organic and grateful for the human voice and ear,” writes San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor and scholar David Conte of these pieces.

Richard Sparks reminded me that their creation was almost “not to be.” In 1951, Vaughn Williams was asked, along with other elite composers of his time, to compose a test piece for the British Federation of Music Festivals choral competition. Choirs would be rated on their rendering of the new compositions. Vaughan Williams was disinclined to compose for this pedagogical purpose and replied no further about it. There arrived, however, at the home of Armstrong Gibbs, competition director, a bound package with these Shakespeare settings and a note.

“Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them… Yours ever R.V.W.”

The Martin cycle of 1950 is considered among the best works the choral world has to offer, the sine qua non of Shakespeare settings in a choral cycle. Each movement is drawn from The Tempest, with its vibrant characters such as Caliban and Ariel, and here, Martin seized many opportunities for colorful musical representations. The choir held in check their shared vocal puissance, rather hinting at it so as to capitalize on other facets: variety of articulation, dynamic shadings and the biggest challenge of the cycle, persnickety vertical tuning. (This essential idea refers to each singer’s tuning his or her part to the ones above and below them, en passant.)

The fourth movement, “We are three men of Sin,” is one of the most striking. It demands a fine alto soloist, and there she was: Mitzi Westra, alto out of Indianapolis, possessor of an orotund vocal sound, was just the right choice for this signal solo. Just as handsome here were the rich supporting sounds of the tenors and basses.

Other movements, such as “Where the Bee sucks” and “Before you can say come and go,” are saturated with both verbal and matching musical onomatopoeia. In the former, the singers all use “mmm” on fast passages to become temporary “bees.” The latter has Shakespeare’s text zipping through our ears in a flash — and it’s over in a moment of fleeting joy.


OBF Composers Symposium: Collaboration, co-creativity, community

University of Oregon program shows composers how to build connections and reach audiences 

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

When Shannon Lauriston, a student at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia,  checked in on first day of the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium this summer, she felt an “instant sense of community.” Lauriston and 90 other composers and guest artists were about to set course on an intense 12 day journey of collaboration and co-creativity that would culminate in the preparation and public performance of 76 compositions — 55 of them world premieres.

Since 1990, the biennial University of Oregon symposium has brought together composers, composers who perform, musicians who compose, vocalists, instrumentalists, conductors, and emerging directors of music ensembles to participate in a new kind of culture for the creation and performance of contemporary music.

“We provide a creative context for our participants to interact and engage in creating and performing new works, but equally important, to deeply connect with each other in order to develop future projects and collaborations across the boundaries of their cities, states, and nations,” symposium director Robert Kyr explains. “We are not merely a composing and performing organization: we are committed to stimulating and encouraging new kinds of collaborations, and a wealth of future opportunities for co-creation, creative interaction, and community-building.”

Composer/performer Rebecca Larkin (flute) plays "Monkey Puzzel" by Nathan Engelmann.

Composer/performer Rebecca Larkin (flute) plays “Monkey Puzzel” by Nathan Engelmann.

The symposium envisions the composer as an individual who can take on various tasks needed to pull off collaborative performances of new music: conducting, performing in an ensemble, curating, administering, presenting and more. Such skills are essential today, when audiences who want to hear contemporary music and composers who want to be heard face limited opportunities to do either.

“Today, the most prominent emerging composers are wearing all of these hats and they understand that collaboration and community-building are essential to the artistic (as well as professional) success of their creative endeavors,” observes Kyr, who also chairs the UO music school’s composition department. He sees this as a welcome change from what he experienced in the latter part of the last century when there was often a “painfully strict divide between composers and performers.” Now, Kyr suggests, “many composers are more complete musicians, who are committed to building strong, collaborative communities of composers, performers, and listeners. And in the future, nearly all composers will probably be engaged in this way.”


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