Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 2: Oregon interludes

Oregon composers' music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.

Eugene composer, bassoonist and clarinetist Mike Curtis’s frequent visits to Mexico informed his delightful Mexican Fantasies, which opened The Mousai’s April 19 concert at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church. A cheery, danceable opening movement gave way to a stately, Moorish/Spanish-style second movement, then returned to the dance in a breezy final movements that might have profited from a perkier pace. ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow compared to “a smooth shot of mezcal going down.”

John Vergin (top) and Florian Conzetti (right) joined The Mousai, conducted by Mike Curtis, at First Presbyterian Church.

John Vergin (top) and Florian Conzetti (right) joined The Mousai, conducted by Mike Curtis, at First Presbyterian Church.

Curtis’s was the only Oregon music on the program of 20th and 21st century music whose real star was narrator John Vergin, one of Portland’s most valuable if under-sung performers in both theater and music. He ranged from charming to creepy in Washington DC composer Haskell Small’s engaging Peter and the Wolf-style Fantasy of the Red-Eyed Creature, based on a story made up by third graders, which really should become a staple of kids’ concerts, especially around Halloween. Voicing the crazy king and all three daughters, Vergin’s commanding performance in narrating well-chosen sections of Shakespeare’s King Lear wasn’t enough to salvage Vincent Persichetti’s 1948 piece of the same name. Despite dramatic percussion (again provided by the omnipresent Florian Conzetti, who also had a couple of orchestral gigs in addition the shows covered in this stretch) and piquant piano, the extended variations on too many similar ideas couldn’t sustain its length. And its performance and that of the following work, Janacek’s Mladi wind quintet, seemed less focused than the taut first half.

The official debut performance of a new Portland piano pair, XX Digitus Duo, also contained a new work by an Oregon composer, Portland State University prof Ken Selden, better known as a conductor. (He had another piece on a program at Marylhurst College a week later that I unfortunately missed.) From its pulsating Stravinskian opening through its sedate second section, followed by an urgent stretch and a brooding conclusion, Dialogues covers some interesting territory in its seven minutes.

XXDigitus Duo shared a piano at the Old Church.

XXDigitus Duo shared a piano at the Old Church.

The duo’s May 14 performance was accompanied by intentionally random images projected on a side wall, making it easy for anyone who didn’t want to be distracted  to avoid looking at them. The duo also projected slides in the opening work, Maurice Ravel’s beautiful Mother Goose suite. It’s a treat to welcome intrepid musicians like the Digitus Duo to the ranks of Conzetti, the Mousai, Third Angle, and so many others devoted to playing contemporary music in Oregon.

The next outburst of Oregon music in a “classical” setting I saw this spring occurred at the Astoria Music Festival’s sole contemporary music offering featured the music of North Coast native Israel Nebeker, best known as the creative force behind one of my favorite Oregon bands, Blind Pilot. He comes from a family with deep ties to Astoria arts — his father Royal was a beloved painter, printmaker and teacher there for four decades before his death last year.

Israel Nebeker performed with string quartet at the Astoria Music Festival.

Israel Nebeker performed with string quartet at the Astoria Music Festival.

Initially billed as including a new classical work by Israel, the June 16 showcase turned out to be merely Nebeker singing over string quartet arrangements of some of his spellbinding songs (including some from what promises to be powerful upcoming album), plus a couple of forgettable tidbits and a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night accompanied by a striking film, commissioned by the festival, by Takafumi Uehara. I doubt anyone minded. I sure didn’t. Richie Green’s tasteful arrangements left plenty of room for Nebeker’s plaintive tenor vocals and guitar (and on “Umpqua Rushing,” ukulele), although in a couple of cases, they seemed to warm up the emotion so much that it undercut the ethereal starkness at the heart of many Blind Pilot songs, which often adds so much poignance. In other cases, like the instrumental intros to “Joik #3” (a joik is a traditional song style of the north Scandinavian Sami people) and “What is Yet,” and the plucked cello bassline of “Seeing is Believing,” the strings added a dimension that made me hope to see Green and Nebeker working together again, with songs conceived for strings from scratch, like Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters. 

To the Makrokosmos

Which brings us back to Makrokosmos, the five-hour gallery show that included Kenji Bunch’s Unleashed set, whose earthy dance beats sounded about as far removed as imaginable from this year’s project’s primary focus: the relatively abstract music of one of America’s most visionary and singular living composers, George Crumb, who over the course of a five decade long career has constructed a completely original and instantly recognizable sound world.

Pianist Deborah Cleaver shows audience members how to get that special Crumb sound.

Pianist Deborah Cleaver shows audience members how to get that special Crumb sound.

Before the first set, devoted to volume I of Crumb’s 1972 masterpiece Makrokosmos, pianists Deborah Cleaver, Susan DeWitt Smith and Alexander Schwarzkopf enthusiastically elucidated the specialized techniques that help characterize Crumb’s music, and it was pretty fascinating to see where those weird sounds come from. They also made an insightful connection between Crumb’s music and Debussy’s, reminding us that even the most radical art grows out of historical sources.

In that first set, the pianists, especially Cleaver, really threw themselves into the drama of Crumb’s music, with extreme dynamics and total commitment. The gallery’s intimate space made the informal explanations feel relaxed, but also made Crumb’s explosive sounds almost frighteningly close. The only drawback for me was that so much of it felt nocturnal, but the sun was still streaming through the near sweltering gallery’s windows at 6 pm.

That crowd kept growing through Bunch’s 7 pm set and the 8 pm set, which began with Crumb’s 1973 Makrokosmos vol. II. Julia Hwakyu Lee really attacked Part I, with her piano sounding now like a harp, now a harpsichord, guitar, bass, thunder, even occasionally a piano. Harold Gray, assigned some of the night’s most colorful and extreme music in Part II, responded with a robust performance that drew some of the loudest applause of the long evening. After that apex, Third Angle pianist Smith played the night’s quietest music, applying delicate brush strokes that inevitably made us aware of passing police siren, squeaky chairs, and other audible realities. Cleaver delivered the final whispered pianistic prayer, ending the set on a hushed note.

Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho brought Makrokosmos Project to Portland.

Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho brought Makrokosmos Project to Portland.

The crowd began to dwindle during the intermission before hosts Stephanie & Saar took the benches for the evening’s fourth and final set. After Nikolai Kapustin’s Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” (“We have jazz envy,” Stephanie, a Portland native, admitted), they delivered the surprise of the night: University of Oregon prof David Crumb’s 1999 The Whisperer, which unlike its title, detonated dramatic, even explosive moments before calming into a nearly Arvo Pärt-like solace that felt earned. Although David, George’s son, was probably the least known composer on the program, his startling piece revealed a composer to be reckoned with on his own merits.

Despite a solid performance by S&S, John Adams’s rollicking Hallelujah Junction, a pulsating work that takes a robust idea and runs it past its driving radius, inevitably came off as a bit anticlimactic after the preceding emotional extremes. But this first experiment nevertheless proved a smashing success, with attendance so surprisingly strong that an exultant Saar Ahuvia announced that a second edition would follow next summer. It was one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments.

Don’t miss part 1 of our series, Drums along the Pacific, and part 3, Oregon composer showcases.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 

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

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