Oregon music on record 2015: Contemporary classical

21st century sounds from Oregon composers and musicians

Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, and this one covers mostly contemporary music from Oregon composers. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 20122013, and 2014, or our previous entry focusing on Oregon early music ensembles.

David Schiff CD Cover ImageDavid Schiff: Chamber Music Northwest Premieres (2000-2014)
“All of my music is a form of autobiography,” writes Portland composer David Schiff in the liner notes to this new compilation. Judging by this two-disk survey compiling festival performances of five of his most recent compositions, the 70 year old composer has led a pretty fascinating musical life, and this important set chronicles the latest stretch.

The release is a product of one of Oregon’s most fruitful creative collaborations: the three-decade long partnership between Chamber Music Northwest and Schiff. Almost alone among major Oregon music institutions, CMNW has invested in its hometown’s creative potential through its frequent commissions of new music from the Reed College prof. The result is a body of chamber music that stands with any other American composer’s of the period.

Schiff’s autobiography begins in his New York birthplace, and this set accordingly opens with his 2000 New York Nocturnes, whose piquant jazz touches evoke the city’s jazz scene Schiff explored so assiduously in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, but it also brings in Yiddish and other influences. As in the rest of the music here, Schiff uses such elements not as pastiche but as an organic element to tell a larger story, just like any other classical composer would incorporate idioms from other musical genres. Schiff doesn’t write classical lite or faux jazz: he composes original, tuneful, vital music that adroitly draws on jazz and many other ingredients.

For example, Schiff’s eclectic Nonet #1 for four clarinets, string quartet and double bass rides the chord progression and other idiomatic elements of Charlie Parker’s bop classic Koko. The second movement also channels Bela Bartok, while the third “take[s] the listener through a rapid tour of my musical universe with stops in New Orleans, Jamaica, and Minsk,” Schiff writes. And yet it doesn’t feels like a mishmash or self conscious exercise in musical eclecticism. By the time he wrote these mature works, Schiff had throughly assimilated his inspirations and learned how to bend them to his own expressive ends.

Another of those inspirations permeates this album. The last movement of New York Nocturnes presents a pensive portrait of a gray New York dawn that one might even call impressionistic, so it’s no surprise to learn from the program notes that “I’ve lived my whole life with Debussy’s music,” Schiff writes. “When I was five or six, my parents got a recording of La Mer and I listened to it about ten times a day for the next ten years.” The set contains Schiff’s charming chamber ensemble arrangement of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite for solo piano, premiered last year at CMNW, including his “ghost” arrangement that transforms the final, familiar “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” into Schiffed-up jazz dance.

One of those Debussy arrangements, “The Snow is Dancing,” also appears in its original incarnation as part of Schiff’s 2013 Borrowed Times, equally tasty arrangements of seasonal songs (“It Might as Well Be Spring,” “Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves”) that further blurs whatever demarcation exists between jazz, pop and classical songs, just as so much of the music here blurs the distinction between composition and arrangement.

The longest work here, Borscht Belt Follies, also transgresses definitions. It’s one of those combos of theater and music that have gone by various names throughout history. In segments interpolated between klezmer influenced musical sequences, Schiff narrates his own autobiography, in a way, news-flashing headlines from his 1950s childhood about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Elizabeth Taylor’s conversion to Judaism, and America’s execution of the alleged spies the Rosenbergs. The music sometimes accompanies a Jewish frat chant or the Red-baiters’ chant “Are you now, or have you ever been?” The composer makes an engaging narrator, though I’d love to hear a professional actor with some experience of that time and place give it a try. While the composition boasts some delicious moments, I remember it holding my attention tighter live in 2011, thanks to the theatrical elements. (So does the admittedly deserved but overextended applause and post-applause crowd noise left on the end of the CD’s last track.) But its presence, ‘50s references and klezmer wails and all, does flesh out Schiff’s musical autobiography — a life story of crossing boundaries, of being, like another composer whose biography Schiff has written, Duke Ellington, beyond category.  You can pick up a copy at next month’s winter CMNW festival.

crumb red desert

Red Desert
David Crumb
Anyone expecting the 53 year old Eugene composer, a University of Oregon faculty member since 1997, to imitate the utterly original voice of his father, the great 20th century American composer George Crumb, will have those expectations confounded by this music written over the past couple of decades. Of course, few composers of any time have evinced so instantly recognizable a style as the senior Crumb. On this album, David hews to a more conservative late 20th century style with recognizable influences and even quotes from earlier classical composers, while skillfully employing modern techniques like polytonality and extended harmony.

If the date and title of 2001’s September Elegy didn’t signal its subject matter, the yearning violin (played by UO faculty violinist Fritz Gearhart), drifting piano (British Columbia’s Corey Hamm), and elegiac tone certainly evoke a sense of bereavement, loss, and dislocation, in one of the most poignant musical remembrances of the September 11 attacks (which occurred while Crumb was composing it) I’ve heard. The chuckling Soundings for bassoon, clarinet and piano sparkles with touches of Stravinsky, one of David’s primary influences, his father, George Crumb, once told me.

David calls the 40-minute long title track for solo piano “my most ambitious work to date….a veritable ‘symphony’ for solo piano.” Inspired by visits to southern Utah’s spectacular national parks, it follows the example of Olivier Messiaen’s Canyons of the Stars in impressionistically evoking the viewer’s emotional response rather than painting a musical portrait. From the airy first movement, “Rock Cathedrals Rising,” to the dramatic second movement, “Dance of the Hoodoos,” to the concluding “Arches: Fantasy-Passacaglia and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach,” Red Desert Triptych earns the overused description “epic” as much as any of the large scale solo piano works of Schubert or Liszt. (Note to potential performers: the composer allows each movement to be performed as a stand-alone piece.)

The stalwart pianist, Marcantonio Barone, who teaches at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore, also stars in the busy, bustling Primordial Fantasy for piano and chamber ensemble from 2002 that concludes the album on a colorful note. Solidly performed by a lineup of experienced solo and chamber musicians, including several UO faculty members, Red Desert qualifies as a major artistic statement that establishes Crumb as one of Oregon’s first-rank composers.

city of tomorrow
The City of Tomorrow
The award-winning ensemble returns with “a collection of works for wind quintet that inspire thoughts of the natural world: growth and evolution, dazzling beauty in infinite variation, dependence and interdependence, the susceptibility of our bodies to our environment, and the glacial flow of time. The City of Tomorrow looks to the evolution of humanity’s relationship to nature through the lens of the 18th- and 19th-century Romantic ideas of the Sublime: the feeling of being overwhelmed by natural phenomena, both beautiful and dangerous.” That excerpt from the liner notes bodes a heaviness not really evident in the music on this new release from the group whose members (including part-time Portlanders Elise Blatchford, flute, and Leander Star, horn) live in widely scattered cities.

The sleek midcentury modern sensibility evoked by its name emerges most clearly in Luciano Berio’s jittery ricorrenze (Recurrences), but the sound elsewhere ranges from ethereal (David Lang’s drifting breathless) to atmospheric (young Seattle composer Nat Evans’s hiking-influenced Music for Breathing, which includes guided improvisation and sequences for conch shells and stones) to dryly playful (Denys Bouliane’s Borges-inspired …a certain chinese cyclopaedia… which garbles bebop fragments in a decidedly non jazzy way). City of Tomorrow continues to expand the creative possibilities of a medium once thought archaic.

Five Shapes
Catherine Lee + Matt Hannafin Duo
This suite of free improvisations for oboe d’amore and percussion, recorded at Hudson Concert Hall in Salem, unites two of Oregon’s most experienced improvising musicians. Lee has performed both improvised and composed music at festivals and concerts around the world and with the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera orchestras. Hannafin studied with legendary Indian vocalist and teacher Pran Nath, minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, Iranian percussion master Kavous Shirzadian and more, and collaborated with musicians from the worlds of electronic, jazz and other improvised music.

lee:hannafinHannafin’s world music background may explain why much of this quintessentially now music, made up entirely in the moment, is so redolent of traditional music from non Western cultures like Japan and Korea, India and the Middle East. That breadth of influence suits Lee’s ability to make her archaic but alluring instrument — a staple of J.S. Bach and other Baroque composers — sound like so many other double reed and other sound sources from various traditions, from shofar to Balkan and Persian instruments. Add Hannafin’s varied percussion palette and the pair’s inventive musical imagination, and Five Shapes delivers a surprisingly multifarious experience. It’s less about whirlwind virtuosity than atmosphere, concocted from long tones, judicious use of musical space and silence, and intriguing musical choices that rarely sound studied; the music seldom stalls despite the fact that all the takes are unedited documents of what sprang from their imaginations on that late summer afternoon.

chanEchoes of China
Susan Chan
Read my ArtsWatch review of Chan’s 2012 concert that presented much of this music. The CD includes polished performances of music by contemporary Chinese and Chinese-North American composers Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Tan Dun, Doming Lam, and Alexia Louie.

Spirit of the American Range
Oregon Symphony
The title should be reversed; most of the music here has little if anything to do with Prairie America. But “Range of the American Spirit” might work, as this program covers a breadth of American orchestral aesthetic territory surprising considering the narrowness of the program’s time span: 1925-46. The orchestra graces the 1938 ballet suite The Incredible Flutist, Walter Piston’s most popular work, with all the color and character of its subject, which involves a marketplace and a circus, a good description of a Portland weekend. This performance brings out the fun without making it seem lightweight, nor straining to make it more than it is. Same goes for the one-time Bad Boy of Classical Music, George Antheil’s brief, fizzy Jazz Symphony, borne buoyantly along on 1920s breeziness. In the major work, Aaron Copland’s Symphony #3, the OSO displays its trademark crisp robustness in the upbeat passages, and real grandeur — without the grandiosity some orchestras lapse into — in the expansive sections.

OSO american rangeAs in its two previous impressive PentaTone disks in this series, the orchestra delivers tight, sometimes explosive performances that come close to replicating the experience of hearing this music live. It sounds as great on disk as I remember it live, and that was pretty spectacular. If you don’t have these recordings already, I recommend this one without hesitation.

While what’s on the disk is impressive, it’s what’s not here that’s concerning. In an age when recordings have become almost an afterthought — a way to stoke the audience for live performances rather than, as was the case for several previous decades, vice versa — why make a CD? It sure ain’t to make money. To show off the orchestra’s recently advanced in skill for national reviewers? Assuming we care what New York thinks — done. In fact, done three times in four years. More than one is a vanity project.

To commit new or unknown music to disk so that other orchestras can find out about it and play it for wider audiences? A worthy goal — but the newest music here is seven decades old, and it’s all been well recorded before and available. The production and most of the performances here are admittedly superior to most previous recordings I’ve heard, but really, any number of fine American orchestras can handle this repertoire with at least equal aplomb — not just the obvious candidates in Baltimore and New York and LA and San Francisco and Chicago, but also Nashville, Detroit, Louisville and more, and several already have.

What none of them, with the exception of the California orchestras that have played Lou Harrison’s music, are likely to do is record or commission orchestral works by Oregon composers. What’s more important: playing decades-old music a little better and a little differently than previous recordings, or bringing Oregon music to the world? The fact that Oregon’s own taxpayer-supported orchestra refuses to do so tells Oregonians just how little regard its leadership has for the creative culture of their home. Wouldn’t it be great to have a permanent document of this superb ensemble playing the music of our own composers? Oregon orchestras The chance to make a classical orchestral recording is rare these days, and it’s a shame that the one Oregon orchestra that’s had an opportunity to showcase Oregon music (like, say, David Schiff’s) to an international audience has now whiffed three times. On baseball fields, out there on the American range, that’s a strikeout.

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

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