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Classical Up Close: intimate circle

Oregon Symphony musicians’ neighborhood pop up performance connects listeners, classics, and performers

By DAVID MACLAINE

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Presbyterian Church was filling up pretty quickly when I got there for the April 24 performance in the Classical Up Close program. Now in its seventh season, the annual spring series brings Oregon Symphony players to venues around the Portland metro area for chamber music concerts free of the formality of downtown halls, and with free admission too. (Read ArtsWatch’s story about CUC’s origins.)

 I reached my destination a bit early. No problem: the convenient location was no small part of the attraction of this concert. I could use the spare minutes sitting in the sun at a bench in Mt. Scott Park. Children climbed and slid down slides, the sun slid a bit too, and it was time go see what Classical Up Close was all about.

Turns out that “Up Close” is not just a slogan. The church is a pretty cozy venue in the first place, so when MC Christa Wessel let us know that the row of seats at the back of the podium were for fans, not musicians, and implored us to occupy them, I took the plunge, abandoned my place in the more distant pews, and endured a couple of awkward minutes sitting on-stage alone, staring out at the crowd, before others worked up the courage to take that walk up the aisle and join me. By the time the concert was ready to begin children were darting up there too. 

MC Wessel and hornist Joe Berger talk horns from the stage at Classical Up Close.

Six feet away from the players is a pretty choice location for chamber music, and not one I have enjoyed for a while. It has been decades since fans could enjoy the intimate view of Chamber Music Northwest events from the cushions on the floor of the Reed College cafeteria.

From my vantage point on stage I could survey the crowd. It was a better turnout than most free events, and although the gray-haired demographic was still in the majority, we at least fell short of the veto-proof supermajority found at most classical concerts. The presence of children and young parents was a welcome mood booster. 

So too was the insistence by our emcee that this was to be a holiday from conventional concert decorum. Take pictures or tweet if you want, applaud whenever you feel the urge, come and go as you please, and above all, have fun. It was a good test of what I think of as the Choban Theory that classical music is essentially smothered by the people who love it, swaddled in deadly formality, and that the antidote is an audience that feels free to express itself, passionate performers and music that flows from a living source instead of a distant past. On this occasion all those elements came together to provide more evidence that the theory might be true.

Blessinger & Noble
Blessinger & Noble

Bohuslav Martinu is not a serious contender for my personal list of the the Top Forty Classical Composers, but whenever I do stumble across the 20th century Czech composer’s work I always wonder why we don’t hear more of him. His Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by violinist Ron Blessinger and violist Charles Noble, provided not just the back and forth dialogue you tend to expect when two string instruments are asked to play catch without the safety-net of an accompanist, but also an infectious ability to build toward a climax. I began to worry that from my position right behind the players I might become a distraction, as I felt myself swaying and tensing as the music drove toward its payoff. I was too indoctrinated to accept the invitation to applaud between movements, but the audience happily felt no such inhibition.

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Portland Baroque Orchestra: thoroughly unmodern Mozart

Vivacious historically informed performance reveals aspects of the composer’s mastery modern instruments can’t match

By JEFF WINSLOW

Photos by Jonathan Ley

No one considers Mozart a Baroque composer, but as Portland Baroque Orchestra Artistic Director Monica Huggett pointed out just before their all-Mozart concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, a week ago last Sunday, it’s perfectly reasonable for the PBO to play his music. Mozart was born as the Industrial Revolution was just getting started, but it only arrived in his Austrian homeland decades after he died, so the sound of PBO’s pre-industrial design instruments would likely have pleased him more than a modern orchestra.

 PBO hornists Sadie Glass and Andrew Clark

Like any adventurous composer, Mozart was often dissatisfied with the instrumental limitations of his time, but he was also among the most practical of composers. He carefully deployed the available musical forces, and to the degree instruments have changed since then, playing his music on anachronistic modern ones risks losing his intended sound.

Take the first piece on PBO’s program, the E-flat major Serenade for winds, K. 375. Mozart’s smooth, expert blending of bassoons, horns, and oboes (two each), contrasting with the two clarinets’ distinctive tone, is evident even on modern instruments.  I’m not quite sure how he did this, but in the performance by the PBO wind players, the blend was so intimate that they often sounded like one instrument – maybe a small organ or harmonium. (A particular challenge of writing for modern wind quintet is blending all the different characteristic sounds into one unified soundscape.) Just as with modern instruments, the two clarinets stood out as if they were soloists.

PBO clarinetists Bryan Conger and Ed Matthew

The serenade also displays Mozart’s signature ability to weave any number of connoisseur-pleasing details into instantly appealing compositions. Excursions to distant keys, bits of intricate counterpoint, surprising melodic reminiscences – such as the poignant one by oboe in its own solo guise near the end of the Adagio movement – sailed by on a river of the brilliant tunes, runs, and fanfares typical of serenades of the time, all played with verve by the eight musicians.

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Contemporary Classical at the Planetarium

Third Angle brings latest John Luther Adams string quartet to OMSI

By AARON SHINGLES

From birdsong to sky to ocean, John Luther Adams‘s music venerates the natural world and reflects nature’s splendor. His 2018 string quartet Everything That Rises feels like a warm afternoon lying in the grass and staring at clouds. On April 10-11, Third Angle New Music gave the work’s Northwest premiere at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Kendall Planetarium, continuing a Third Angle tradition of bringing contemporary classical music to unique venues throughout Portland.

Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.
Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Most people associate listening to music in a planetarium with the Dark Side of the Moon Laser Spectacular (which I personally experienced most recently in 1997), but when Third Angle announced the show as a “360° explosion of color, sound and sky,” it offered the chance to experience Adams’s distinctive contemporary classical idiom in a terrifically appropriate setting, with a visual component designed by the erstwhile Northwest composer, who recently left his decades-long Alaskan abode for residences in Mexico and New York.

There in the dark, close quarters of OMSI’s planetarium, we settled in for a meditative journey through time and space. The string quartet members, surrounded by the audience, sat together in a circular formation at the center of the room, a configuration reflecting the music’s spiraling nature.

The show began in total silence and darkness, followed by an image of the Earth as seen from space accompanied by a brief pre-recorded prologue from the composer, inviting the audience to lose themselves in the experience. Following another brief period of emptiness, the cello bowed its first long, breathy note and ushered in a scene of daybreak color under a slowly passing cloud ceiling. This skyscape became the primary visual element for almost the entire show—until close to the end, when we finally broke through the clouds and ascended into a spiral galaxy and starfield.

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21 Cartas: songs from the wall

Portland musicians Edna Vazquez and Darrell Grant set words of incarcerated refugees to music

“I am Mexican, and they killed my husband a year and a half ago, leaving me alone and pregnant with our second child. It has been so difficult to find a way to feed and clothe my children, and we had to live in hiding from the gang members because they had put a bounty on my husband for not helping them. “

This Sunday, many of us celebrate our mothers, whether in memory, over the airwaves, or in person. But some moms and their families won’t be celebrating. These mothers and their children are locked up in detention facilities like Dilley, Texas’s South Texas Family Residential Center — a soothing euphemism for what’s really a for-profit prison for refugees fleeing danger. But they’re not imprisoned by their home countries, but by us — jails paid for by American taxpayers.

Grant and Vazquez rehearse 21 Cartas. Photo: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal

This Mother’s Day weekend, audiences in Hillsboro and Portland can hear the words of some of those mothers, set to music by two of Oregon’s most accomplished and socially conscious musicians. Mexican singer/songwriter Edna Vazquez and jazz pianist/composer Darrell Grant have drawn on letters written by mothers to create a bilingual song cycle, 21 Cartas that they’ll perform alongside readings of the letters themselves. (Excerpts from the letters appear throughout this story in italics.) The performances will also include Portland-based Mexican filmmaker Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal’s portraits of Portland’s immigrant community.

 “The bilingual songs of 21 Cartas range from lullabies to battle cries,” Grant explains. “Together they address the hopes, hardships, struggles, and dreams of those who have risked everything in pursuit of better lives for their children.”

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MusicWatch Monthly: the darkling buds of May

Encore shows, season closers, and kickoff concerts showcase visuals, Dutch virtuosi, Japanese drums, and women composers

There’s an old Oregon saying: “April showers bring May showers.” Our famously persnickety springs tend to veer from warm noon-times of glorious blooming sunshine to those long desperate afternoons of deep drizzling gloom that have our S.A.D. souls begging the gods, “when will you make an end?”

Fitting, then, that our Curated Concert Spread for May includes so much rich, loamy music. From fresh rain and frolicking flowers to ominous thunder and deadly lightning, here’s a sample of what’s happening in your merry, mournful town this May.

Weill, Auerbach, Price: Music for Orchestras

Oregon Symphony Orchestra
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra puts on a few different types of concerts, and they end their season with three contrasting varieties spread across the month like a field full of wildflowers and mushrooms.

May 4, Norman Huynh conducts the OSO and guest choirs from Portland State University in a live performance of the award-winning score from Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, the music deftly synchronized to the movie, projected on a giant screen above the orchestra. Unlike similar concerts with thoroughly cinematic scores (Star Wars, Batman), this concert doubles as a simple Mozart feast—including more than a little bit of that glorious Requiem, which PSU’s choirs performed in its entirety earlier this year. The music is all ages but the film is rated R, so know your kids or leave ‘em at home.

PEER GYNT from Studio Moto on Vimeo.

May 11-13, Carlos Kalmar conducts Edvard Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt score with visualizations by designer Alexander Polzin. This is the third concert of OSO’s popular SoundSight Series, which brings together visual artists and musicians for delightfully polysensory shows. Previous concerts have featured animation, projection mapping, and all kinds of puppetry. Also on the program: Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, featuring soprano Jane Archibald.

OSO closes its season with a Mahler symphony, the deceptively pretty first, sometimes called the “Titan (it’s the one with the minor-key Freres Jacques). The three concerts May 18-20 also reprise Kurt Weill‘s satirical ballet chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, with Pink Martini chanteuse Storm Large in the double lead role originated by Lotte Lenya (Anna I and Anna II) and vocal quartet Hudson Shad as The Family. The Mahler symphony is nice and springy—like all Mahler, it’s lusciously orchestrated and therefore absolutely essential Schnitz-listening—but it’s the Weill that’s bringing us in out of the rainshine.

Storm Large rejoins the Oregon Symphony with Hudson Shad in ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ Photo: John Rudoff.

That vocal quartet is a funny case and deserves a special mention. Hudson Shad is, among other things, a cadre of Seven Deadly Sins specialists who got together specifically to perform this macabre deliciousness with Marianne Faithfull way back in antediluvian 1989, eventually recording it with her in 1997. These four guys have now been singing this music together for three decades. Listeners familiar with Weill from his Threepenny Opera can expect more of the composer’s iconic, sardonic cabaret sound. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of what we can expect from Large.

Auerbach and Martinů
May 5
Portland Youth Philharmonic, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
PYP routinely handles new and difficult music that belies the age of its membership—think of it not as a group of highly skilled young musicians but as a 95-year-old symphony orchestra playing with vigor, courage, curiosity, and a deep emotional heft rivaling its more grown-up professional counterparts. They earned points with OAW by being one of the only groups in town to celebrate the Bernstein centennial with something other than West Side Story and Candide for the umpteenth time, opting instead to perform Lenny’s first symphony to perfection with Laura Beckel Thoreson in March. (Points also to PSU choirs for their magnificent Chichester Psalms and to Eugene Symphony for performing Bernstein’s second symphony, both last year; there’s also this).

Their season closer features PYP alum Max Blair performing Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů‘s 1955 sunny little Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and the West Coast premiere of contemporary Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 1 “Chimera.”

You’ll enjoy the Martinů concerto, sure but you’re really going to thank us for Auerbach, whose music is exactly the right kind of fresh. It’s punchy and agitated, modernistically morbid, bristlingly bombastic, colorfully dissonant, heroically wistful, and melodically profuse—which, to my ear, places her about halfway between Khachaturian and Elfman.

America’s Florence
May 21
Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
Classical music lovers continue waking up to music by U.S. composers of the present and past, and one of the best of the rising old stars is Florence Beatrice Price, the first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious symphonic composer. Following the 2009 discovery of dozens of lost Price scores (discussed here by local singer and Arts Watch correspondent Damien Geter), the classical world has been abuzz over this much-needed new entry into the early U.S. canon, finding ample space for her among the Beaches and Seegerses and Iveses. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s concert preview.

MYS—like PYP a fearless and curious band—performs Price’s tasty first symphony and her Americana-as-apple-pie Dances in the Canebrakes, along with the homage Letter to Florence Price, composed by MYS alum Katie Palka, one of the stars of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project (read Charles Rose’s interview with Palka and three other YCP composers right here). MYS will also give the West Coast Premieres of two works by a pair of eleven-year-old composers, participants in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Initiative: Harlem Shake by Camryn Cowan and Boogie Down Uptown by Jordan Millar.

Japan, Netherlands, Florida: Transnational Chamber Musics

“Her Light Escape”
Spire Duo, May 4, Portland house concert.
Superb Eugene soprano Emma Rose Lynn and pianist Andrew T. Pham performing settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost and more by 20th and 21st century composers composers such as André Previn, Dominick Argento (both of whom died this year), Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, and others.

Portland Taiko rejoins FearNoMusic. Photo: Rich Iwasaki.

Japanarama: The Ongoing Influence of Japanese Culture
May 6
Fear No Music, The Old Church, Portland
Fear No Music’s husband-and-wife leadership team—Artistic Director Kenji Bunch and Executive Director Monica Ohuchi—have spent the past five years making FNM the best kind of Portland hybrid: a classical ensemble with unimpeachable performance credentials, a love for local and contemporary composers, and a mature sense of social justice and responsibility.

This season’s theme, “Worldwide Welcome,” invites international musics and musicians into downtown Portland’s Old Church, and this concert’s special guest is the beloved percussion ensemble Portland Taiko, a jolly and entertaining crew who have collaborated with Bunch on previous concerts and will likely be audible across the river. The Japanese drums—many of them gigantic—were originally designed for communications between villages and within armies, providing a nice counterpoint to Bunch’s quiet, reflective music.

Kendrick Scott Oracle
May 6, Jack London Revue, Portland
After earning his reputation as one of the finest jazz drummers of his generation in his decade anchoring Terence Blanchard’s superb ‘00’s band, Kendrick Scott formed his own band, Oracle, to showcase his considerable compositional chops. He scored a coveted record contract with sainted jazz label Blue Note, which just released one of the best jazz albums of the year so far. A Wall Becomes a Bridge beautifully blends varied textures: Jahi Sundance’s turntable, Mike Moreno’s fluid guitar, John Ellis’s various woodwinds (flute, bass clarinet, horn) and bassist Derrick Hodge’s wordless vocals, plus some vocal samples. Add Scott’s inventive drumming and Tyler Eigsti’s bright electric and acoustic keyboards, and it adds up to a forward-looking amalgam of ‘70s fusion, a dash of modern hip hop, and lyrical contemporary jazz that can charm fans of everyone from Pat Metheny to Scott’s fellow Houston natives Jason Moran and Robert Glasper.

Classical Musicians of Holland bring Portland a Dutch treat.

“Classical Musicians of Holland”
May 7
Portland Dutch Society, The Old Church
We here at Oregon Arts Watch have an almost jingoistic attitude toward classical music: local composers, local performers, local poets, local rainstorms. We’re locavores and we’re not ashamed of it. Some might even call us musical terroirists. But we do occasionally get wind of travelling shows blowing in under the radar, something to remind us life beyond the Willamette Valley.

On May 7, Portland Dutch Society hosts three young musicians, the most recent winners of Holland’s Prinses Christina Concours (Princess Christina Competition): violinist Yente Lottman, trombonist Niels Jacobs, and pianist-composer Maxim Heijmerink. The concert program features a lot of pretty familiar stuff—Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin—and it will all no doubt be played superbly (we’re especially excited to hear that delicate Rachmaninoff vocalise on trombone). But this concert’s blossoms are the works by less-known composers: Alexandre Guilmant, Joseph Jongen, Peter Kiesewetter, and Heijmerink himself.

Mozart’s Clarinet
Delgani String Quartet
May 12 & 14, Temple Beth Israel, Eugene
May 18, Christian Science Church, Salem
May 19, The Old Church, Portland
Maybe you just can’t wait until June to hear Mozart’s clarinet quintet at Chamber Music Northwest’s opening night. Or maybe you just want to hear UO clarinet professor Wonkak Kim play the foundational work with a basset clarinet and an amazing regional string quartet. Delgani also hails from Eugene, and we’ve admired the spry, sensitive quartet ever since hearing them pair György Ligeti’s first string quartet with Lou Harrison’s early last year at Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival (another worthy out-of-towner that gusted through Portland and blew most of us away).

But it’s not Mozart’s quintet (Brahms’s is better) or Kim’s basset clarinet that interests us. No, what we really want is to hear something—anything—by the criminally underappreciated Florida-based composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose miraculous Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet was our personal “best-in-show” of CMNW 2017.

One Heart: Music for Voices

Lost | Found
Big Mouth Society
May 3, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Avenue, Portland
The ensemble founded and led by early music specialist and singer Emily Lau also has big talent, and big ears. This show includes vocal and instrumental chamber music by anonymous 14th-century Sephardic Jewish women, 15th century Burgundian master of melody Guillaume de Binchois, 16th century choral music paragon Palestrina, 17th century Italian pioneer Claudio Monteverdi (one of the first Baroque and opera composers), the greatest composer of the 18th century (J.S. Bach), 19th century Brit Edward Elgar, contemporary American composers Emma Lou Diemer and Eric Whitacre, and even Lau herself.

Portland State University’s Queer Opera Project returns May 7. Photo: Byisabel.

Queer Opera Kickoff Concert
May 7
PSU Queer Opera, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland
Last year, PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard introduced us to Queer Opera with two of the season’s most entertaining recitals (three, if you count Poulenc’s Les mamelles, which was the best show this exhausted reviewer attended all year). This is what we had to say about Queer Opera’s debut concerts at the time.

QO is a summer program, so they kick off their season just as other groups are ending theirs. On May 7th, community members join PSU students and faculty in a concert featuring some of the songs that thrilled us last year, along with selections from West Side Story and Jake Heggie’s song cycle Here and Gone, sung by Daniel Mobbs and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter.

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‘La Finta Giardiniera’: early blossoms

The young Mozart's relatively obscure comic opera, staged this year by both Portland State University and Portland Opera, showcases emerging singers

Story by ANGELA ALLEN

Photos by JOE CANTRELL

The obscure La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener) is making its modern-day debut twice in Portland in four months. The opera is Portland State University’s spring presentation (the final show is at 3 pm Sunday, April 28) and Portland Opera stages it in July.

Did Portland’s opera directors have the same dream at the same time?

Or is it the irresistible W.A. Mozart? The composer was 18 — younger than many of these student performers— when he wrote the opera, which premiered in 1775 in Munich. Even if the opera lacks a moral typical of his later pieces like Cosi, Don Giovanni and Figaro, its music hints at the Mozart to come. Guiseppe Petrosellini gets credit for the libretto though there is some controversy around who actually wrote it. Much of it is so repetitive that in the PSU production, subtitles disappear for stretches of time because the characters repeat the same thing over and over.

The Act One opening ensemble: Life, and song, and costumes are abloom.

With its helter-skelter plot, mixed identities, and operatic exaggerations – these characters wear their hearts deeply inscribed on their long sleeves—La Finta, a fun “buffa” piece—is rarely performed, but it provides a good vehicle for young voices and energetic actors. Four couples, plus a mayor, go in and out of love and at times, go stark raving mad, or slightly nuts. The plentiful roles are distributed evenly, so the opera is well suited to such a student production as PSU’s, and in the case of Portland Opera, to up-and-coming resident artists.

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Young Composers Project: sound of the future

A conversation with emerging Oregon composers featured on upcoming FearNoMusic concert

Interview by CHARLES ROSE

This state is just crawling with composers, though you might not know it if you only go to Oregon Symphony and Third Angle concerts—just to arbitrarily pick on a pair of robust local organizations with rather different ideas of what constitutes classical music and rather similar habits in regards to living local music. Both groups have been justly lauded for programming contemporary composers—inviting faraway folks like Gabriel Kahane and Gabriela Lena Frank to perform and discuss their work—and both deserve credit for occasionally performing music by locals like Kenji Bunch and Branic Howard. A handful of local classical organizations do better—recent efforts by 45th Parallel come to mind—while Cascadia Composers and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble feature basically nothing but locals.

But when it comes to commissioning and developing a vital ecosystem of local composers in the classical tradition, it’s hard to beat Fear No Music. FNM puts on an extraordinary all-local-composers concert every year, and even has its own composer development program: the Young Composers Project, headed by FNM co-founder Jeff Payne.

FearNoMusic pianist and YCP director Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

In March, we gathered Payne and four YCP students as part of a series of “oval table” discussions: six different conversations, featuring over 20 local musicians, all on the theme “the future of classical music.” We engineered these oval tables for the second issue of Subito—the student journal of Portland State’s School of Music and Theater (out in May)—and we’ll be running the whole series here on Oregon Arts Watch this summer. Stay tuned for conversations with Bonnie Miksch, Jeff Winslow, Jennifer Arnold, and more.

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