Joseph Moog review: Will power

Portland Piano International recitalist displays determination along with dexterity


At one point in Joseph Moog’s March 13 piano recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, the 28-year old German pianist unexpectedly blanked for a split second. He expertly recovered, and it’s likely the only audience members who noticed were those who were intimately familiar with the work, Claude Debussy’s “Souvenir from The Louvre” (an alternative version of the better known Sarabande from his suite Pour le Piano.) Nonetheless, Moog went back to the top, as if Debussy had written a section repeat, and the second time played through flawlessly and with unimpaired lyricism. He was determined to get it right!

It was a telling moment. Moog seems to be a determined young man. He smiles engagingly at the audience, and speaks of himself deprecatingly, but this Portland Piano International visiting artist, who also appeared March 12 with a different program, was all business when it came time to make the piano do what he wanted.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Of course, anyone who seeks to stand on equal footing with the world’s touring piano virtuosos must be unusually strong-willed already. The thousands of hours of practicing required are only the beginning. Moog’s program on the 13th demonstrated that he has thoroughly mastered all such preliminaries.


‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ and ‘The Overview Effect’: Solo flights

A pair of theater and music combinations aim high but don't always run deep

Lisa Jura was an amazing woman. In the wake of the Nazis’ horrific November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, her Viennese parents sent her to relative safety in England as part of the Kindertransport program that saved thousands of children’s lives. The teenaged piano prodigy, who knew no one in England and brought only a single suitcase with some clothes and sheet music, survived a Blitz bombing that leveled the overcrowded London home for Jewish refugees she’d talked her way into. She took a job at a garment factory sewing soldiers’ uniforms, then leveraged her pianistic skills into a scholarship at the nation’s most prestigious music school before moving to America and eventually having a daughter who became a concert pianist herself.

That daughter, Mona Golabek, stars in the one-woman tribute to her indomitable mother, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which runs through May 1 at Portland Center Stage. Directed and adapted from Golabek’s book, The Children of Willesden Lane (written with Lee Cohen), by the veteran composer/ performer/ theater artist Hershey Felder, the production achieves Golabek’s primary goals: making audiences appreciate her mother’s extraordinary story, and raising funds and attention for her admirable educational foundation.

Mona Golabek stars in 'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

Mona Golabek stars in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

What the show, which features Golabek as narrator and pianist, does not do is add much emotional depth or understanding to this lesser known but important chapter of the story of humanity’s greatest horror.


‘The Overview Effect’ preview: Space odyssey

Portland composer/actor's new theatrical production sends audiences on a journey through inner and outer space

For as long as he can remember, Portland composer Tylor Neist wanted to be an astronaut. “I don’t even know where it came from,” he admits. Growing up in Minnesota, “I always loved space. I had space paraphernalia in the house as a child.”

Tylor Neist.

Tylor Neist.

He also loved theater. When he was eight years old, Neist played the shy, lisping Winthrop in The Music Man.But music became his main attraction, eventually leading Neist to a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied violin performance and composition.

A couple of years ago, Neist saw a film about the Overview Effect, a term coined by Frank White in his 1987 book of that title that refers to “a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface,” says Wikipedia, in which “the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”

“Everything came together,” Neist remembers — space, music, theater. “Being that I always wanted to be an astronaut, I was really inspired by the message.” He decided to create “a piece about a journey into the great unknown.” Neist’s new theatrical production, The Overview Effect, opens Friday and runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage.

Neist plays a character he calls a combination of astronomer Carl Sagan and philosopher Alan Watts. The hour-long show is set in his workshop, and also uses projections from the Hubble Space Telescope as his character’s imagination embarks on its journey.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


Third Angle New Music review: Music as meditation

Portland ensemble's showcase of music and radio conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman reveals parallels between pioneering 20th century American composers


American composers John Cage (1912-1992) and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) met at a New York Philharmonic performance of Anton von Webern’s Symphony Op 20 in 1950. After the concert, the then-24-year-old Feldman came up to Cage—a stranger, despite Feldman recognizing his face—and said, “wasn’t that beautiful?”

For both composers Webern offered a model for a new music, a new way of thinking, which was non-linear, abstract, unpredictable—a fusion of intuition and discipline.

Feldman and Cage.

Feldman and Cage.

Webern’s Movement for String Trio, Op. posth (1945), the composer’s final work, began Third Angle New Music’s March 11 concert at Portland’s Zoomtopia. Reflecting on Cage and Feldman’s first acquaintance, Webern’s distilled dissonances echoed throughout the evening. Interpolated with excerpts from Cage and Feldman’s recorded conversations from the 1960s, Third Angle’s concert offered a mosaic of the composers’ music. As Cage and Feldman noted in their conversations, to be a composer was to be “deep in thought.” This meditative abstraction is established in Webern’s opening act and is reiterated in Cage’s and Feldman’s works at key points in their lives. This concert, involving spoken dialogues and cross-historical compositions placed our attention upon the underlying forces of the composers’ creative process. And it highlighted—personally, artistically, and historically—how these two unique artists intimately overlap.


Weekly MusicWatch

Portland composer Joan Szymko's music is featured in two cities, a legendary classical pianist gets a solo showcase and so do young players in this week's Oregon music

“Oregon Stories”
April 8
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., Portland
Read my ArtsWatch preview of this intriguing new blend of Oregon history and jazz.

Oregon Guitar Quartet
April 8
Portland State University, Lincoln Recital Hall 75
Read my Willamette Week preview of the concert featuring a world premiere by Portland composer Bryan Johanson.

Oregon Symphony
April 8, Willamette University, Salem; April 9-11 Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.
“I believe that Concentric Paths, the violin concerto by Thomas Adès (born 1971) written in 2005, is the most important addition to the violin repertoire since Ligeti’s concerto appeared in 1992,” wrote prize winning young violin virtuoso Augustin Hadelich a few years back about the featured concerto on this week’s Oregon Symphony program. Hadelich, who’s performed at most of the world’s great classical music venues and won some of its top prizes, has received high accolades from his 2014 recording of Ades’s concerto, consulted with the composer about it, and may be its ideal exponent. Elgar’s hour long first symphony and Mendelssohn’s ever magical Midsummer Night’s Dream music round out the program.

April 8 & 10
Eugene Vocal Arts, Eugene Concert Choir, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon.
Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of the world premiere performance of Portland composer Joan Szymko’s Shadows & Light.

Portland composer Joan Szymko. Photo: Jake Wehrman Video.

Portland composer Joan Szymko. Photo: Jake Wehrman Video.

Satori Men’s Chorus
April 9
Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Avenue, Portland
Susan Dorn leads the choir and Beckman Elementary School Choir, accompanied by Ben Milstein, in another work by Joan Szymko, It Takes a Village, music by Sondheim, Lennon and McCartney, show tunes, folk songs and more.

April 9
Jaqua Concert Hall, The Shedd Institute, Eugene
The Hungarian ensemble brings their lively tamburitza Balkan folk music, including arrangements by Bartok and more on the tambura mandolin, accordion and wind instruments.

Boom Tic Boom, Blue Cranes
April 9
Alberta Street Pub, 1036 NE Alberta, Portland
Although her sextet includes relatively well-known jazz masters like pianist Myra Melford, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and violinist Jenny Scheinman), Brooklyn drummer/composer Allison Miller leads the band through her exciting original jazz that roams through klezmer, Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern and even classical territory, including tunes from her new album inspired by her daughter’s birth. Portland’s Blue Cranes are always worth seeing, especially in an intimate venu.


Words & Music: Ambitious Oregon productions combine stories and sounds

'Attachments & Detachments,' 'Boldly Launched Upon the Deep,' and 'Oregon Stories' weave stories and sounds

Oregon is all about stories. Maybe the rain helps, but for whatever reason, we’re known as one of the most literary states in the union. Check Portland’s downtown Powell’s bookstore even on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it teeming with people seeking stories.

Of course stories appear in other art forms besides books — films, operas, songs. Not so much in instrumental music, however. Yet lately, we’ve seen a slew of contemporary music performances that explicitly connect new music to storytelling in various ways, including just in recent weeks:

I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others, but it’s clear that there’s a trend toward connecting storytelling to new classical and jazz music in Oregon these days. Why?

Delgani Quartet's Man of Words concert.

Delgani Quartet’s Man of Words concert combined music and theatrical dialogue.

Both jazz and contemporary classical music have gone from being relatively mainstream art forms to niche interests over the past half century or so, and one reason is their emphasis on art for art’s sake, too often privileging artistic process and innovation over audience connection. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition — much of the greatest music both innovates and connects — but maybe this craving for story represents a desire to re-connect new music to lived human experience rather than indulge in abstract soundscapes, abstruse musical processes, and concept-dominated art.

Yet when performers add words to music in unfamiliar ways (not opera, not songs), they enter a different realm than the usual music concert. Even the most compelling words and music don’t necessarily compel interest without some sense of how they work together dramatically on stage. Three recent Oregon performances showed the risks and rewards of mixing stories with sounds.


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