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MusicWatch Weekly: reflections on divisions

Concerts feature new music inspired by today's American polarization

As we were saying last week, considering how unfairly under-represented they are on classical concert programs, a startling number of the 21st century’s finest composers in the classical tradition are women, who have managed to surmount centuries of barriers to musical gender equality. In Women Singing Women, Portland’s all-star choir Resonance Ensemble does a bit to redress the imbalance with an entire concert directed by a woman (Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon), performed by women (including the singers and pianist Kira Whiting), and featuring entirely works by women composers. The program features the world premiere of a major commission by rising young composer Melissa Dunphy that sets words from last summer’s excruciating Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings spoken by Prof. Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. The concert also includes arrangement of Suzanne Vega’s hit “Blood Makes Noise” by Resonance’s Maria Karlin, and works by Carol Barnett (who’s written appealing works as diverse as a Bluegrass Mass to compositions influenced by Cypriot and Greek music), music by Portland choral conductor/composer Joan Szymko, Lori Laitman, Ysaye Barnwell, new original poetry by Portland’s S. Renee Mitchell, and more.
Sunday, Cerimon House, 5131 NE 23rd Ave. Portland.

Resonance Ensemble performs Sunday.

From his smart, funny Craigslistlieder a decade ago to his gorgeous historical evocations of Los Angeles (where he grew up) to orchestral works like emergency shelter intake form (performed last spring by the Oregon Symphony) and Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States (performed at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival), Gabriel Kahane has emerged as one of America’s foremost young contemporary classical music voices. After the election catastrophe of 2016, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist embarked on a two-week train trip across the country, striving to understand our national polarization. Traveling nearly 9,000 miles sans cellphone and internet connection, he instead tried to connect personally with Americans an inhabitant of any hipsterville might never otherwise encounter — not through digital intermediaries, but through their stories. In his new album Book of Travelers, whose music he’ll perform solo with piano in this Chamber Music Northwest concert, he turned conversations with fellow travelers — truck drivers, postmasters, engineers, nurses — into an intimate album’s worth of understated songs for just his voice and piano — a musical portrait of a troubled nation on the brink of wrenching political upheaval. Kahane tells poignant stories through the eyes of the characters he observes with empathy and understanding.
Wednesday, The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave. Portland.

Gabriel Kahane performs Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church. Photo: Josh Goleman.

Despite today’s polarization, several other concerts feature music that reflect artists’ countervailing tendencies toward bringing cultures together. One of the most popular ensembles brought to town by Friends of Chamber Music, the entertaining Dalí Quartet, composed of members from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the US, returns for a program of 20th-century and contemporary Latin American classical music. The program features a tango ballet by Argentina’s great nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla, a powerful quartet by his countryman Alberto Ginastera, another by Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos, and other hidden gems you’re not likely to hear on any standard American classical chamber music program.
Thursday, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland

The Dali Quartet performs at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

• Portland State continues its celebration of the great 20th century composer Francis Poulenc in Poulenc and the Piano, with this free noon concert (live streamed here) featuring faculty members playing his spiffy 1932 Sextet for piano and winds and his setting of of the children’s tale The Story of Babar for piano and narrator.
Thursday, Lincoln Recital Hall, PSU.

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“Gr*mmy Show”: spoofing the stars

Saturday’s University of Oregon variety show provides an evening of comedy, theater, and music.

by GARY FERRINGTON

A few years ago, jazz pianist and University of Oregon music professor Toby Koenigsberg approached trumpeter and fellow faculty member Brian McWhorter to help him create a mixed genre concert series he was trying to put together. McWhorter suggested a show in which Grammy-nominated songs were performed right before “Music’s Biggest Night.” But by the time the project was ready to go in 2014, McWhorter found that he could no longer play trumpet due to a performance injury.

Koenigsberg and McWhorter host the Gr*mmy Show Saturday.

That didn’t stop them. With Koenigsberg’s encouragement, McWhorter, who is recognized on and off campus for his wit, sense of humor, and more than a bit of showmanship, realized he could emcee instead of playing. And that decision turned the project into “a kind of variety show, with comedy, theater, and music all included,” Koenigsberg recalls. The UO School of Music and Dance’s satirical production of the “Gr*mmy Show,” a zany, fun-filled evening with McWhorter as MC and Koenigsberg as musical director, was finally ready for primetime. (They changed its original name from “Grammy Show” after The Recording Academy sent the team a cease and desist letter.)

Wrong song Jack. Photo: Gary Ferrington

The Gr*mmy Show has evolved into a much-anticipated evening of variety acts. Show-stopping edutainment sketches have always been included, such as a humorous analysis of the seemingly complex voting process for Grammy award winners, and exploring the “fun side” of Schenkerian analysis — a music theory subject as exciting as burnt toast. Academicians always tend to get a good ribbing on this night as when music theorist Jack Boss “mistakenly” began to pontificate about the musical structure… of what he would quickly learn from emcee McWhorter was the wrong song.

Stage band performs nominated songs. Photo: Gary Ferrington

Balancing out the humorous academic side of the evening is the performance of many musical selections nominated for the Grammys, including not only Song of the Year, but also pieces from other categories such as New Age, Pop, Jazz, Rap, Reggae, World Music and the Best Classical Contemporary Composition and Best Musical Theater album.

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Eugene Symphony: earning attention

Orchestra’s fall 2018-19 season includes strong performances, contemporary repertoire, engaging community events

By DANIEL HEILA

After the Eugene Symphony’s 2018-19 season opener, high like only a classical music geek can be and thoroughly lit by a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, I wandered around the Hult Center’s cathedral-like atrium. Eventually, I paused in front of a blackboard-sized whiteboard that stood in the center of the lobby. A question scrawled across the top asked: How did the concert make you feel? Without hesitation, I grabbed a marker and wrote, Like I should be paying more attention to the ESO.

Eugene Symphony Orchestra

Then a niggling worry crept into my head. Yes, without a doubt, it was the best performance of Shostakovich’s masterpiece I had ever heard (live or recorded). And yes, I had given myself over to the shameless, spine-shivering, scalp-tightening response that such performances elicit, even jumping to my feet and joining my fellow concert goers in the all-too-common standing ovation (and I meant it, goddammit!). BUT! Could this level of excellence be maintained? Now, having attended all the concerts in the season’s first half and many of the orchestra’s excellent concert-week community events, I can confidently say…no…and yes…and thank goodness for that!

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MusicWatch Weekly: women’s works

Oregon orchestras play music by female composers, and other January musical highlights

One of the many problems with the classical music establishment’s (finally) waning historical museum mentality is that if its artistic leaders aren’t careful, they can wind up reproducing yesterday’s regressive social attitudes on today’s stages. Long before classical music had its own #metoo revelations (one survivor being the now-wife of Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar), the institution had a long and inglorious history of sexism. Even in the supposedly liberated 20th and 21st centuries, female composers faced institutional discrimination, especially from orchestras.

Hagner plays Chin with the Oregon Symphony

• Yet still it persists. The only work by a female composer on this year’s Oregon Symphony classical season is this weekend’s atmospheric Violin Concerto by Korea-born, Berlin-based composer Unsuk Chin, which won classical music’s most lucrative prize in 2004. Deploying nearly two dozen varied percussion instruments, string harmonics, even a harpsichord, it ranges from surprisingly delicate to skittering to intriguingly colorful then ratchets up the intensity. Rising star violinist Viviane Hagner stars. Naturally, the program also contains symphonies by dead European males: Beethoven’s Haydn-esque first and Schumann’s uplifting third.
Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

• As Thursday’s Eugene Symphony concert demonstrates, women have been writing great symphonic music for decades. Last time, the orchestra featured new music from one of today’s finest composers of any gender, Jennifer Higdon. This week’s program opens with the rollicking 1943 Overture for Symphonic Orchestra by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. She was born in 1909, but it’s only recently that her music has begun to be widely played outside Poland. Fortunately for us, ESO music director Francesco Lecce-Chong is a fan. It’s great to see both major Oregon orchestras playing music by female composers this week. Why not every week?

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‘Il Trovatore’: clarity amid complexity

Soprano Angela Meade stars in Seattle Opera's vivid production of Verdi's violent tragedy

by ANGELA ALLEN

Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall Hall through Jan. 26, is a death-soaked, secret-infused and passion-obsessed opera. Giuseppe Verdi’s gory tale of revenge and jealousy is one juicy piece — when it doesn’t stumble like a lame warhorse.

Which it didn’t. With an intricate plot, mixed identities, terrible secrets and musical beauty and lyricism, it conjures up a well-crafted Shakespearean tragedy. And as with Shakespeare, the audience must pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Thanks to great singers and smart production choices, SO told the tale well.

Michael Mayes (di Luna) and Martin Muehle (Manrico) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Il Trovatore.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The plot is complicated and fueled by the parents’ sins visited upon their offspring. Brothers Manrico, the troubled troubadour (Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle) and the entitled Count di Luna (baritone Michael Mayes) are at battle with each other, but they don’t know they are brothers. The gypsy, Azucena, who burned her own child instead of one of the royal brothers in a revenge plot for her mother who was burned at the stake, rears Manrico and pretends to be his mother, but keeps this secret from him. Then there is the love interest, noblewoman Leonora (soprano Angela Meade) caught in the middle.

Leonora loves the tenor— and spoiler alert —dies for him. He dies, too, beheaded by his unsuspecting brother, the Count. Beheading and witch-burning are portrayed in shadowy form behind a scrim, but prepare for violence, if not bloody. Program notes compare the violence level to Game of Thrones.

As Verdi said, what else is life but death? His two young children and 26-year-old first wife died within months of one another, so death was on the composer’s mind.

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‘Locally Sourced Sounds V’: showcasing homegrown classical music

FearNoMusic's annual composers showcase reveals Oregon's burgeoning contemporary classical composition scene

When violist Kenji Bunch left his native Portland for music school in New York more than a quarter century ago, contemporary classical music wasn’t much on the city’s radar. Outside New York, “there wasn’t a lot going on anywhere, compared to today,” Bunch remembers. “New music didn’t have the cachet or excitement it generates today.”

The next year, a group of Portland musicians formed an ensemble devoted to elevating contemporary classical music. And five years ago, that ensemble, FearNoMusic, selected Bunch as its new artistic director. Returning home after winning a reputation in New York as one of the nation’s finest and most listener friendly composers of his generation, he found a very different city and musical culture than the one he’d left.

FearNoMusic artistic director and Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

“Definitely there’s a real vitality now in the new music scene,” he says. “The level of attention nationally to our region has only grown and developed. There’s a real interest in and fascination with Portland nationally. Maybe that comes from things like Portlandia, but it’s also deeper than that. I think it’s recognized as a hub of activity and innovation. It’s pretty evident the West Coast is leading innovation in orchestral music — look at  LA, San Francisco, Seattle [symphony orchestras], and the Oregon Symphony is starting to hold their own in that mix as well.”

Bunch immediately decided to showcase his hometown’s contemporary classical vitality by creating an annual concert of music by Portland composers. On Monday, FearNoMusic plays its fifth Locally Sourced Sounds concert, featuring half a dozen homegrown compositions.

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MusicWatch Weekly: hidden figures

This week's Oregon concerts include music unfairly consigned to the background

Best known as the premier exponent and explorer of the musical traditions of Byzantium and other early Christian music, Cappella Romana has recently branched out into other Orthodox Christian music descended from Byzantine origins, including Russian, Finnish, Ukrainian and more. You’re unlikely to hear any of this music performed anywhere else by anyone. Now the incomparable vocal ensemble shares its latest discovery: long lost Armenian Orthodox liturgical music.

In a concert directed by founding artistic director Alexander Lingas and Haig Utidjian, a British conductor of Armenian descent, they’ll sing traditional Armenian chants and later arrangements of them by 19th century Armenian choirmaster Makar Ekmalian and his student, Komitas Vardapet, regarded as the savior of Armenian music, who collected and transcribed thousands of works that would have otherwise been lost to history. It’s a chance to experience a lost world through music.
Thursday, Central Lutheran Church, 1857 Potter St., Eugene; Saturday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, NW 18th & Couch St, Portland; and Sunday, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 1112 SE 41st Ave, Portland.

Edgar Meyer, here shown at Chamber Music Northwest, performs with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Jim Leisy.

• Bassists usually lurk in the background onstage, but Edgar Meyer has turned his big acoustic bass into a lead instrument. One of the country’s most in-demand studio musicians, he’s scored a MacArthur “genius” grant, formed a popular ensemble with Yo Yo Ma and Bela Fleck named after his composition “Appalachia Waltz,” starred in bluegrass, classical, folk and country music recordings, and composed major orchestral works. Meyer joins the Oregon Symphony as soloist in his third double bass concerto, written in 2011, and he’ll be back this summer at Chamber Music Northwest. The concert also features an 1845 bass concerto by Italian composer Giovanni Bottesini, Aaron Copland’s ever-popular 1943 ballet score Appalachian Spring, and another tuneful, landmark 20th century work by the dean of African American composers: William Grant Still’s exhilarating 1930 Afro-American Symphony — a most welcome addition to an orchestral music scene still lacking demographic diversity.
Friday, Smith Hall, Willamette University, Salem, and Saturday Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Portland.

Leslie Odom, Jr. performs with the Oregon Symphony.

• On Sunday, the orchestra backs Grammy- and Tony Award-winning show tune singer Leslie Odom, Jr., who er, shot to fame in the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and parlayed it and his considerable vocal talent into a successful side career singing jazz and Broadway hits.
Sunday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

• More welcome diversity distinguishes Oregon Sinfonietta’s free Sunday concert: a work by a female composer. British composer Ethel Smyth’s breakthrough, four-movement 1890 Serenade silenced many skeptics who wondered whether women had what it takes to write for orchestra. She went on to excel in opera and choral composition before her career was sadly shortened by deafness. The concert includes music by  Mozart, Debussy and Smyth’s English contemporary, George Butterworth, whose career was truncated even more tragically and abruptly by a German sniper’s bullet in World War I at age 31.
Sunday, Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church, 10501 SE Market St, Portland.

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