MUSIC

‘Orfeo’ review: a contract for excellence

Stephen Stubbs leads Pacific MusicWorks's masterful authentic concert reading of Monteverdi's pioneering opera based on the Orpheus myth

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Pacts with the Devil rarely work out. The decks are usually stacked in the devil’s favor. Joe Boyd (Damn Yankees) yearns for the return of his youth. Jabez Stone (The Devil and Daniel Webster) just wants some good luck for a change. Keanu Reeves’s character in Devil’s Advocate wants professional success. Those Faustian characters, and the needy protagonist Faust himself, want more than the earthly pleasures currently offer.

Then there is Orfeo, title character of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera performed last weekend by Pacific MusicWorks. In this concert version presented by Portland Baroque Orchestra at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the performing forces were a composite of early music experts: cornetto, trombones and recorders of Dark Horse Consort, eight soloists/choristers, and the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra, led by Grammy Award winning Seattle-based music theorbo artist Stephen Stubbs.

Stephen Stubbs led Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Photo:

In Greek mythology, Orpheus (Orfeo in Italian) is a dude to rally round. He embraces only the “good,” uses music to charm the flora and fauna and to even soften the most hardened heart. There is something about Orfeo that makes him more palatable than Faust, more endearing. In this segment of the Orphic saga, he is at one moment ecstatic over his coming wedding to Eurydice, then plunged headlong into despair over her sudden death by serpent. In quintessential Orphic style – heroic, confident – he sets out to find and work his charms on Plutone (Pluto), the God of, you know, down there. He will bring Eurydice back to life. But alas, because of his passion, his pact does not end as well as he had hoped. Yet somehow we applaud his effort.

All of the above enticed the 40-something Claudio Monteverdi to set Orfeo to music. Further inspired by the libretto of Alessandro Striggio the Younger, his colleague at the court of Mantua, Monteverdi wrote emotional, picturesque, complex and riveting music which was, like caramel sauce on a latte, cast and staged – to a degree anyway.

This is an important operatic work. First opera? Fact check: FALSE. No, not even the first Orphic opera. Florentine composer Jacopo Peri preceded it with his own L’Euridice. But it was a ground breaking and landmark work. It was written on his way toward Monteverdi’s professional apex, the position of Maestro di Capella, at San Marco in Venice.

Monteverdi was interested in pursuing the innovative idea of drama being sung on stage. It is important to understand this as a gradual evolution of the genre when we see Orfeo. Those anticipating a fully costumed, staged with scenery and developed musical drama might be underwhelmed by Orfeo. But on Friday evening, there were so many things about which to be overwhelmed.

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MusicWatch Weekly: sounds of home — and beyond

Music from Ukraine, Russia, Mali, France, Spain, and even Oregon highlight the week in Oregon music

This week’s Oregon music highlights amount to a world tour. Got more recommendations? Please add to the comments section below.

Cascadia Composers presents Bernstein/Steinke & Friends
Two of Oregon’s most venerable composers celebrate their 75th birthdays with a range of chamber music.  Delgani String Quartet plays Steinke’s Songs of the Fire Circles, inspired by Native American poet K’os Naahaabii, and (with Steinke on oboe) music inspired by paintings by Marc Lifschey. Bernstein is represented by his Sunlight and Shadow for flute, clarinet and piano, revised September Soundscape for viola and piano, Musical Mirages for piano, and Threading Light for flute and piano.
Friday. Portland State University, Lincoln Hall Room 75 – 1620 SW Park Ave.

Fandango!
The multinational Chicago-based chamber ensemble, the latest addition to Friends of Chamber Music’s entertaining Not-So-Classical series, arranges danceable classics and commissions new works for their versatile flute-cello-guitar-violin lineup. Two of the members comprise the excellent Cavatina Duo, which plays this game quite delightfully too. This menu of music by Vivaldi, Falla, Rachmaninoff, Boccherini, Balkan and a contemporary trio by American composer Alan Thomas inspired by the richly diverse music of the Sephardic Jews as they migrated throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Balkans, makes a tasty program for casual classical and world music fans as well as Baroque aficionados.
Friday, The Old Church, Portland.

DakhaBrakha performs at Portland’s Star Theater. Photo: Tetyana Vasylenko.

Habib Koité & DakhaBrakha
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the great Malian singer and guitar virtuoso brought together many of the musically fertile country’s disparate musical traditions, added a dash of Western rock, and his exuberant Afrobeat performances and recordings soon brought awards, world tours, gigs with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, etc. Lately he’s jettisoned drum kit for the African instruments djembe and calabash, and added a banjo (an instrument that originated in Africa). He sings in four languages, including English, about social issues like war, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, but also happier subjects like soccer — all with a gentle, pulsating groove.

While DakhaBrakha’s three female singers have collected traditional folk songs from elderly women in villages around their native Ukraine, they venture way beyond ethnomusicology, with other members wielding cello, percussion (including tabla), didgeridoo, and other decidedly untraditional instruments. The Kyiv-based band incorporates dub, hip hop, African music and much more, melding roots music with a contemporary, urban sensibility that includes influences from punk, theater (including traditional costumes), minimalism, and politics.
Friday, Star Theater, Portland.

Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie
Gardner’s glowing voice and Asherie’s supple pianism have attracted critical raves over the last decade on New York’s cabaret scene. Their alluring new release The Late Set covers “American Songbook” standards written between around 1920 and 1960. Expect tunes (seldom the most-covered ones) from Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, and other stalwarts.
Thursday, Jazz Clubs NW, North Bend; Saturday, The Shedd, Eugene; Sunday, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Burnt Sugar Arkestra plays two shows in Portland.

Burnt Sugar Arkestra
Its name reveals this big band’s spacy Sun Ra influence, but the band also draws inspiration from other 20th century big bands including Duke Ellington, Parliament/Funkadelic and Art Ensemble of Chicago. The band claims it has included “Irish fiddlers, AACM refugees, Afro-punk rejects, unrepentant be-boppers, feminist rappers, jitterbugging doowoppers, loud funk-a-teers and rodeo stars of the digital divide.” This time, they’ll “caramelize” a famous jazz album of the early civil rights era: drummer/bandleader Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.
Saturday, Jack London Revue, Portland.

Chris Rogerson at Chamber Music Northwest in 2015. Photo: Lisa Wang.

Oregon Symphony 
The orchestra kicks off its new, year-long socially conscious Sounds of Home series, which combines non-musical elements with the music in response to timely social issues, with a concert focusing on immigration. Acclaimed pianist Kirill Gerstein plays a pair of piano concertos, one written by an immigrant, pioneering early 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg, who fled Europe for America when the Nazis came, and the other, Rhapsody in Blue, by an immigrant’s son, George Gershwin. Gerstein’s jazz jazz background should come in handy in that one. And the orchestra commissioned the impressive young composer Chris Rogerson, who’s impressed Chamber Music Northwest audiences in recent years, to collaborate with award-winning immigrant playwright Dipika Guha on a new work, premiered in this show, that focuses on the immigrant experience.
Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Negative Press Project
The Bay Area piano and bass duo (Andrew Lion and Ruthie Dineen) bring their fascinating tribute to late, great singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Buckley to Oregon.
You don’t have to be a Buckley fan to enjoy it.
Saturday, Alberta Street Pub, Portland; Sunday, Jazz Station, Eugene, and Monday, Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Drive, Bend.

Vancouver Symphony
There’s a Russian flavor to the VSO show, with Russian-American pianist Alexander Toradze soloing in 20th century Russian master Sergey Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and the orchestra also playing Mussorgsky’s Persian Dances and suites from two of Stravinsky’s most enchanting ballet scores, The Fairy’s Kiss and The Firebird.
Saturday & Sunday, Skyview Concert Hall, 1300 NW 139th Street, Vancouver WA.

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Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love

by JEFF WINSLOW

Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

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MusicWatch Weekly: scary sounds

Scary times deserve scary music in Oregon this week

There’s a lot to be afraid of these days, and this week’s Halloween and other concerts offer plenty of spooky music to suit the times.

Dracula
Chamber Music Northwest brings America’s leading new music ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, back to Portland for an ideal Halloween spectacle: a live performance of venerable American composer Philip Glass’s 1999 score (with Glass himself playing keyboards) to the classic 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.
Wednesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway Ave. Portland.

Joe Kye, ARCO-PDX
The Korea-born, Seattle-raised composer/violinist/singer who moved to Portland from LA last year opened for Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland last February. Now electric classical band returns the favor in this release concert for Migrants, Kye’s second release, which ranges from pop to jazz and even a bit of rapping. Along with Kye’s looping violin and vocals, the show includes Portland’s BRAVO Youth Orchestra and Northwest Dance Project’s Ching Ching Wong, with whom Kye embarks on a world tour. Read Jamuna Chiarini’s story on the collaboration.
Friday,  Alberta Abbey, Portland.

Joe Kye opened for ARCO-PDX last February.

Naomi LaViolette
Portland classical fans know her as the longtime accompanist for Oregon Repertory Singers, but LaViolette is also a composer and  sincere, ‘70s style singer-songwriter who’s performed at PDX Jazz Festival, Doug Fir, and Jimmy Mak’s. She also written for ORS, some of whose singers join musicians from the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Repertory Singers and Grammy-wining oboist Nancy Rumbel in this CD release concert for her new CD, Written For You.
Saturday, Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra
The tragedy of Orpheus, which is still being set by composers (Philip Glass did a recent version), has been part of opera since the very beginning — and this 1607 version by Claudio Monteverdi is among the first operas and the first Baroque masterpieces, though echoes of Renaissance music remain. This historically informed Pacific MusicWorks production led by Grammy-winning Seattle based early music master Stephen Stubbs should bring us as close to Monteverdi’s intentions as possible in a concert reading.
Friday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland.

Senju Matsunami
Accompanied by traditional dance and shakuhachi flute, venerable koto master plays classical Japanese tunes, adaptations of Western music, and more.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, Portland.

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‘Jane Austen’s Songbook’ review: Unpersuasive

Singer Julianne Baird and pianist Marcia Hadjimarkos can’t redeem justifiably forgotten songs from the novelist’s world

by ALICE HARDESTY

Combine the rarefied world of the English Regency with a celebrated contemporary soprano and a talented fortepianist and you get “Jane Austen’s Songbook,” presented on October 18 in Hudson Concert Hall at Willamette University. The great diva/Baroque musicologist Julianne Baird partnered with Portland native Marcia Hadjimarkos. In between musical numbers, students Eliza Buchanan and Max Sherman read music-related passages from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Jane Austen, a pianist herself, had hand-copied many of her favorites into her own songbook.

Although the program included selections from composers well known to us, like Handel, Haydn, and Gluck, most of the pieces were known mainly to Jane Austen and her friends — songs about country life and love, drinking songs, and laments about war. The narrators provided a literary backdrop to each set of pieces, exposing the affectations of the day and Austen’s wit.

Hadjimarkos and Baird take their bows at Willamette in 2012.

While these selections provided good examples of the period’s taste, they were not a particularly good showcase for Ms. Baird’s glorious Baroque voice. She has issued over 130 solo CDs and is famous for her interpretations of Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers as well as some modern Americans. She’s also a renowned musicologist with a Ph.D. in music history from Stanford. Perhaps that explains her enthusiasm for these little known 18th Century works.

Unfortunately, the pieces in this program, while amusing, turned out to be pretty bland fare. The first, “Chastity,” from Handel’s Susanna, is a sweet though relatively tame song, and not the best vehicle for Ms. Baird’s flexible and inspiring voice. In later numbers by William Reve and Samuel Webbe, she was better able to show off her runs, trills, and other embellishments, especially in the higher registers.

There was no need for lyrics printed in the program notes since Baird’s diction was flawless. But throughout her performance I missed the glorious Baroque voice I had heard in recordings. While her high notes rang out clearly, she seemed to lack energy in the mid-range and below.

The performance was not helped by the room acoustics. One of the adjustable fabric shades was broken, so all the shades had to be in the closed position, maximizing the room’s absorption and producing a muffled sound. This kind of intimate performance would have been much better suited to a smaller venue rather than such a large, impersonal, and sparsely populated hall — there were only about 50-60 attendees in a hall that seats 440.

Playing on a honey-colored fortepiano, Marcia Hadijmarkos provided artful and sensitive accompaniment  throughout. In addition, she played a pair of solos: a charming Haydn Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:35 and quite a vigorous (to the extent possible on the dainty fortepiano) rendition of the “Battle of Prague” by Frantisek Kotzwara. During the latter number, Ms. Baird barked out commentary in the form of single words and phrases, like trumpet, cannons, horses galloping, cries of the wounded, and victory!  The audience was a bit mystified at first, but at the end of the piece, everyone laughed and applauded.

The final number was “The Soldier Tir’d” by Thomas Arne, a favorite of divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. In it, Ms. Baird let loose her virtuosic coloratura and dazzled us all until she was interrupted by a plant in the audience playing the part of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett, saying, “You have delighted us long enough.” And that was the end!

I left feeling amused but not exactly satisfied. Back home, I put on my Julianne Baird CDs so I could wallow in the sublime Baroque sound that I had hoped for. And I felt a pang of regret that I had given away all my Jane Austen books the last time I’d moved. Maybe I’ll check the library for Sense and Sensibility.

Alice Hardesty is a Portland poet, writer, and music enthusiast. Her book An Uncommon Cancer Journey is published by Bacho Press http://bachopress.com

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Delgani Quartet preview: Cascadian perspectives

Eugene ensemble premieres Benjamin Krause’s celebration of Cascade mountainscape

by GARY FERRINGTON

Delgani String Quartet artistic director Wyatt True and composer Benjamin Krause have a natural history. The violinist had performed Krause’s Uv’Chein Variations for violin and piano (2012) while both were students at the University of Oregon, and True later commissioned him to compose The Activity of Sand and Movie Music for Portland as part of his 2015 Oregon Multimedia Project.

So when the Eugene quartet received a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative to provide the score to a video documentary inspired by the towering mountain peaks visible from the Dee Wright Observatory atop the Mckenzie Pass, True suggested that Krause, currently visiting professor of music at Indiana’s Valparaiso University, was a natural choice. The other ensemble members — violinist Jannie Wei, violist Kimberlee Uwate and cellist Eric Alterman —agreed.

Oregon’s Cascade Peaks. Photo: Terry Kneen.

“We wanted it to result in something tangible that could be enjoyed by people throughout the state who would otherwise not be able to hear the music in concert,” True explains, “perhaps by people more interested in nature than string quartets, or students learning about the Cascades in school.” That was natural, too: actively engaged in performances throughout the Pacific Northwest, the ensemble frequently commissions new works for string quartet and has developed an extensive educational program.

Krause’s new String Quartet No. 1 “Cascades,” which premieres this month, supplies the musical component to Delgani’s Cascade Quartet Project, which connects music to landscape through composition, performance, and documentation. The quartet premieres the four-movement, 25 minute piece in Salem October 29, followed by November performances in Eugene and Portland.

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Extradition Series preview: in the spirit of Pauline

Creative Music Guild concert presents spacious contemporary music inspired by the ideas of 20th century American music pioneer Pauline Oliveros

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The music in Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series shows a certain dispersed consistency: experimental, improvisatory, sparse, full of radiant silences and gentle chaos, irrepressibly non-traditional (ex-traditional?) in terms of timbre, tonality, rhythm, melody, and the use of acoustic time and space. The individual pieces of music sound radically different from each other, but they tend to sound more alike than they sound like anything else you’re likely to hear in Portland. And once you start getting into Extradition’s particular groove, it becomes one of those specialized tastes, like Indian food or durian or abstract art or free jazz or French Black Metal or early 20th-century atonal classical music. If it’s what you’re in the mood for, only that will do. Nothing else is gonna scratch that itch. Saturday’s concert celebrates one of Extradition’s forebears — Pauline Oliveros, another artist who provokes visceral, addictive responses — in performances of her music and works she inspired.

The quarterly series often includes the work of composers associated with Fluxus, the Wandelweiser Group, and other such mid-to-late-20th-century experimental scenes, all those collectives of artists and theorists and composer-performers who established–wait for it–new traditions of their own. These movements made “slow music, quiet music, spare music, fragile music,” and sometimes claimed Satie as their spiritual godfather. Much of the Real Work was done by people most of us have never heard of (or if you have, it’s as “Yoko Ono’s first husband” or “Rzewski’s mentor in Rome” or “the guy who did the I Am Sitting In A Room thing”), but it’s Cage who (until recently) has had the biggest name recognition outside these circles.

The Extradition Series takes place at Portland’s Leaven Community Center.

This time around, Extradition founder Matt Hannafin and company are honoring the recently departed accordionist, electro-acoustician, and Pioneer of Deep Listening: Pauline Oliveros. These concerts always have something of Pauline’s spirit in them, and they’ve performed Her music in the past, but now that She has entered the Spirit Realm, it seems extra-appropriate to honor Her and Her Great Work.

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