March Music Moderne reviews: Judith Cohen, Friends of Rain

Judith Cohen

Judith Cohen

by JEFF WINSLOW

Time was when an “obscure” classical concert was full of blips, bleeps and possibly even baloney – works written for an audience so specialized, they might not even deign to listen to classic modernists such as 12-tone music pioneer Arnold Schoenberg (who died in 1951) in their spare time, let alone travel to a concert to hear. If ten people showed up besides the composers and performers, the producer called it a success.

In contrast, the tiny audience that found its way to Portland Piano Company’s delightful tall-windowed small recital room last Friday afternoon was treated to a gem of a March Music Moderne concert by Seattle pianist Judith Cohen, refracting the early glimpse of spring just outside. The MAX train rumbled by a few times, but in the friendly ambience created by the music and the pianist, it almost seemed to belong.

Granted, the most fearsome living modernists on the program were represented by low-key, charming works. British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness (1980) is almost a pop tune, and Louis Andriessen’s Image de Moreau: Toccata (1999), by the Dutch composer’s own admission, begins somewhere around minimalism and ends up falling into the arms of late French Romanticism. It was thoroughly enjoyable, as was Cohen’s performance.

Most of the rest of the program focused on dances, particularly Tangos, from a variety of 20th and 21st century composers. They didn’t come from Argentina, but from Prague (Erwin Schulhoff’s from 1929’s Hot Music: Ten Syncopated Etudes), Seattle (recent works by Patrick Stoyanovich and Ken Benshoof) and Paris (Erik Satie’s puckish Tango Perpetuel from 1914, mercifully given only a handful of repetitions while March Music Moderne impresario Bob Priest read the accompanying “devilish” text in English). These were complemented by the late Seattle composer Alan Hovhaness’s rough and rustic Macedonian Mountain Dance (1937), which the dancers’ kinetic energy almost unglues from its home key, and several other dance-inspired works by Schulhoff, who was addicted to pounding the ivories in the jazz clubs of the Twenties. Of special interest was his first etude from Hot Music, which seemed to foreshadow some of György Ligeti’s more frenetic piano etudes, though without running off either end of the keyboard. In all these works, Cohen played with sureness and ease, well-judged tempos and a wide range of expressive touch.

For the finale, we heard the first three numbers from Bela Bartok’s 1926 Out of Doors. Cohen called it one of her favorite works, and it showed in every bar, from exuberant thumps and crashes to dense atmosphere to sweet snatches of tunes. She could be subtle too: mysterious blips in the Barcarolla touched down deftly, well under the surrounding volume level. We have many fine pianists in Portland, but I wound up wishing we could steal one from up north. I hope the next time she makes the trip down to perform, there’s no obscurity about it.

 Friends of Rain: Musical Variety

Cascadia Composers, the organization I serve as a board member, prides itself on putting on concerts full of variety, with anywhere from eight to a dozen composers represented. But I bow down to Friends of Rain, who in their March Music Moderne offering Sunday at noon at Lewis & Clark College, beat us fair and square with six works by only four composers. (Granted, and full disclosure here, two are Cascadia members.) Some of that variety was provided even within the work of special guest, Chicago composer Mischa Zupko, who showed us two very different sides of his musical personality in three works hot off the press, and who also graciously put up with a few probing questions afterwards.

Two of his works written within the last two years, Occupy and Love Obsession, featured tightly focused variations on incisive rhythmic and melodic bits, quickly building, even from scattered elements, a propulsive energy impossible to resist. Though Occupy was partly inspired by the political movement, Zupko wisely kept his commentary strictly musical, transmuting whatever thoughts he may have about the subject into an exciting and compelling work. Violinist Emily Cole, violist Miriam English-Ward, cellist Dorien de León, and pianist Susan DeWitt Smith stormed the streets.

As might be expected, Love Obsession had its softer – or were they darker? – moments, but the last of those gradually gathered steam and built to the most sustained climax of the whole program. Even with de León on cello and the composer at the piano, the concluding nod to harmonic tradition felt underplayed however. It needed rock concert volume! Maybe the recorded track which made the third performer in the work could be of some help there.

Zupko assured me afterwards that the program’s opener, Rising, from 2009, was just as tightly constructed as these two, but the basic melodic cell he demonstrated at the piano was diffuse by comparison. Though attractive and intriguing on its own, it took much longer to have its say and its pitch content spread more than it rose, spinning out over a harmonic background that also seemed to meander rather than rise. Possibly as a result, the advertised aural illusion, that the piece is always in ascent, simply didn’t materialize despite the sweetly impassioned performance of violinist Cole and pianist Deborah Cleaver. The extended piano postlude and its final surprising gesture also felt like dramatic missteps, attempting in too shallow and obvious ways to relate the music to Luke’s account of Jesus’s ascension into heaven and the disciples’ experience of his absence. Even a composer of Zupko’s impressive accomplishments may stumble when conceptual content is not sufficiently transmuted into that ineffable thing called “musical content.”

Yet on another level I couldn’t help but appreciate that he lavished such compositional attention and energy on this lyrical, highly melodic work, so very different from the other two. In this way he exemplified a growing trend in 21st century classical music, that composers feel more and more free to draw from a wide variety of the many disparate streams and traditions that have arisen over the last century or so without taking any of the polemics which usually accompanied them terribly seriously.

Any lingering sweetness was washed away by Lewis & Clark College faculty composer Michael Johanson’s bracing and jazz-tinged Rhapsody from 1998. It recalled later 20th century austerity by cutting the foundation from under a standard jazz harmony, leaving only the dissonant superstructure. But soothing doses of atmosphere, with bell-like echoes fading here and there, and episodes of squirrelly jauntiness created an engaging and satisfying aural experience. Johanson’s partner in the conspiracy was solo pianist Smith, who was on top of the unabashedly challenging work at all times, aggressive and delicate by turns.

Austerity rose up and vanquished all opposition in Ontario composer James Harley’s Song for Nobody for solo bass clarinet, several minutes of performer-punishing leaps between extremes of the instrument’s range. Harley was inspired by the undulating sand dunes of Middle Eastern deserts, with faint prayers wafting from distant mosques the only evidence of human habitation, but possibly because I’ve never been there, I couldn’t muster any sensual or emotional response. Clarinetist Dunja Jennings valiantly avoided all but a very few of the myriad squawk-pitfalls, though I was uncertain whether the occasional delightful multiphonics were intentional. I couldn’t escape the feeling that her task was so arduous in itself that there simply wasn’t any energy left over for whatever expressive content the composer may have intended, inviting a snarky rather than mysterious interpretation of the work’s title. In its defense, I overheard a Middle Eastern-looking student animatedly telling Harley how the piece reminded him of his time in Egypt. Also, the work was composed in 1990, a time when there were still very few cracks in academic modernism’s facade of anhedonia.

A particularly happy variety was provided by Portland composer Bonnie Miksch’s 2001 man dreaming butterfly dreaming man, a work which has been heard several times locally and deserves a much broader audience. (Miksch and Johanson are both Cascadia members.) Interposed between Zupko’s two barn-burners, its ethereal opening, lush harmonic touches and rich meditative string lines were just what was needed to keep them apart. And like them, though much slower and quieter, the trajectory towards its finish was inexorable. Unfortunately for the ether, the gods of harmonic production were not smiling on violinist English-Ward. However, her warmth elsewhere, along with pianist Carol Biel’s limpid tone, served the work well.

Simplicity. Complexity. Austerity. Lushness. Nonchalance. Passion. Driving rhythms. Timeless atmosphere. Bracing dissonance. Sweet, sweet consonance. Not every work performed by Friends of Rain spoke to me, but I appreciated even the ones that didn’t for the wide variety they brought to my concert experience. I can only hope Cascadia’s next concert does it as well.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, who recently tried out adding “producer” to the other two pursuits in a March Music Moderne concert of his own and his oldest brother Walter’s (1947-1998) music. Reviewing is definitely easier.

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Wow, you rollicking funsters @ OAW continue to present as fine new music citizens via your ongoing coverage of MMM IV – thanx so much & don’t stop now! :)))

    Unfortunately, i had to miss the Friends of Rain concert even though my good CANADIAN friend, James Harley, was represented by his wicked bass clarinet solo. BTW, FoR is the only ensemble other than my own Free Marz String Trio that has appeared on all 4 MMM editions to date. They are always welcome baaaack!

    Ah, yes, Judith Cohen, another old friend from my Seattle days with Marzena & Seattle Spring. Isn’t she absolutely wonderful in every regard? She brought a rich & wonderfully curated program to PDX enabling us to hear some first rate music that sadly resides below most pianists’ radar. Judith dispatched her truly unique program with total class & technical/interpretative command. Additionally, I was thrilled to report that her stellar performance was 100% free of attitude, stagey posturing & audience shout outs. Sometimes it is simply enuff to let the music do the “talking.”

    And, yes, most definitely, I have already invited Judith back for MMM V: 20-29 March 2015 — see y’all there & then for what will undoubtedly be another festival highlight.

    • bob priest says:

      PS
      Of course, I will take the lessons I learned from Judith’s straight-up/no baloney concert & apply them to my own direct productions when appropriate. Yes, school is ALWAYS in session for mmme! :)))

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