Concert reviews: Resonance Ensemble, Muse:Forward

When it comes to new music concerts, bigger (programs, venues) isn't necessarily better

Resonance Ensemble performed at Portland State University.

Resonance Ensemble performed at Portland State University.

This week, we’ve been chronicling some of the many contemporary music concerts Portland audiences have been fortunate enough to hear this spring. It’s been gratifying to hear so much contemporary music, much of it homegrown, performed here over the past few months, and to see how so much of it had broad, not just niche, appeal. I came away really appreciating how so many Oregon performers and composers are really making intriguing, often quite moving music that almost anyone could enjoy, without dumbing it down. Refreshing the repertoire with music from the here and now is a necessary first step to making contemporary classical music culturally relevant again.

Yet as I discovered this spring, playing contemporary music by local composers is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a musical revival. If classical musicians want to reach bigger audiences, the players might take some cues from theater artists, who (ideally) never stop thinking about what the audience is experiencing at every moment, not just the quality of the individual pieces played on the program. As noted in the previous posts in this series, these admirable musicians could often add more attention to audience experience to the list of ingredients required for a really satisfying musical feast. And as a couple of last month’s concerts revealed, that means thinking harder about how size matters, both in what we hear and where we hear it.

Resonance Ensemble

The alien abduction chronicled in this series’s previous post nearly made me late to my second concert that Sunday, the estimable Portland choir Resonance Ensemble’s collaboration with Cascadia Composers. I slipped into it after walking across downtown Portland just before the group launched into Mark Vigil’s evocative, dawn-dappled The Sun is the Ocean, augmented by Jenny Lindner’s harp interludes and Mel Downie Robinson’s expert traversal of its tough high-soprano solos. Like most of the other pieces on the program, it effectively evoked nature as viewed through a Northern lens — composers from Northern Europe and the Pacific Northwest.

The program flagged until Resonance sang Jeff Winslow’s incantatory The Sun Never Says (which I admired at a Portland Vocal Consort performance before he became an ArtsWatch contributor), with its increasingly piquant harmonies, abruptly interrupted by a dissonant piano figure, eventually erupting before finally settling (surprisingly, given the exultant ending of the short Hafiz poem it sets) into an uneasy though satisfying resolution. Informed by the Portland composer’s time working on Alaskan fishing boats, Jack Gabel‘s The Moon’s Passing Smile then struck an appropriately contemplative mood, like the one that often descends when I gaze out to sea. Hugo Alfven’s The Evening brought the first half to a gentle close.

The choir opened the second half with Portland composer Stacey Philipps’s shimmering Aurora Borealis, performed by a small vocal ensemble of Resonance singers gathered at the back of Lincoln Recital Hall; the ending luminously evoked the moment in John Van Alstyne Weaver’s poem when the Northern Lights emerge. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s Northern Lights took a lusher approach to the same subject, glazed by some implied iciness. Graced by Lewis & Clark college professor Brett Paschal’s chimes and Shohei Kobayashi’s amplified water glasses, Estonian composer Eriks Esenvalds’s piece by the same title proved to be the most rapturous of the afternoon.

That would have been more than enough to satisfy most listeners, but Resonance saved the most ambitious for last. However, after two concerts, my ears were pretty much full by the time Renee Favand-See’s Cycles received its world premiere. The five-movement setting of Wendell Berry poems was inspired by the Portland composer’s turbulent emotional journey following the recent death of her newborn son, and the emotional power of that experience rang through in several poignant moments, and not always where I might have expected them. It’s a rich work with moments of great power whose complex emotional tapestry suits its complicated subject matter, but it’s tough to assess a new creation on first hearing, and I have to confess that by the end of my second concert of the day (especially arriving after an already overlong program), I wasn’t able to fully assimilate it. Still, I heard enough beauty in Cycles to know that deserves more performances, and soon, I hope.

Nevertheless, although it took place in one of my favorite performance venues in all of Oregon, the basement recital hall at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, and rippled with vividly performed music that you didn’t have to be a choral music nerd to enjoy, the concert still felt like too much. While the venue wasn’t too big, the program was. I could have done without several of the weaker first half pieces, or might have enjoyed an all-Pacific Northwest concert, saving the three European works for another concert. And as always seems to happen in these epic shows, several performances would have benefited from the greater rehearsal time afforded by biting off less and chewing more.

Muse:Forward

I ended my spring fling into contemporary classical music at one of my favorite venues for music, The Waypost in Northeast Portland. Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser deserves the credit for realizing that the little cafe would provide the ideally intimate, informal atmosphere that would break down the barriers between classical music and listeners. Her successor, Christopher Corbell, realized that the same factors apply to contemporary classical music. Of course, it’s too small to fit any ensemble much bigger than a string quintet (it has an excellent piano), and holds only a few dozen listeners, a fraction of the thousands that throng Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Eugene’s Hult Center. But it brings music closer to listeners than any other place I know, and the delectable, affordable food and microbrews certainly add to the appeal.

This night, the Waypost hosted the debut of Corbell’s new project Muse:Forward. Separate from CRPDX, the monthly series aims to bring today’s music creators and fans together in an open-minded, non-genred setting that facilitates creative interactions among musicians from different musical tribes — classical, electronica, improvisatory, and more.

John Berendzen plays RoboHorn at Muse:Forward

John Berendzen plays RoboHorn at Muse:Forward

This first attempt bodes well for the series, with solid turnout for the two featured-composer showcases, followed by an open-mike session — maybe four or five dozen listeners rotating through over three hours. Young composer Emyli Poltorak’s  set opened with sultry deep bass electronics, looped percussion and cello, conjuring a sort of cyber casbah vibe. Standing on the makeshift “stage” space next to the piano, the composer took the vocal role in her Alpha Beta, intoning sentences (drawn from reference works) about ancient Phoenician, Greek, Persian, and Egyptian alphabets over a cello drone and saxophone riffs, adding yips,  squeaks and other vocalizations. The audience responded warmly.

Another Portland composer, John Berendzen, followed by wandering the cafe while playing long tones on what he called his Robophone, occasionally playing a chord or two on the piano. Though some conversations continued, the atmosphere grew hushed as the modified horn sounded now like a shofar, now like a kazoo, and the layered electronic sounds coalesced into a sonic haze. Occasional technical glitches only slightly smudged the experience, and again the audience seemed receptive, as it did for contemporary music by CRPDX regulars Patrick McCulley and Mitchell Falconer (who teamed up for a terrifically tight performance of Pull by James Matheson) and Josh Kreydatus. Other musicians performed, too, including an accordionist who played everything from Patsy Cline to an Icelandic murder ballad, a noise musician who deployed his sound-producing gadgetry that emitted textured ambient buzzes and whines, an acoustic guitarist and bandleader who played and sang ethereal original songs, and more. If you want to experience unconventional new Oregon music being born, Muse:Forward (which passes the hat rather than charging for admission) seems a sympathetic place to do it.

More Than Music Matters

In his 2012 book, How Music Works, visionary musician David Byrne reminds us of what other writers have long noted: music depends much on context — the social conditions in which it was created, the venues where it was originally performed, and so on. Echoey Gothic cathedrals, for example, were much friendlier to modal choral music than to either percussive West African sounds (created for non-reverb outdoor performance) or harmonically dense Romantic music whose “shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed,” Byrne wrote, “a real sonic pileup.” By the same token, arena rock’s waves of amplified “rousing, stately anthems” succeed better than acoustic, funk, or dance music in vast, acoustically unfriendly spaces.

Few presenters here have much choice of venues; most Oregon halls and churches are bigger than they should be for much of the music performed there, but musicians often can’t afford to stage more performances for smaller crowds each time, and so ideal intimacy is sacrificed to irresistible economics. Yet as Byrne notes, we can’t pretend context doesn’t matter. If they want audiences to keep coming back, musicians need to adapt to those less-than-ideal circumstances and think harder about what kind of music suits the venue, and vice versa.

Moreover, with the music already at a disadvantage by being unfamiliar and performed in relatively unsympathetic spaces, like some (but not all) churches, for example, performers must present it in ways that don’t bore or exhaust listeners already distanced from it. That means tighter, better rehearsed performances that use the time and space adroitly to keep the audience hooked. We’ve reviewed several such concerts on ArtsWatch just in the past few months, so I know it’s possible. Merely presenting great music performed competently isn’t going to win new audiences or maintain old ones — particularly with the high ticket prices I see too often.

And how about easing the endurance contests? Everyone wants to give listeners their money’s worth, which is admirable, but I regularly see more empty seats in the second half of long classical concerts after intermission. Of course there are exceptions, such as operas and events that allow listeners to come and go (like Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach) and otherwise change the standard formula. Yet I’ve heard other listeners complain about the length of various Oregon concerts.

Things may be starting to change. One of Oregon’s most forward-thinking music organizations, Third Angle New Music (which presented a pair of welcome contemporary music programs this spring that, alas, I was unable to attend), next year will  offer a new season format featuring a five-concert set of hour-long studio performances in southeast Portland’s wonderfully intimate dance/music/theater venue, Studio 2@Zoomtopia. And the august New York Times is now also questioning the value of intermissions, which we criticized (in certain contexts) last year for contributing to the length of concerts, which in turn discourages attendance by those who have to get up early the next day, or pay the babysitter overtime, or just want to avoid exhaustion from the evening’s entertainment.

But I also wonder whether my own perspective is warped by the fact that I hear a lot more concerts than the average listeners — and that I don’t have to pay for them. So I’ll pose the question to ArtsWatch readers: would you feel cheated if you attended, say, only one concert a month or even fewer, and paid $20 and up for a ticket, and it ended an hour or so later rather than two or three — even if that hour was better rehearsed and performed? (Would shorter performances would permit smaller ticket charges?) I’m genuinely curious about this, and I bet plenty of Oregon musicians and presenters are, too. Of course there’s no universal rule here, but what do you think about these extra-musical issues — concert length, venues, programming, and the rest ? Please let us know in the comments below.

Read the first two parts of this little spring series here and here.

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

2 Responses.

  1. Valarie says:

    One of the things I used to love about the older TBA programs was that it was, quite literally, time-based art – the initial plan was that no shows should be over an hour. This enabled me to see more than one show in a night, and also meant I had a much higher risk threshold – I can sit through anything for an hour, but beyond that, if I’m not enjoying it, I start to feel resentful. So I’d probably pay more to keep a concert’s length to just (a quality) 90 minutes. When it goes beyond two hours, the magic starts to wear off – but that’s probably just me. (I feel the same way about movies.)

    Also, I’ve come to far prefer chamber music to large symphonies. I usually get my classical fix now at McMenamins’ Broadway Classical Pub – not because it’s free, but because it’s intimate and relaxed. I’m also looking forward to Third Angle’s porch music show, which I’ve never done before but looks lovely.

    Regarding programming, I have no interest in local composers. That’s almost a detriment to me on a program. I love Mozart, but the OR Symphony doesn’t, shall we say, dwell on him – I swear it seems like every concert, every year, for decades, has been Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Dvorak. I’d also love to hear minor and unexpected composers, like Hummel.

    Finally, I want to see classical music come out to meet us, rather than us go to it. More of that is happening with the examples you cite above, Third Angle, the McMenamins nights I mentioned, and even (finally!) the OR Symphony’s Classical Up Close program, which I only heard about after it was over. I’d love to see more opportunities around town like the Old Church’s Wednesday lunch concerts (which I can never go to because I work in N. Portland).

    • Thanks for your comment, Valarie. I agree that with so much impersonal, blockbuster sized entertainment blaring at us, an intimate performance has its own special appeal. I guess the question is to what extent intimacy can co-exist with economic sustainability, but I’m glad to see Third Angle, Oregon Symphony musicians and so many others experimenting with new ways of bringing us closer to the action. And please don’t write off Oregon composers — some good stuff happening nowadays from the locals. You can sample some of it for yourself at our Oregon ComposersWatch, where Oregon composers have links to samples of their work. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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