Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 3: Composer showcases

Spring concerts shine a spotlight on Oregon music's present and future.

“This one’s called ‘Taciturn,’” deadpanned composer Ted Clifford from his keyboard, “so I don’t have much to say about it.” The concision of all the tunes the Portland composer played in his enjoyable concert at southeast Portland’s Woodstock Wine & Deli came as a surprise, considering how much the music he played from his agreeable new album, Azir, is influenced by jazz — a genre better known these days for giving performers ample to stretch out and follow long meandering improvisatory paths.

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett  played music from Clifford's "Azir."

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett played music from Clifford’s “Azir.”

Clifford’s concert is one of several spring shows devoted mostly to the music of a single Oregon composers whose coverage here follows part 1 of our series (which examined Oregon composers’  place in the West Coast’s legacy of percussion music) and Part 2, which looked at concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among works by composers not lucky enough to live here. Like the other spring and early summer concerts covered in this series, I enjoyed much of the music I heard in these shows. Yet I missed even more what I didn’t hear.

In that May 2 CD release concert, Clifford’s enticing music ranged from wistful (a reminiscence of his father) to upbeat to nostalgic (covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a reharmonized version of the classic jazz ballad “But Beautiful,” a Frank Zappa tune, Cole Porter’s standard “Night and Day.”) World music influences pervaded a couple of pieces, including CD’s title song, while some attempted funk cooked “Bacon and Eggs.”

But the covers only underscored, by contrast, just how unconventional Clifford’s originals tend to be — even though they often followed standard jazz structure (group entrance stating a theme, followed by a succession of improvised solos by keyboard player Clifford and his sterling soloists, Oregon Jazz Hall of Fame bassist/composer David Friesen and drummer Charlie Doggett; guest artists pitched in on the second half) and avoided self conscious avant garde gestures. In fact, those formulae, while familiar to jazz fans, sometimes seemed to shackle Clifford’s creativity — I’d love to hear this promising composer stretch out more and apply his obvious musical gifts to other configurations besides the standard jazz piano trio.

Goebel, Friesen and Doggett performed at Portland Piano Company.

Circle 3 Trio (Goebel, Friesen and Doggett) performed at Portland Piano Company.

A week earlier, Friesen and Doggett joined their regular pianist, Greg Goebel, in Circle 3 Trio’s CD release concert at Portland Piano Company. But Friesen’s creativity is so irrepressible that most of the set consisted of new material written since that album, the gorgeous When the Light Falls, was recorded at PPC and at studios in Arizona and Germany. (Friesen spends much of his year touring in Europe and Asia, where he’s venerated by jazz lovers.) Goebel gave the company’s Fazioli piano a fine workout in pieces ranging from sunny and bright (“Romantic”) to Monk-ish (“Basie’s Strategy”) to driving “Zoo” to wistful (“Like Father,” another paternal tribute) to downright pretty (“When You Hear the Call”) to upbeat (“Bright Light Sky,” inspired by a Louisville lightning storm, and “Stepping Stone,” built, like many of Friesen’s finest, on a potent bass riff. Jazz insiders have long regarded Friesen as one of the coast’s — and the country’s — finest jazzers, and I wish more Oregon music fans appreciated his continuing creativity and always compelling performances.

Nature Music

The week before hosting Circle 3, Portland Piano Company brought another Cascadia Composer, Lisa Marsh. Although the poorly promoted concert occurred on the same night as the Martinu Quartet was playing music by another Cascadia Composer, Tomas Svoboda, and Third Angle was playing more new American music across town, the intimate space enjoyed a surprisingly good turnout.

Like Clifford, Marsh looks for influence beyond classical predecessors, and her music therefore appeals to a much broader range of listeners than just classical fans. She’s also an excellent pianist, and for the opening number, the pastoral From the Sea, joined Connie Titterington at the keyboard, and even reached into the piano for some Cowell-like effects. Marilyn Maricle’s drawings of fish and other animals were projected on a too-small screen behind the players, and striking black and white nature photography by Brian Marsh enhanced the next four-hand piece, Storm Over High Desert, whose warm lyricism suddenly sped into an unexpectedly stormy ending.

Nature — one of the elements, along with repetition, experimental attitude (including tuning experiments) and others identified by Alex Ross as hallmarks of West Coast music — also informed the third piece, Hymnos, for piano, horn and clarinet, with rocking arpeggios evoking ocean waves in the first movement, “Sirens.” The haunting next movement, “Wraiths,” featured increasingly aggressive piano chords and glissandos before crashing to a halt. The tuneful “Moonglade” led into the jazz-influenced “Labyrinth,” which Marsh said was inspired by the interconnections between men and women, with the two wind instruments (played by Andrew Chavez-Kline and Melissa Robinson) ultimately waltzing together.

Titterington and Marsh played the latter's music at Portland Piano Company.

Titterington and Marsh played the latter’s music at Portland Piano Company.

Nature — the human kind — was the subject of the final piece, the three-part Human Nature, in which Marsh was joined by the splendid soprano Vakare Petroliunaite and guitarist Dustin Silva in settings of poetry by Deborah Buchanan, who read the lyrics before they played the songs. The first, “Counting Again, Beginning at One,” addressed a lost lover or friend. The music for “I Hear You Breathing” evoked joy and gratitude, while the intensely dramatic “Distillation” showcased Silva’s extremely cool percussive garnishes, which the audience cheered. In fact, the show received such an exceptionally warm reception that I hope Marsh repeats it in a setting where a bigger, and broader audience can hear a composer who uses relatively conventional styles and forces in such creative and compelling ways.

Birthday Salute

The music of another PSU prof, Tomas Svoboda, was the subject of a 75th birthday tribute concert to the composer who retired some years back after a two decade long teaching career there. And percussion again spiced the May 20 program, which opened with four players stationed along the sides of PSU’s low-lit Lincoln Recital and PSU prof (and FearNoMusic stalwart) Joel Bluestone onstage, playing a simple, almost childlike melody on marimba, while student players Dianna Hnatiw, Maxwell Kilpin, and Audrey Swanson producing percussive sensurround sound that made it feel like we were inside a big clock. Lisa Marsh followed with a recent (2010) unpublished Svoboda piano solo, the dirge-y Ancient Monastery, that used the lowest part of the piano’s range to summon a sepulchral atmosphere, which contrasted with the Debussian feeling of the appropriately titled 1977 Nocturne, played by pianist Thomas DeNicola.

Gray, Stanford, and Carlson played Svoboda at Portland State.

Gray, Stanford, and Carlson played Svoboda at Portland State.

Harpist Jennifer Craig reaffirmed the potency of Svoboda’s latter-day period with selections from another captivating 2010 piece, Charms for Harp, which ranged from Takemitsu-like moodiness to playful to buoyant — my favorite set of the showBluestone had a lot of fun with the virtuosic xylophone passages at the end of the first movement of Svoborda’s 2009 Migrating Message, but the electronics weren’t always as convincing. Susan Chan brought out unsentimental charm that radiates through selections from Svoboda’s 1977-78 Children’s Treasure Box; his music for young players constitutes another valuable contribution to music from one of Oregon’s most esteemed composers.

The concert closed with one of his most popular hits, the fetching Dreams of a Dancer, originally composed for Svoborda’s own Trio Spektrum, with emeritus PSU prof (and former Florestan Trio pianist) Harold Gray at the keyboard this time and original clarinetist Stan Stanford joining PSU faculty flutist Sydney Carlson. In all, it was a sweet tribute to one of the school’s — and the state’s — most treasured artists, and it was gratifying to see him there in the audience, looking much recovered from the serious stroke that felled him a couple years back. I only wish the show had been better publicized.

In Good Hands

One final outburst of Oregon music brings us back where we started: at another Cascadia Composers concert, on July 16 at Portland’s Old Church, with the latest edition of In Good Hands, one of Oregon’s most valuable music series, which connects tomorrow’s young pianists with today’s Oregon music. While the annual concert is primarily designed to expand the palettes of young players to include music of their own time and place rather than the usual focus on music written centuries ago and oceans away, I think plenty of music lovers would enjoy seeing these young players, or even other pianists, performing some of these brief works by today’s Oregon composers at other Oregon classical music shows, whether sponsored by Cascadia or not. While several pieces seemed primarily pedagogical (focusing on practice of certain techniques or musical forms), others, like the first two on the program by Mark Vigil and Timothy O’Brien, featured memorable melodies, while Lisa Marsh’s “Fantasea” and Tristan Bliss’s “Conversation with Literature” would easily highlight any program for anyone who enjoys accessible classical music.

Cascadia’s aren’t the only composers who, freed from some assumed obligation to create Major Musical Statements, reveal considerable charm and ear-friendliness in their music for students, like Jan Mittelstaedt’s aptly named “Retro I,” which uses a snippet from “Blue Suede Shoes,” the dusky mood of her “Fire Island Sunset,” or Gary Noland’s quirkily charming miniatures “Broom Brigade” and “Blues Flash,” Dan Brugh’s two contributions, and the latest in Cynthia Gerdes’s continuing series of concise works inspired by Oregon birdsong. Tomas Svoboda has been doing this sort of thing for years now, and not surprisingly, a couple of his organ pieces  were among the shows many highlights, as was Paul Safar’s moving “Montage.”

My favorite moment was Jennifer Wright’s closing “X Chromosome,” featuring a quintet of toy pianos and a score that allows the young pianists to create their own parts “by combining, repeating or ignoring isolated notated musical snippets at will,” her program note explains. “The catch is that each performer must choose and maintain a tempo that is unrelated to the others.” Sounds like a recipe for cacophony, but like its evident inspiration, Terry Riley’s 1964 landmark In C, Wright’s piece succeeded so well that even the initially nervous young players issued big grins of relief and triumph when they somehow managed to nail an ending so deftly achieved that it made the whole piece sound perfectly planned, a testament to the pianists’ listening skills and creativity.

Piano students play Jennifer Wright's "X Chromosome" at In Good Hands. Photo: Jennifer Wright.

Piano students play Jennifer Wright’s “X Chromosome” at In Good Hands. Photo: Jennifer Wright.

This series started with a look at West Coast music’s past. This last concert showed that the future of Oregon contemporary classical music really is in good hands. The sheer variety of music listed in this snapshot series reflects the state’s 21st century diversity. And this limited survey doesn’t even include other outlets of Oregon composition, like the creative jazz emerging from groups like Blue Cranes and the ensembles associated with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, nor the music of the two composers probably most nationally recognized, David Schiff and Robert Kyr. But even this single spring journey through Oregon contemporary classical music illustrates the wonderfully wide range of original musical styles developing here, encapsulated (although of course today’s Oregon music is impossible to encapsulate) by Kenji Bunch’s eclectic, often vernacular-influenced voice. As I’ve noticed many times in recent years, much contemporary Oregon classical music would appeal to the core classical music audience that now frequents museum music shows all over the state — if only presenters would give it a chance.

Lou Harrison (l) and John Cage composed for and directed a pioneering percussion ensemble.

Lou Harrison (l) and John Cage composed for and directed a pioneering percussion ensemble.

Still, when I compared the contemporary classical Oregon music of early 2015 with that of the pioneers Alex Ross praised in his appearance with Third Angle, much of it sounded pretty conventional, nowhere near as startling as those earlier West Coast movements like Harrison and Cage’s 1930s percussion ensemble music cited in Cowell’s article, or the protomiminalism that emerged from the Bay Area in the early 1960s. It’s hard to remember in these days when everything’s available at a click that audiences for that music had literally never heard anything like it, yet it drew steadily increasing audiences (many from outside the classical museum music club) and eventually became incorporated into the contemporary classical mainstream, and beyond.

By contrast, with the exception of Bunch and a few others mentioned earlier, much of what I heard, while appealing and even at times beautiful, looks primarily inward and backward, to hoary classical music traditions that will certainly please the classical in-crowd, if “crowd” is even the right word, and if that audience could be bothered to explore unfamiliar names. In their time, Cowell, Cage and Harrison were considered (to use Cowell’s term) “ultra modernists”; their music looked to the future, though not (before Cage’s turn to chance music at least) at the expense of audience interest. I heard little this spring anywhere near that startling. Coming from a region with a deserved reputation for artistic originality (evident in other genres, including pop music), that’s disappointing — too much (to play on the title of Cowell’s important article) ho-hums along the Pacific.

Nor (again with some notable exceptions) did I hear much of the other side of contemporary composition of those eras — music that also ventured outside classical traditions, but this time to contemporary popular music, like the jazz that besotted George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein and (in his early phase) Aaron Copland, who later of course embraced folk influences. Minimalists Riley and Reich were also deeply influenced by jazz and world music. The 21st century equivalents of the popular influences those composers (who were in their 20s and early 30s when they made their creative breakthroughs) embraced — from electronic dance music to hip hop to the global sounds whose presence in American music was ignited by Cowell and Harrison —were only intermittently audible in the admittedly limited sample of sounds I experienced, which means there’s little to attract audiences from non-classical music traditions, especially younger listeners.

I’m delighted to see so many Oregon composers creating music that appeals to classical music fans and maybe some some jazz listeners, but if they want to win younger, larger audiences, I hope to hear more of them taking the kind of creative yet audience-accessible risks that their West Coast predecessors — Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Riley and the rest — did when they were transforming American music. Then the next time Alex Ross or one of his successors comes to town, he or she can tell us about those 21st century Oregonians who continued the musical revolutions that started here almost century ago.

What about you? What trends are you hearing in contemporary Oregon classical music? What’s lacking? What’s inspiring? Have you heard some memorable music by Oregon composers this year? Let our readers know in the comments below. 

Read part one of our series, devoted to the West Coast percussion music legacy, and part two, which covered Oregon music embedded in concerts devoted mostly to sounds from elsewhere.

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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