MusicWatch Weekly: out of the past

Oregon conference and concerts explore historical sounds, and there's new music onstage too

We sometimes imagine the past as a frozen portrait, but the early music movement that began accelerating a couple generations ago has revealed that our understanding of how music was performed and perceived in centuries past is ever evolving, thanks to the hard work of scholars around the world, including at the University of Oregon. Next week, the UO hosts a major recurring conference devoted to the continuing rediscovery of ancient music.

But unlike many such academic confabs, this week’s “Musicking: Cultural Considerations” has plenty to offer non academic music lovers, including concerts, theater showcases, masterclasses, lectures, panel discussions, even a Saturday family event where kids and their families can dress in costume and learn baroque dance basics — all free and open to the public. Unlike the recent American Choral Directors Association conference in Portland that, ArtsWatch’s Bruce Browne noted, missed a tremendous opportunity to bring new and old choral music to its host city by not publicizing its splendid concerts, Musicking provides a splendid example of how academia can connect to and enrich its supporting community.

Thursday’s Musicking concert, when world-renowned early music singer and recorder master Peter Van Heyghen comes from Belgium to perform early 17th century music from the Netherlands and Belgium with the UO’s own super-scholar/performer, baroque cellist Marc Vanscheeuwijck at the Oregon Bach Festival’s new Tykeson Concert Hall. Van Heyghen will also lead Saturday’s Beall Hall performance of a world premiere version of Mozart’s magnificent Requiem like you’ve never heard it before — because, well, you haven’t. There’s way too much more to chronicle here, so hie thee to the Musicking website and check out all the free music and knowledge emanating all week.

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir play Bach Friday and Saturday.

Evolution of performance styles will also be on display in Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performances of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Much-recorded English conductor David Hill leads a masterpiece of human artistic achievement, which the composer made a kind of compendium of some of his finest choral-orchestral music. It wasn’t performed until a century after his death, and even then and for decades later, those performances buried most of its beauty beneath bloated, Romantic-style choirs and orchestras and anachronistic tunings that obscured Bach’s magnificent music. Now you can hear one of music’s most magnificent monuments performed on the authentic instruments and in the tunings the composer himself envisioned, and by historically informed musicians who know how to play it in period style. Though in order to fill the capacious Trinity Cathedral, the 60-member Trinity choir will be much larger than what Bach probably envisioned, with a 24-piece orchestra to match, it’s still a lot closer to Bach than the bad old days.

The Byrd Ensemble: travelers in time.

Speaking of baroque masterpieces, PBO violinist Adam LaMotte (with his 1730 Italian fiddle), classical guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan, and string players from the Astoria Festival Orchestra play Bach, Vivaldi and Boccherini faves, plus later music by John Cage and Vineet Shende, at Astoria’s Grace Episcopal Church Sunday afternoon. Even older music is on the program at the Byrd Ensemble’s concert Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Stephen Catholic Church. But along with music by medieval (Hildegard of Bingen) and English Renaissance (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Sheppard) masters, the excellent Seattle based choir also sings contemporary sounds by Arvo Part (plenty more of his music coming next week, BTW), Eric Whitacre, and John Tavener — all influenced by the oldest form of music, chant.

Marilyn Keller performs with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

Old events come alive through new music in From Maxville to Vanport: A Celebration of Oregon’s Black History, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert of original songs and video inspired by the stories of the multicultural populations of two 20th century Oregon cities. PJCE’s artistic team interviewed  people connected to those African American communities in constructing their artistic representation of this under-represented aspect of Oregon history. This collection of songs by Portland composer Ezra Weiss with lyricist S. Renee Mitchell and vocalist Marilyn Keller performing with the PJCE is accompanied by short films by filmmaker Kalimah Abioto Thursday at Eastern Oregon University’s Groth Hall, Friday at Enterprise’s OK Theater, and Saturday at Baker Heritage Museum.

Video by Takafumi Uehara accompanies Jack Gabel’s ‘Oregon Bird Sketches’ at AL Dancers’ Portland concerts Saturday and Sunday.

Those of us craving new music this week have a few options, like Third Angle’s shows Thursday and Friday and Bright Moments’s performance with Camas High Choir, both described in my ArtsWatch preview. Another opportunity appears at, of all things, a dance performance: Agnieszka Laska Dancers 15th anniversary shows Saturday and Sunday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Academy, 1615 SW 5th Ave. Along with music by the great 20th century Polish composers Gorecki and Lutoslawski and more, the concert features Jack Gabel’s Oregon Bird Sketches, inspired by our local avians. The two I’ve heard at Cascadia Composers concerts have been as charming and attractive as anything veteran Portland composer written in years, and this performance augments the music with video by Takafumi Uehara. Along with the dancers, performers include Resonance Ensemble singing Gorecki and two earlier Gabel compositions and the excellent Eugene piano-vocal team of Paul Safar and Nancy Wood.

Jaap Blonk performs Tuesday in Portland. Photo: Etang Chen.

Vocal Music

The fascinating Dutch sound poet, composer, and improviser Jaap Blonk returns to Oregon to perform his unique sound poetry as well as classic works by Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, and others Tuesday at Portland’s Passages Bookshop, 1223 NE ML King Blvd.

Shi Li sings at a pair of Portland Opera performances this week.

Much more conventional vocal music is on Keller Auditorium stage Saturday at Portland Opera’s Big Night Concert. Director George Manahan, known elsewhere for helming performances of exciting new music, instead here leads soloists, orchestra, and chorus in opera’s greatest hits by Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, Rossini, and Bizet, plus a few Broadway favorites.

One of those resident artists, bass Shi Li, sings more unusual fare in his solo recital Tuesday at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Pianist Nicholas Fox accompanies the rising young singer in lots of Schubert, plus music by Chinese composers and by Barber, Copland, Faure, Gluck, Stradella, Giordani, Rachmaninoff and more.

Music and Film

The Vancouver Symphony plays music from science fiction and fantasy films Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Hall. And three short silent films by Stacey Steers (all involving early 20th century celebrities) mix with new, live music composed and performed by Ashland percussion duo Caballito Negro Saturday night’s Ashland Independent Film Festival performance.

Chamber music fans have several choices. Beaverton Symphony goes back to its small-band roots by breaking up into a series of chamber ensembles for Sunday afternoon’s concert at Village Baptist Church. Trio Adrato (veteran Oregon musicians oboist Victoria Racz, cellist Dale Tolliver, pianist Colleen Adent) plays chamber music by Haydn, Frank Bridge and more Sunday at Vancouver’s Magenta Theater. Famed French flutist Julien Beaudiment plays a recital Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.
Got any other musical recommendations for this week, old or new? Tell us all about them in the comments section below.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Third Angle/Hand2Mouth, Bright Moments previews: pop goes classical

Music by Portland pop musicians Elliott Smith and Kelly Pratt meet classical and choral performers in Portland concerts this week

Portlanders of a certain vintage still swoon over the music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a leader of Portland’s ‘90s indie-pop insurgency before he moved to LA and died too young just after achieving national fame, not least because of his whispery 1998 performance of Oscar-nominated ballad “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards.

Smith’s renown has steadily grown since his death in 2003. Hand2Mouth Theatre director Jonathan Walters recently heard about a New York show in which classical musicians treated some of Smith’s compositions as so-called “art songs,” and thought: we could totally do something like that in Portland. 

He approached Third Angle New Music about collaborating on such a project, and, naturally, the project became much more than mere arrangements. The Portland ensemble enlisted a half dozen rising Brooklyn-identified composers (ringleader Robert Honstein, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne, Scott Wollschleger and LJ White) to transform their Smith faves into bona fide contemporary classical music, ranging from recognizable arrangements to stranger derangements, even some interludes. The composers cabal then conspired on a unifying concept that Walters & Co. transmogrified into a theatrical presentation, complete with choreographed movement, costumes, lighting and more. 

Elliott Smith

“It’s basically one work composed of many works,” explains Third Angle interim artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. “They came up with the feeling of the show and how it ebbs and flows, and choreographed the movement. They had some lighting designs in mind from the get go. It’s not like a process where one thing happened first. Everything was happening simultaneously.”

You can see the results Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre when singers Sam Adams, Hannah Penn, Chloe Payne and Daniel Buchanan join Digitus XX Duo keyboardist Maria Garcia, string players Valdine Mishkin and Holland Phillips, and Oregon Symphony clarinetist James Shields in the hour-long performance piece A Fond Farewell. Singer and Smithophile Amit Erez a/k/a The Secret Sea, will open with Smith songs. 


Eugene Ballet preview: dance of the mountain king

Company's new full-length 'Peer Gynt' ballet transforms drama into dance


When Eugene Ballet  artistic director Toni Pimble decided to stage Peer Gynt, she faced a daunting challenge: transforming poetry into dance. The company had already proven it could dream big when it comes to creating major new works for the professional stage. Last season’s The Snow Queen featured an original score by Portland composer Kenji Bunch. But now, Pimble had to find a way to tell Henrik Ibsen’s classic verse story of a young Norwegian farm lad and prodigal son whose careless and reckless life harms those who love him and ultimately himself — all without words.

Eugene Ballet premieres new full-length ‘Peer Gynt’ ballet. Photo: Eugene Ballet Company.

Over the last two years, Pimble created new choreography and even costumes herself. Her company also crafted original projected visual art and collaborated with its musical partner OrchestraNext  to fashion a live score, set to the famous music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. On April 14-15, the company closes its season at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts with its new full-length original ballet. “It is an emotional work of love, intrigue, loss, despair and redemption,” Pimble observes.


ACDA Conference: choral camaraderie

Convocation of choral excellence in Portland features diverse music and a strong bracket, but ignores larger community


Think of it as March Madness. No rankings, no betting on outcomes, but this (approximately) “Sweet 16” of choirs from all over the Northwest who converged in Portland last month for the Northwest Regional American Choral Directors conference was no less a bunch of winning teams.

Like the storied Dukes, Kentuckies, and UConns, our representative choirs consisted, too, of nationally known programs of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. Pacific Lutheran University, directed by Richard Nance, for example, has been a choral face on the national scene for some 50 years, since the great Maurice Skones put it on the map. The Marian singers of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Portland have established themselves as leaders in their school division. But there were some new kids on the block as well — University of Wyoming Women’s Choir and Graham-Kapowsin high school from Bethel, Washington.

St. Mary’s Academy Women’s Choir performed at the ACDA conference in Portland. Photo: Howard Meharg.

Middle school through college choirs and community choirs are selected to participate through a blind submission process in various categories including higher and lower voices, youth and adult. The quality demonstrated at concerts and workshops was a great testimony to choral education programs’ keeping the art alive. Only the aforementioned Marian Singers and Portland State University choirs represented the hometown scene. Three Salem choral programs did make the trip.

More Gown than Town

Although the ACDA conference is geared toward the professional conductor/singer – mostly in education – most of these concerts would have been very attractive to the choral aficionados of Portland and environs; this is a strong choral town. The public is welcome to these concerts but they may not know they are. Sadly, I saw very few, if any, non-ACDA members at these concerts. Perhaps ACDA leadership can explore this for future gatherings.

Those who did attend were rewarded with a wide variety of choral music. There were the standard classic composers: Monteverdi, Jannequin; Debussy; Rheinberger. Contemporary composers: Seattle’s John Muehleisen, Alberto Ginastera, Maryam Sameer Faheem Khoury, Portland’s Joan Szymko, Jaakko Montyjarvi, Libby Larsen. There were many different cultural flavors: Estonian; Japanese; Sami, Inuit.

Following is a roundup of as many choirs as I could hear in the four-day period. It was not possible to hear all the presentations at one convention, so the omission of a choir or conductor is no sign of their not being worthy of mention on another occasion.


MusicWatch Weekly: black voices matter

Major works for voice by contemporary African American composers highlight this week's Oregon music

One of the top tenors of his generation, Philadelphia’s Lawrence Brownlee has drawn rapturous acclaim for his performances at all the world’s great opera houses, from the Met and La Scala on down, especially in the agile roles of early 19th composers. He’s also performed with some of the world’s finest orchestras. But he’s also forged a separate career performing smaller scale works, from African American spirituals to art song, and that’s the focus of this recital with pianist Myra Huang that includes a major new composition, Cycles of My Being by one of today’s most renowned new music voices, Tyshawn Sorey, with text by poet Terrance Hayes. He’ll also sing Schumann’s iconic song cycle The Poet’s Love. Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch preview, which includes an interview with Brownlee.

Another leading contemporary African American composer, William Averitt, is coming to Eugene from Virginia to introduce his shimmering setting of Langston Hughes poems, The Dream Keeper, which Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble performs Friday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. Some address the dream of overcoming racial injustice, which the great Harlem Renaissance poet would probably be appalled but maybe not surprised to discover persists today. “Bring me all of your dreams,” Hughes writes. “Bring me all of your Heart melodies, That I may wrap them in a blue cloudcloth, away from the too rough fingers of the world.”

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb for the first half of their spring concert.

The concert also includes R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and one of choral music rock star Eric Whitacre’s greatest hits: the inventive, dramatic Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, which draws on devices from madrigals to minimalism. EVA singers don their annual Renaissance garb to sing music for the birds, featuring madrigals and other songs that use avian imagery, including the great French composer Clément Janequin’s “The Song of the Birds” and other soaring compositions by Thomas Morley, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes and other English composers, plus more Renaissance masters like Arcadelt and Banchieri.

Percussionist Colin Currie performs with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

More choral music graces the Oregon Symphony’s weekend concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, featuring a rare complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe augmented by the international award winning Portland State Chamber Choir, Man Choir, and Vox Femina. Although it was eclipsed a bit amid all the uproar attending the next big ballet that opened at its premiere venue, little thing called Rite of Spring, Ravel’s epic, magical 1912 ballet score is one of the 20th century’s finest. Alas, the world premiere of a new Percussion Concerto commissioned from one of today’s hottest young composers, Andy Akiho, was postponed, but the orchestra’s artist in residence, scintillating Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, will instead perform American composer John Corigliano’s colorful three-movement 2007 percussion concerto Conjurer, written for another great Scottish percussionist, Evelyn Glennie.

Chamber Music

Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, about this time last year, the orchestra performed aquatic music by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, and his music is back in Oregon Tuesday the Faure Piano Quartet’s Tuesday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. The Friends of Chamber Music concerts also include quartets by Brahms and Mahler on Monday, and a quartet by Schumann as well as Hosokawa’s marvelously mysterious The Waters of Lethe (which like Daphnis grew out of an ancient Greek myth) on Tuesday. They’ll play quartets by their namesake, the wonderful 19th century French composer, both nights.

Spring is barely here, but we can look forward to the real sunny season at Chamber Music Amici’s Monday concert at Springfield’s Wildish Community Theater, which features the sunny Summer Trio by Oregon’s most venerated living composer, Portland legend Tomas Svoboda. The current and former University of Oregon music faculty members also play the lovely Piano and Winds Quintet that Mozart himself regarded as one of his finest creations — plus a characteristically sparkling piano trio by the fab 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc.


Benvenue Trio preview: Viennese action

Historically informed trio debuts an important addition to Oregon's classical music scene


April marks the debut of the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s newest member: the Ruth Rolt fortepiano. Its player is Eric Zivian of the Benvenue Trio, whose other members are violinist Monica Huggett (also PBO’s artistic director) and PBO cellist Tanya Tomkins.

The fortepiano brings an important addition to Oregon’s music scene. It’s a rarer — and to many ears, more precious — keyboard instrument than its modern successor. “If I had my way, they wouldn’t have extended the development of the piano past 1850!” Monica Huggett told Vancouver Classical Music. “A fortepiano or a period piano (such as an Érard or Broadwood) balances so well and allows all the primary colors of the music to surface.” And Zivian says the fortepiano has more character than the modern piano.

Benvenue Fortepiano Trio performs Friday in Portland. Photo: Sisto Flores.

The Ruth Rolt fortepiano allows PBO to bring repertoire that Oregon has rarely heard before. For example, PBO will include in its next season one of Mozart’s last piano concertos played by Zivian on the Rolt fortepiano. This Friday, April 6, the Trio plus its new member will perform works by Mozart, Haydn, Hummel, and the Hungarian composer Józef Koschovitz at Portland’s First Baptist Church.

William Rolt and Portland poet Judith Barrington donated the Ruth Rolt fortepiano to the Portland Baroque Orchestra, in memory of his mother and her sister, respectively. Poet, memoirist, writer, and teacher Barrington, who could be considered the fortepiano’s aunt, is well known to the Oregon literary community, but not many Oregonians know about her late sister the concert pianist. You could say that love brought this precious instrument to Oregon — a pianist’s love for early classical music, for this instrument’s special qualities, and for Oregon.


Lawrence Brownlee preview: a journey

Celebrated tenor sings a Romantic classic and a new, timely composition about America's most pressing crisis


Despite being one of the world’s leading operatic tenors, as an African American man, Lawrence Brownlee is not immune to racism. “I feel it every day,” he told Oregon ArtsWatch. “I see signs all of the time.” Brownlee noted that even though he has sung in all of the major opera houses of the world, when he walks out of the opera house and onto the street, people don’t see him as an opera star. Instead he experiences the prejudices many black people suffer from on a daily basis; someone might clutch a purse more tightly, or walk with a slightly brisker step. “The experiences of my life inform my performance. I have a responsibility to talk about it.”

He’s also singing about it in Portland Wednesday night, when Friends of Chamber Music brings Brownlee and pianist Myra Huang to perform a new song cycle that explores some of the challenges and hopes of what it means to be black in America. “This [piece] means everything to me,” Brownlee says.

Lawrence Brownlee sings Sorey and Schumann Wednesday night at Portland State University.

A champion of bel canto repertoire, Brownlee will take a break from the operatic stage to present a recital of two notable works: Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) and Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycles of My Being. Separated by over 170 years, both compositions touch upon themes that were relevant then and now – love, hate, rejection, and hope. And he believes both will continue to be relevant for years to come.