MusicWatch Weekly: nevertheless, she persisted

This week's Oregon concerts include music by and about women, Italian opera, piano powerhouses, and more

“Born on a day God was drunk,” Maria inhabits a Buenos Aires demimonde populated by ghosts, criminals, marionettes, pasta makers, psychoanalysts and and other shady characters. She’s seduced by tango, becomes a prostitute, is murdered — and then things get really weird.

Eugene Opera performs ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ this weekend.

That’s just act one of Astor Piazzolla’s surreal, melancholy Maria de Buenos Aires, which Eugene Opera brings to the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater this Friday and Sunday. The great 20th century Argentine composer’s 1968 “tango operita” been performed often all over the world, including by Portland’s Third Angle. Set mostly in a shadowy Argentine night club, this production, this production features Colombian-born soprano Catalina Cuervo, who claims to have starred in the title role (with multiple opera companies) more often than anyone else, and also features experienced American baritone Paul La Rosa, Argentine born actor Milton Loayza, renowned Argentine tango dancers Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, and a quartet of local dancers.

Piazzolla’s tango-tinged music is as dramatically seductive as poet/lyricist/editor/musician Horacio Ferrer’s story is strange. In act two, Maria goes to hell — yet still she persisted. Among other adventures, she bears a child who may be herself, maybe a metaphorical parallel to Eugene Opera’s own recent financial collapse and rebirth? It’s good to have both the company, contemporary opera, and, on her 50th birthday, Maria de Buenos Aires back from the brink.
On Monday at Portland’s Old Church, FearNoMusic closes its season devoted to music that responds to today’s troubled times with “Hope In The Dark,” a concert that, like the Rebecca Solnit book it draws its title from, offers more than just sonic despair. Quartets by Kevin Puts (Dark Vigil) and Arvo Part (Da Pacem Domine) were composed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school slaughter and 2004 Madrid train bombings, respectively. Chinary Ung’s intense cello solo Khse Buon and Eve Beglarian’s haunting I will not be sad in this world arose from genocides that claimed the composers’ ancestors or family — the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Turkey’s massacres of Armenians. But hope as well as haunt emerge in Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts, inspired by her youth in China’s notorious Cultural Revolution-era labor camps, and in the title of Georges Lifermann’s “Ça ira mieux demain” (Tomorrow Will Be Better). The French-born composer, whose parents died in Auschwitz, survived World War II German-imposed childhood labor duty, became a popular songwriter in France, and lived happily for decades in Corvallis until his death in March at age 95.

New Oregon music is featured on Saturday when the Composers of Oregon Chamber Orchestra makes its concert debut at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. Prof, conductor, composer and all around contemporary music advocate Brian McWhorter leads performances of brand new works by a half dozen UO student composers. The show will be live streamed.

Uppity Women

Along with Maria, more uppity women are at it again this week in Oregon music. The Portland all-female a cappella vocal ensemble In Mulieribus, whose very name means “among women,” has championed women’s undervalued musical contributions since long before #MeToo became a hashtag. Friday and Sundays concerts at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Vancouver’s Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater, respectively, include Renaissance music written and sung by 16th century Italian nuns, including perhaps the first published composer in Western music, Suor Leonora d’Este, whose music was also featured earlier this year in Broken Consort’s show.

In Mulieribus sings Renaissance music by women composers.

And speaking of second chances, another Oregon soprano, Emma Lynn, sings The Miller’s Daughter (Die Schöne Müllerin), abetted by pianist Andrew Pham at Eugene’s First United Methodist Church Sunday afternoon. Franz Schubert originally wrote his immortal 1823 song cycle about unrequited love for a (presumably male) baritone singer, but as Northwest Art Song also showed last week, there’s no stopping Oregon female musicians who want to get in on the action themselves. With music so powerful, who can blame them?

Italian Adventures

Maria de Buenos Aires isn’t the only opera opening in Oregon this weekend. Rigoletto’s May 4-12 run at Portland’s Keller Auditorium marks Portland Opera’s sixth staging of Verdi’s often-performed 1851 classic of a court jester, his daughter, and the depraved Duke he serves. Stars include Met Opera tenor Barry Banks, baritone Stephen Powell, and several present and former Portland Opera resident artists, including Hannah Penn, all singing in Italian with projected English translations in this traditional production.

Barry Banks as the Duke in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

If Rigoletto doesn’t sate your jones for Italian Romantic music, there’s more Verdi, plus operatic faves by Puccini, Mascagni, Rossini and Resphigi’s great Roman musical postcards, Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) and Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) on Portland Columbia Symphony’s Friday and Sunday shows at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theatre. Soprano Coral Walterman will deliver the arias.

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s last shows were all Italian, but “The Leipzig Audition” concerts at Portland’s First Baptist Church Friday and Saturday and Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium Sunday recall that time history’s greatest composer won only the bronze medal. When JS Bach applied for the music director job at a Leipzig church in 1722, the committee ranked him third, offering him the job only when the two higher placed candidates, Georg Telemann (Bach’s friend and then Europe’s most famous composer) and Christoph Graupner (who?) turned it down — but only after negotiating salary increases with their current employers. This concert features music by all three composers, including PBO oboist Gonzalo Ruiz’s reconstruction of a lost Bach original, plus a tune by a son of a Bach.

There’s a bit of Italian music in Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Sunday concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (Tomaso Vitali’s Chaconne), along with Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But most of the program, like Welsh guest conductor Huw Edwards, hails from the British Isles: Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto (featuring soloist and PYP music director David Hattner, temporarily freed from conducting duties by his PYP predecessor Edwards, who also directed Portland’s Columbia Symphony and now leads the Olympia Symphony) and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad.

Piano Power

We thought we could add Yuja Wang, who was supposed to perform a solo recital in Portland Thursday, to this week’s list of assertive women but we regret to inform you that the charismatic pianist canceled the west coast leg of her tour due to illness. (Nor can you attend Tuesday’s performance by Jordi Savall, which has long been sold out). But more celebrities are coming, as you’ll learn in next week’s MusicWatch, and plenty of other options remain this week — including Kirill Gerstein is another talented pianist who’s become an Oregon favorite in his appearances here. He fills in for Wang (presumably not including donning her famous orange dress) on late notice Thursday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall by playing waltzes by Chopin, mazurkas by contemporary British composer/pianist Thomas Ades, duets by JS Bach, preludes by Debussy (all of his first book, some of the most potent piano music ever created), and Brahms’s second sonata.

Kirill Gerstein performs Thursday. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Another fine pianist who’s impressed Oregon audiences (in previous appearances at Chamber Music Northwest), Melvin Chen, returns Friday, courtesy of Portland State University Steinway Piano Series. At PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, he’ll play classics by Schumann, Liszt, and the first book of Leoš Janáček’s searching On an Overgrown Path.

Kalakendra presenting organization brings a different kind of classical music to Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Auditorium Friday when Uday Bhawalkar sings Dhrupad music, accompanied by Pratap Awad on pakhawaj percussion. The austere ragas constitute one of humanity’s oldest still-evolving musical forms, passed down through generations of families, and Bhawalkar, who lived and studied with one of the first families of dhrupad, is one of its acknowledged masters.

Uday Bhawalkar performs Sunday.

Finally, if you want to participate rather than just passively observing the music making, show up for Portland Sacred Harp’s free, Double All-Day Shapenote Singing on Saturday and/or Sunday at Portland’s Little Church. No singing experience is required, and songbooks will be available to help everyone join in this democratic, 200 year old American tradition where everyone’s in the choir.

More recommendations? Lay ’em on us in the comments section below.

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