FEATURED

Portland Symphonic Choir review: new heights

Guest conductor Richard Sparks leads masterful performance of Martin's 'Mass' and a contemporary composition

by BRUCE BROWNE

A choir will rise to the occasion of a guest director, and new literature. But soar to new heights? Portland Symphonic Choir’s third candidate for permanent music director, Richard Sparks, brought something extra, something ethereal, to the confines of Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral last week. He coaxed a finesse, a cohesiveness of vocal tone in a cappella singing, in particular in the Frank Martin (1890-1974) Mass, that has not been heard in PSC for some time.

PSC’s performance shone a new, brighter light on themselves, and the justifiably famous Martin Mass (1922-26). This double choir a cappella mass is arguably one of the great pieces of the 20th century, though it lay in the composer’s desk drawer for a handful of decades, until brought to light by Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Choir in their magical BMI recording (first released in the 1970s and re-released in 2014 on Warner Classics.) This was an important impetus for many choral directors to learn the great depths of 20th century choral music, including that of Martin, Messiaen, Dallapiccola and Britten; no previous choral recording had ever had such an impact.

Portland Symphonic Choir

Never derivative, each movement exploring poetic new styles, the Mass is sui generis, compared to others of its ilk in the first half of the 20th century. One hears a pentatonic basis in the Resurrexit; long Renaissance polyphonic lines in the Kyrie; and a kind of thudding neo-primitivism in the Benedictus. The Sanctus is a revelation: washes of harmonic colors softly bouncing from one choir to the other bathing us in varied hues. One can almost hear the praying of the choir here and elsewhere in this work.

The Martin Mass is a barometer for choir excellence. Tuning must be taut – not the “did we end in the same key in which we started?” kind of tuning, but the internal meshing of intervals and harmony in the internal moving parts. This requires listening to each other and to the choral “core.” It also requires letting go of the personal singer sound for the co-operative one. All this must be mentored from the podium, and it happened here in the Martin.

Continues…

Emblems Wind Quintet preview: fresh breezes

Young ensemble’s concert brings 21st century music to Eugene

By GARY FERRINGTON

When the Emblems Wind Quintet lands in Eugene for a performance at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance on June 3, it will be a homecoming for two of its members. Bassoonist Brandon Scott Rumsey and clarinetist Clarissa Osborn are former Eugene and Damascus residents and 2012 and 2013 graduates of the University of Oregon.

Emblems Wind Quintet performs Sunday in Eugene. Photo: Chris O’Brien.

Although Osborn now lives in Portland, the other members come from various corners of the world: Canadian-born flutist Merryl Neille (Monard) grew up in South Africa and, like Rumsey, now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the ensemble was founded in 2016. Las Vegas resident Alex Hayashi (oboe) has roots in Hawaii. Michigan native Caroline Steiger (horn) now calls San Marcos, Texas home.

When they converge in Oregon, the ensemble will be bringing music written by members of the first generation of mature 21st century composers. “A key component of our mission,” Rumsey notes, “is to share with the world fresh, exciting wind quintet gems that did not have a long life after their first performance or, in the case of commissions, have never been heard before.” That includes works by contemporary composers as well as composers who have been historically overlooked or brushed aside.

Continues…

FilmWatch Weekly: Kubrick, Basquiat, Clouzot bring culture to summer

The beginning of summer movie season offers more than mere spectacle

Memorial Day Weekend was, until fairly recently, considered the start of the summer movie season. More refined fare would give way to popcorn entertainment for the masses. These days, the summer movie season feels like it runs from March through January, but fortunately it’s still possible to find movies that aspire, however imperfectly, to something more than blunt sensory spectacle and finely-honed witticisms. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things!) Playing this week in Portland are a pair of documentaries about the artistic process, a couple of British films set about 150 miles apart, and two gripping early efforts form the director known as “the French Hitchcock.”

Sometimes it feels, among the community of hardcore cinephiles, like there’s a competition to see who can live a life most consumed by movies. Bleary-eyed participants undertake film-fest endurance tests, watching four, five, even six movies in a day. (I know, I’ve been one.) Blogs and social media posts testify to the central, even borderline unhealthy, role the seventh art plays in the lives of its most dedicated cultists. But in terms of devotion to the art, and in particular to its most obsessive practitioner, no one can top Tony Vitali and his single-minded service to the vision of Stanley Kubrick, as chronicled in the compelling documentary “Filmworker.”

Continues…

‘Rituals’ review: ambient tension

Contemporary classical music ensemble Sound of Late's dive into ambient sounds achieves incomplete immersion

by TRISTAN BLISS

“Listen closely to the cycles of your breath as you sink deeper into a universe of sound.” As that promotional quote for its May 19 show Rituals at Portland’s N.E.W Expressive Works indicates, Sound of Late invited us to lose ourselves in the spatial and immersive qualities of sound. Unfortunately, while waiting for this “universe of sound” to engulf me, Rituals played out as a fringe avant-garde chamber music concert that I would be cautious about who I invited to. The promised sound world was almost tangible and the show was teetering on something more, if only Sound of Late had believed in the validity of their vision and not sacrificed it to composers’ isolated visions of their scores.

Sound of Late’s ‘Rituals.’ Photo: Carlin Ma Photography.

Sitting in a circle, the audience’s experience centered upon the sound oscillating from inside to outside the circle. The Portland/Seattle new music ensemble performed Sequences by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Gjallarhorn by the Oregon electrical engineer/composer Chet Udell, in the speaking silence by Oregonian Andrea Reinkemeyer, and Et Nunc by Brooklyn based Alvin Singleton inside the audience circle. In between each of these pieces, a passage from Thirteen Changes by Pauline Oliveros would be played from outside the audience.

Continues…

MusicWatch Weekly: from Maxville to Vanport to here and now

Musical celebration of Oregon’s African American history highlights the week's concert picks

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” ― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

So much of what ails America and Oregon has roots in our history. So much could be prevented or at least healed if we knew and listened to the lessons history teaches. But too many Americans find history boring, or irrelevant or maybe even threatening, and therefore make political choices that history will wind up revealing as dangerous, destructive or worse. It’s a big reason we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend.

Art can bridge that gap between history and action by making the past come alive. And art that reveals hidden but important history by telling the stories of people and communities is even more valuable, not just for what it tells us about yesterday, but about today — and tomorrow.

Marilyn Keller performs in ‘From Maxville to Vanport’ Saturday.

Which is why From Maxville To Vanport: A Celebration of Oregon’s Black History this Saturday night at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre promises to be such a valuable as well as entertaining show. Almost 70 years to the day after the Vanport Flood, this is the final performance of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert of original songs and film shorts inspired by the stories of the multicultural populations of Oregon’s lost, short-lived predominantly African American communities, Maxville and Vanport, after last month’s shows in La Grande, Enterprise, and Baker City.

Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County is where Maxville was built in 1923. Many of its loggers, homesteaders and ranchers came to Oregon in the Great Migration, when African Americans headed north seeking opportunity and equality denied them in the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, the Oregon they encountered turned out to host its own white racist refugees, who frustrated, too often violently, their aspirations for decades. As has become obvious in recent years, their hateful legacy lingers.

But along with the challenges, including the losses entailed by pulling up roots and moving far from their families, churches and other nurturing institutions, Maxville’s residents also registered triumphs and created their own vital community before the town was shut down in 1933.

The same goes for Vanport, whose ultimate fate, if not necessarily its rich history, is likely more familiar to more Oregonians. In its six-year existence before it was destroyed by the horrific Memorial Day flood of 1948, the city (briefly Oregon’s second-largest) harbored a thriving community of shipyard workers who helped build the warships that helped win World War II.

Continues…

‘Outset’ and ‘Confluence’ series: improvisation institutions

Creative Music Guild series bring both local and touring creative improv performers to Oregon audiences

Story and photos by PATRICK McCULLEY

Coffee shop/vintage clothing/used record store by day, and bar and music venue by night, Northeast Portland’s Turn Turn Turn has become a host, laboratory, and hub for the city’s small but thriving improvised and non-traditional music scene.

“Local” is the operative word here. The Creative Music Guild, which creates and promote concerts for improvised and/or experimental music throughout Portland, uses its Outset Series to showcase local talent every first and third Wednesday.

Outset showcases the local scene’s diversity. Last December, in a nod to their round robin duo performances from the Improvisation Summit of Portland, the CMG put together an ad-hoc improv night that randomly selects from a pool of musicians four ensembles which take the stage in turn to bring to life, to improvise, twenty minutes worth of completely new music.

Dead Death killed it at the Outset Series.

The first band of the night, with Blue Cranes saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, Derek Monypeny on guitar, and TJ Thompson on drums, sizzled, spat, and shimmered with the noise of free improvisation in the beginning of their set. But the feeling soon changed as Thompson’s driving, tom-heavy groove began to drive the band in a more rhythmically structured direction, with minor-key melodies from guitar and saxophone fluttering on top. After several minutes their intensity dissolved into an arrhythmic, nebulous, bright wavering of tone, dominated by distorted guitar and and shimmering cymbals.

The following band, with Andy Raybourn on bass clarinet, Tim DuRoche on drumset, Blue Crane Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone and slide whistle, struck a more humorous tone. Rayborn’s bass clarinet melodies flapped and wandered like some kind of zany forest creature between DuRoche’s sporadic snare and cymbal hits. Cunningham added another zoological element to the music with the bird-like utterances of his slide whistle. As the set progressed, however, and Cunningham’s saxophone joined the fray, our musical jungle soon echoed with plaintive wails and screams of large, extinct creatures, as well as a strangely appropriate melodic fragment from Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” And oddly enough, although I doubt it was intentional, the set ended with a similar exchange of melodies and utterances with which it began.

Continues…

‘Rigoletto’ review: toxic masculinity in high office

Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s classic captures the composer’s critique of misogynistic leaders

By BRUCE BROWNE

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto may be a popular classic today. But a beleaguered, thin-skinned political leader tried to strangle it at birth for daring to depict a ruler who would abuse the women around him. And who would do that in this day and age?

POA chose to open its 2018 season with one of the great works to be plucked from Verdi’s middle period (late 1840s to mid-1850s), which also included La Traviata and Il Trovatore. The 30-something-year-old composer was successful enough (and financially comfortable) at this time to select his own subject matter — and to break with musical convention.

Portland Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave chose Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that had been banned in France after opening night in 1832. French censors claimed the play’s misogynistic royal was a reference to the then-current King Louis-Philippe. (Hugo was to have his say about the reign of Louis-Philippe three decades later in Les Miserables).

The Verdi/Piave blueblood, the Duke of Mantua, is the poster boy for misogyny, displaying his attitude with great elan in the beginning of the show with the aria ‘Quest o Quella” (this [woman] or that one), and he’s already seduced a vast number of the female courtiers including wives and daughters of his own henchmen.

The “revolting morality and obscene triviality of the libretto” (Life of Verdi, John Roselli, Cambridge University Press, 2000) was only one of the elements that, according to the letter from the Imperial and Royal Central Director to the composer, precluded Verdi from opening the show. In fact, it’s more likely that Italy’s real King, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) felt, in these tumultuous times, more than a hint of criticism coming his way, and wanted none of it.

Continues…