Portland State Symphony preview: Confounding context

Orchestra performs music that appears in different incarnations from its source material

Everything is out of context at this week’s pair of Portland State University Orchestra concerts. Instead of their usual venue, PSU’s lovely Lincoln Performance Hall, the orchestra will perform at the historic Mission Theatre in Northwest Portland. Instead of standard orchestral fare, the student orchestra, led by PSU Director of Orchestral Studies Ken Selden, will play music by David Bowie, George Bizet, and Astor Piazzolla.

Even these three pieces are out-of-context: the orchestra will perform Bowie’s pop instrumental Abdulmajid in its orchestral arrangement by contemporary American composer Philip Glass and Bizet’s incidental music for the ballet L’Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles) as a concert suite (sans dancers), and 20th century Argentine composer Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, itself a recontextualized homage to Vivaldi. The Piazzolla suite will feature PSU’s new violin professor, Tomas Cotik, performing Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangement for orchestra and violin.

Ken Selden conducts the PSU Symphony Orchestra Wednesday and Thursday.

“I have always felt that a university orchestra doesn’t need to be in the concert hall all the time,” Dr. Selden told ArtsWatch. “It seems when we perform off campus, people come out of the woodwork to hear us. In addition to the music, people can relax with a beer or some food, and enjoy the company of their friends and family. Our audience is not there for the same reason that someone might go to hear a professional orchestra.”

Ever since singer and rock icon David Bowie departed this plane of existence earlier in the year, everyone from the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Museum of Science & Industry to Seu Jorge and Phish has lined up to pay him tribute, so it seems only natural that the PSU Orchestra would join in the eulogizing. Although Bowie stretched the boundaries of what popular culture can be, his music is still mostly a lot of rock songs; fortunately for us, several were recontextualized for orchestra by Philip Glass.

“Of Glass’s ten completed symphonies, two of them are based entirely on the music of David Bowie,” Selden said. “We know of no other contemporary symphonic composer who has done anything like this.”

The orchestra will be performing Abdulmajid, from Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony. Bowie originally recorded the instrumental track in Berlin with Brian Eno in 1977, but it remained unreleased until 1991, when it was remixed and named for Bowie’s wife, Iman Abdulmajid. Selden describes the song as having “a steamy, summery, exotic sound that I think will contrast well with the Piazzolla.” The Glass version “retains the original atmosphere, while developing the harmonic and rhythmic aspects to vast symphonic proportions.”

The orchestra’s performance of George Bizet’s L’Arlesienne music is not as far removed from its original context as Abdulmajid, but still has a twisty provenance: Bizet composed the incidental music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlesienne, which Daudet adapted from his earlier short story, in 1872. Shorter suites were later adapted from the full score, and have become popular in their own right, quite separate from Daudet’s play (which was, sadly, quite unsuccessful).

Bizet, whose orchestral tone Friedrich Nietzsche once described as “almost the only one I can endure,” is better known for his own “steamy, summery, exotic” opera, Carmen, but the score for L’Arlesienne comes with its own delights — not least a lovely and characteristically Provençal farandole and a deceptively boisterous carillon movement, complete with chiming imitations of village church bells. Much of Bizet’s score is based on dance forms and folk music.

The orchestra recently performed L’Arlesienne with the Portland Ballet as part of a new work created and choreographed by co-artistic director Anne Mueller. “The opportunity to work in the context of ballet and to consider the aspect of dance and motion I think gives us a real sense of the many dimensions of this music,” Selden explained.

Tomas Cotik plays Piazzolla with PSU Symphony.

Cotik, an Argentinian, comes to Portland via Miami and Berlin. “Part of my understanding of this music is from my own perception of that noisy, dirty, crazy yet wonderful megapolis of Buenos Aires,” he said. “Another part is from listening to and studying Piazzolla and the older generation of tango musicians (la guardia vieja), and a good portion might be just simply a personal approach.”

Cotik, whose recent Naxos recording of Piazzolla’s music with pianist Tao Lin has been praised by Gary Burton and Blas Matamoro, was initially more interested in classical Viennese music than tango; it was only after going abroad that he began to feel “light sporadic yearnings for some of those symbols that were rather stereotypically associated with my home country, among those, the tango music that I had not chosen to play on a cassette player growing up.”

Cotik and the PSU orchestra will perform the nuevo tango composer’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas), originally composed as four separate pieces between 1965 and 1970 and scored for his usual quintet of violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneon. Selden calls it a “virtuoso tour de force” in which “the orchestra is not just accompanying, but participating fully in the dramatic aspects of the musical material.

Desyatnikov’s version, created in 1996-98 for Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, adds multiple quotations from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Cotik describes Desyatnikov’s concerto as “full of effects, virtuosity, fireworks and rhythmic intensity” with “reminiscences and short interludes of Vivaldi’s homonymous bestseller.” In a concert that creatively confounds much of its music’s original context, this new arrangement, which actually returns the music closer to its original Baroque roots, almost seems, well, out of context.

PSU Symphony performs Wednesday and Thursday, December 7-8, at Portland’s Mission Theatre. Tickets available online.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a member of Cascadia Composers and a composition student at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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