Mousai REMIX & Pyxis Quartet: expanded visions

45th Parallel Universe concerts feature music by Portland and African American composers

When 45th Parallel reached its 10th birthday this season, the Portland classical music organization expanded its name (to 45th Parallel Universe), its ranks, and its artistic vision, becoming a collectively run umbrella organization comprising five ensembles: two string quartets, a woodwind quartet, a percussion duo and a chamber orchestra.(See Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch story.)

mousai REMIX

The expansion produced a corresponding broadening of artistic vision, with a season packed with diverse concerts. On Friday, two 45th Parallel ensembles play back-to-back concerts embracing compositions that classical music institutions are often rightly accused of ignoring: music by African American composers, and new music responding to the concerns of here and now rather than there and then.

“Sons of the Soil”

To play classical compositions you need scores, and the lack of available scores by black composers is both a symptom of the racism that long excluded them from the classical canon, and one of many continuing obstacles to redressing that exclusion. When 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer asked Jennifer Arnold to program a concert of works by African American composers for her string quartet Mousai REMIX, her biggest challenge was obtaining music.

“In my research I realized how many string quartets by black composers were out there,” Arnold recalls, “but finding and buying them was very difficult.” (Stay tuned for Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about all the composers on the program.)

mousai REMIX violist Jennifer Arnold

The oldest composer featured on the 7 pm concert, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, wrote dozens of string quartets, but only a few were available for purchase. A renowned violin virtuoso, swordsman and military leader in his time, Bologne “was called the Black Mozart for a reason,” Arnold notes, praising his Classical era-style melodies.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasy Pieces aren’t in print, so the group is playing from a downloaded database score. “If you like (William) Walton, (Ralph) Vaughan Williams and other British Romantic music, you’ll love Coleridge-Taylor. He was highly regarded by them.”

Admirers of the folk-inspired Romantic music that the 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote during his American sojourn will appreciate 20th-century American composer Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, Arnold says. She says the program’s sole contemporary composer, Daniel Bernard Roumain, is “really great at crossing genres.” His fifth string quartet, Rosa Parks, offers a mix of contemporary “electronic-sounding things played on acoustic instruments. It’s not typical classical music,” she says. “Anyone who likes a groove can relate to it.”

That populist sentiment also inspired the concert’s name, drawn from a quotation by the most renowned African American classical composer, William Grant Still, who said he wrote a symphony not for elite listeners but for ”the sons of the soil.”

“I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived”

The 8:30 pm concert by 45th Parallel’s Pyxis Quartet was inspired by the horrific 2017 stabbings of three Portlanders on a MAX train as they tried to protect two teenage girls, one black and one Arab American, from a white man yelling hateful epithets at them. Ewer heard that the lone survivor of the stabbings, Micah Fletcher, was a poet also studying music theory at Portland State University and talked to him about creating an artistic response.

45th Parallel commissioned four poems from Fletcher, and music from four Portland composers inspired by them. Nicholas Yandell “gravitated toward the most visceral and violent, Bonnie (Miksch, a Portland State music professor) the most uplifting,” Ewer says.

Pyxis Quartet: clockwise from top, Blessinger, Noble, de Oliveira, Ewer

Fletcher’s PSU music theory professor, Texu Kim, set a poem in which Fletcher finds an old middle school yearbook and contemplates a simpler time in his life. Another Portland State prof, 45th Parallel composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, set a poem delineating the “difference between the simple narratives that as a society we all crave to come to terms with events like this, versus a very complex confusing reality,” Ewer explains. Fletcher will read his poetry before each performance and narrate his words in Yandell’s composition.

The Pyxis Quartet members — cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, violist Charles Noble and violinists Ewer and Ron Blessinger — performed for years as the Third Angle String Quartet, the veteran Portland new music organization that Blessinger directed for 17 years before moving over last year to become 45th Parallel interim executive director. But while the players in both concerts, all Oregon Symphony musicians, may be familiar to Portland classical fans, the music isn’t — and that’s still unusual in a genre that long fetishized the past at the expense of its contemporary relevance. In these concerts, 45th Parallel is expanding the musical universe for listeners too.

Mousai REMIX performs in Sons of the Soil, 7 p.m., and  Pyxis Quartet performs I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, 8:30 p.m. Friday at The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets online or 503-446-4227. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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