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Kenari Quartet: sax in the spotlight

Chamber Music Northwest concerts put a neglected classical music instrument in the forefront

by PATRICK McCULLEY

A unique and rare thing happened this year at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival: a saxophone quartet. Rare because, let’s face it, if not for the Quadraphonnes, Portland would probably never hear saxophone quartet music in any genre. Unique because the quartet in question, the Kenari Quartet, is an exemplary group of ensemble musicians the likes of which Portland rarely gets to see in classical chamber music. But what made this particular circumstance truly special is that a classical music institution like CMNW demonstrated the guts to break with outdated norms as to what constitutes classical music instrumentation/ensemble and put together a program that heavily featured the saxophone.

The CMNW audience was first introduced to the Kenari Quartet (Bob Eason on soprano sax, Kyle Baldwin on alto sax, Corey Dundee on tenor sax, and Steven Banks on baritone sax) in a flurry of metalic squawks, clicks, squeals, growls, and dissonant harmonies. It was from this veritable nightmare of sound that our hero, Adolphe Sax, played by Harold Dixon, awoke. The play, Sax Degrees of Separation by Harry Clark, is a series of exchanges between actor and saxophone quartet performed at Kenari Quartet’s June 27 showcase at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The dialogue draws from the colorful personal history of the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, from his accident-prone childhood in Dinant, Belgium to his frustrated attempts at recognition as a first-class instrument maker in Brussels and his subsequent move to Paris to make a name for himself.

Kenari Quartet and Harold Dixon at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Photo: Jonathan Lange.

In Paris, Sax met with equal parts success and frustration. Success because of the reception the saxophone received among composers such as Hector Berlioz, the Paris marching bands, and his later appointment to the Paris Conservatory. But until the very end, Sax was pursued by various lawsuits claiming that his instruments, notably the saxophone, infringed on someone else’s copyright. Although there was never any credibility to these claims, Sax nonetheless had to declare bankruptcy on three separate occasions, owing to the expense of his legal fees, and died in poverty in 1894.

At each turn of success, Dixon acted with wide-eyed enthusiasm and glee, giving the character of Sax a self-aggrandizing air, a concept reinforced when Sax reads quotes about himself to the audience. With each dip in his fortunes, Sax came across as an altogether incredulous and possibly insane person, a device that played well with the audience, eliciting more than a few guffaws. Sax’s eccentricities took a sharp turn toward the megalomaniacal in the third act, as the inventor described in excessive detail a personal fantasy of building giant instruments on the outskirts of Paris that could be heard for miles around.

Punctuating every act was a performance by the Kenari Quartet. Their playing was immediately striking for their ability to blend timbrally and their excellent balance of articulation and dynamic. Whereas many saxophone quartets play as a group of individuals acting in concert, the Kenari Quartet’s playing lives and breathes as a single organism, as alive as any world-class chamber ensemble could hope to be.

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45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American landscapes

October's Oregon music schedule gets off to a Big Bang, explores American natural wonders, and welcomes a Chinese music master among other highlights

Composers from around the country are commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by writing new music inspired by American landscapes. Like so many of the rest of us here in the Northwest, members of Cascadia Composers spend lots of time enjoying our wilderness areas, but they also draw creative inspiration from it. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., includes world premieres of new works for small chamber ensembles, composed in direct response to the places protected by these landmark laws.

Part of a nationwide series of concerts, the show includes compositions by Oregonians Brent Lawrence, Christina Rusnak, and Linda Woody inspired by Oregon’s Owyhee and Deschutes Rivers, and the people and landscape of the Oregon Historical Trail, along with music by non-Oregonians inspired by Georgia’s Chattooga River, the North Country Trail (stretching from North Dakota to Vermont), Arizona and California’s Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, and a wildfire ravaged area along a Klamath River tributary.

• Portland chamber music organization 45th Parallel Universe opens its tenth season with a Big Bang, a new leader (former Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger is interim executive director), new ensembles, and a new, but not exclusive, emphasis on contemporary music. Friday’s show at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St., features no fewer than four new ensembles. Helios Camerata, its new conductor-less chamber orchestra, plays music by Britten, Haydn, Rossini, and contemporary composer Jimmy Lopez. Arcturus Quintet wind ensemble plays a quintet by 20th century American composer Elliott Carter. Gemini Project plays a percussion duo by Robert Marino. And Pyxis String Quartet (the former Third Angle String Quartet) plays a movement from a quartet by leading American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Matthew Andrews has a full preview tomorrow.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen, performs this weekend solo and with Oregon Mozart Players.

• There’s also new music on Olga Kern’s Saturday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. The dynamic Russian-American pianist soared to international acclaim after winning top prize at the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and has impressed audiences in her Portland appearances since then. Programmed by founder Harold Gray, temporarily back in charge after the departure of Portland Piano International’s most recent artistic director, the first of her October recitals features some of the usual pianistic suspects — Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Scriabin — but also a rare and most welcome PPI world premiere: James Lee III’s Window to Eternity’s Threshold.

• Another Oregon music institution not hitherto best known for new music opens its season with a concert dominated by it. Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert at the University’s of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall sports an ideal blend of classic (Haydn’s tempestuous 64th symphony) and contemporary sounds. Kevin Lau’s pounding, bounding Artemis is a musical portrait of the Greek goddess of the hunt. Daniel Schnyder’s jazzy, dramatic Concerto for Pipa expertly mixes a quintessentially Asian instrument with a Western orchestra. Zhou Tian’s upbeat Viaje (Voyage), featuring the brief return from her new Nashville home of longtime University of Oregon prof Molly Barth, one of the world’s finest flutists, reflects the Chinese-American composer’s travels in Spain. While our century’s cross-cultural interactions terrify insular souls into supporting racists and nationalists, they inspire artists to broaden their horizons and open creative new worlds to audiences.

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Jazz Station: musical hub

Storied downtown Eugene jazz club looks to its next chapter

by DANIEL HEILA

Recently, Ted Ledgard, president of the Jazz Station in Eugene, was catching a show at a jazz venue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he got to talking with one of the patrons of the club. He asked Ledgard where he was from. Hearing his response, the man’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you know about that jazz club there in Eugene?” he asked eagerly. “It’s called the Jazz Station.” Players he’d met who come through New York had played at the Jazz Station and spoken highly of the experience, he said.

Eugene’s Jazz Station. Photo: Daniel Heila

But while jazz insiders may understand that Eugene’s Jazz Station is a nationally recognized jazz venue, the focal point of the local jazz scene, and a supporter of students of jazz from high school through graduate school, not enough Oregon music lovers appreciate one of the Northwest’s finest jazz clubs. Now, the thirteen‑year‑old nonprofit organization is looking to change that. This Thursday, October 4, the Station hosts a Jazz Rent Party fundraising event, open to the public by RSVP. With its lease expiring in November, the organization is raising funds — for a possible relocation, for expanding public awareness and exposure, and for sustaining its successful model of venue management. After that, the Station’s fall season offers local jazz lovers a cornucopia of events. As we’ll see shortly, recent performances there demonstrate the club’s value to Oregon’s musical culture.

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Freshening the Streams

New music performed live from Oregon increasingly fills the home screen

By GARY FERRINGTON

The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s live-streamed Eugene premiere of Ethan Gans-Morse and Tiziana DellaRovere’s chamber opera Tango of the White Gardenia marks a modest milestone in Oregon live music webcasting. (Read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch review and click here to stream at 7:30 pm tonight, Monday, October 1. ) This fall, the UO, Portland State University, and Lewis and Clark College have upped their streaming games, bringing to audiences near and far not only old and recent sounds, but also freshly composed music just off the engraver’s press.

A digital concert hall brings home live music from around the world. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Live from Eugene

The University of Oregon is at the forefront of live streaming in the state with its professional quality multi-camera webcasting of concerts live from Beall Concert Hall and single camera student originated webcasts from Aasen-Hull and Thelma Schnitzer concert halls.

This year, as in the past, the School’s event calender continues to add webcast concerts with possible performances by the University Symphony, Oregon Wind and Jazz Ensembles, Future Music Oregon, Oregon Chamber Choir, Track-Town Trombones, Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble and more. Many of these performances often lean to the contemporary side of the repertoire, as in this Beall Hall performance of UO Faculty member Pius Cheung’s Tesla’s Harmony for mallet quartet performed by the UO Percussion Ensemble.

Many of the school’s concerts emerge from the Oregon Composers Forum. For example, the upcoming OCF webcast special at 4 pm November 4, will feature Grammy Award winning soprano Estelí Gomez performing music composed for her by Forum members.

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DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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Indian Summer

September concerts, including one this weekend, showcase the role of the human voice in Indian music

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Two recent concerts of Indian classical music—one presented by Kalakendra, the other by Dance Mandal and Michael Stirling—made a good contrast in listening experiences. One was a family affair, local vocalist Stirling accompanied by his friend Joss Jaffe on tabla and his daughter Lucy Stirling on tambura, all in a cozy little Buddhist temple off SE Hawthorne run by Nepalese dancer Prajwal Vajracharya.

The other was more like a pick-up basketball game: Kalakendra’s latest concert at the Old Church, starring sarangi player Pankaj Mishra, santoorist Chiradip Sarkar, and tabla whiz Abhishek Basu. The three musicians exuded a vibe that was polite and friendly but far from warm and familial. Their aura was all about showing off and one-upping each other, the kind of competitive spirit you hear in the old jazz supergroups.

Both concerts featured music inspired by the human voice, though only one had an actual singer. And there’s another Indian classical music concert coming right up here in Portland—it’s tonight, in fact, at First Baptist—and this show features not one but two vocalists.

Singers Are Queens and Kings

After asking the room of twenty or thirty serenely enthusiastic audients to silence their phones and “live without electronics for a little while,” Michael Stirling praised the vocal traditions of India, saying, “singers are Queens and Kings.” He told the audience that when Ali Akbar Khan was teaching at his college in San Rafael, he would bring his sarod to class only on Fridays; the rest of the time, it was singing lessons. Even in the context of Western music, Stirling’s affinity for vocalizing goes back to college: his bass teacher once told him sing along while he was playing, a recommendation which he initially found ridiculous but came to enjoy.

Stirling gave a brief description of tala, comparing the Indian rhythmic cycle to a wheel, with the individual beats as the spokes. He asked Joffe to play a standard tintal pattern and began tracing a circle in the air, saying “one” every time the pattern arrived back on the downbeat—beat one, or sam, “which is the most important thing.” Stirling followed that with a brief explanation of the tambura his daughter Lucy was busy tuning, demonstrating its four strings and describing its function as the keeper of the tonic note, sa, which is the melodic/harmonic equivalent of the rhythmic sam (read more about all this here). Together, sa and sam represent home base: Everything Is On The One. At this point, Dance Mandal founder Prajwal Vajracharya arrived, Stirling said “just on time!” and an audient whispered “he arrived on the one!”

Jaffe, Stirling & Stirling performed at DanceMandal. Photo: Prajwal Vajracharya.

Stirling started with two late afternoon ragas, Bhimpalasi and Madhuvanti. “Madhuvanti means honey,” Stirling explained; “it also means love.” It’s an unusual raga, part of the Multani family, a little like a Western melodic minor but with a raised fourth to give it an expressive, conflicted aura. The two ragas complemented each other well, sharing some melodic features—most notably the vadi on pancham (scale degree five) and a sugar-sweet shuddha dhaivat (that major 6th) that Stirling squeezed thoroughly in Bhimpalasi and gently in Madhuvanti. That pancham was especially exciting: it’s the fifth scale degree, and a lead character in the harmonic overtone series. There’s a sort of acoustic vanishing act that singers with a fine sense of intonation can achieve with perfect fifths—like the Buddha who is said to be able to exist and not exist according to will, a power the gods themselves envy. Hearing it in person never fails to delight.

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