Summer music survey: The Young and the Restless, pt. 1

Young ensembles spice summer shows.

It’s still officially summer for another few days, but what with the first evening chills, the advent of Portland’s TBA Festival, and school starting for many, it’s starting to feel a lot like summer’s end is nigh. But before the classical music season ramps up, it’s worth taking a quick look back at what’s traditionally been the slow season. As we approach the equinox, today we begin a three-part survey of some compelling concerts by young and otherwise un-stodgy performers and composers (from Chamber Music Northwest, Cascadia Composers, even the Oregon Symphony and more) that made the summer of ’14 a season of renewal in Oregon classical music.

Ethan Sperry led the combined Portland State Choirs.

Ethan Sperry led the combined Portland State choirs.

The summer rocketed off to an incendiary start with Portland State’s last student concert of the year, “Indigenous,” a June showcase for its choirs at Portland’s First Congregational Church that demonstrated the two most prominent qualities director Ethan Sperry has fostered: a wide range of choral sounds from across the globe, and a youthful energy that older choirs, however skilled, just can’t match. Chris Edwards, Lucy Yandle and Jason Sabino led enthusiastic performances by the University Choir of works from South Africa, the Philippines, China, Brazil and Sctoland, variously propelled by Xhosa and Brazilian percussion instruments, tambourines, and other metal percussion.

Still wobbly from a spill that morning, PSU’s Joan Szymko (a veteran Portland composer and conductor) led the school’s Vox Femina choir in her own music inspired by Native American songs and stories, plus music by the great contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The sound was obscured but maybe the message’s urgency enhanced when one piece offering a prayer for the Earth was nearly blotted out by the racket of an evidently large internal combustion engine belching and idling outside the church’s open window for the entire length of the piece.

PSU’s Man Choir followed, the singers entering singing down the aisles, with more percussionists, vocal soloists arrayed in the corners of the balcony, and songs from Haiti, India, Scotland, and Korea — the last, Filipino-American conductor Sabino informed us, having an entire museum devoted to just that song. Local guest Indian percussionists (playing a mridangam drum and jaw harp) and an alto saxophonist joined the 200 singers of the combined choirs, with Sperry conducting from the center aisle, in music from India (including a selection by Ravi Shankar) and, appropriately given the size of the choir, Szymko’s “It Takes a Village.” The performance level was as high as the programming’s ambitions, and a few weeks later, the Portland State Chamber Choir won the first-place in Adult Mixed Choir category at the 16th International Choral Kathaumixw in Canada, then released its latest CD.

These aren’t your grandpa’s choral concerts; under Sperry’s global visionary leadership, PSU’s international award-winning choral programs are presenting some of Oregon’s most effervescent, enlightening and enjoyable musical performances.

Promising Proteges

More young talent arrived in July when the 20-somethings of the Dover Quartet returned for another appearance at Chamber Music Northwest, along with another squadron of the festival’s Protege Project performers. We covered their appearances along with the rest of the festival, but it’s worth restating just how much youthful energy they’ve brought to recent festivals and to Portland’s summer music season. Maybe because they’re not guaranteed to get a standing ovation based on name recognition alone, maybe because they have more time to actually practice as a unit during the year, the Dovers and previous Protege ensembles frequently offer more committed and cohesive performances than their teachers. Even the ad hoc Protege assemblages often make up in fresh enthusiasm what they lack in experience of the kind accumulated by the CMNW veterans, whose concerts  sometimes suffer from sloppy, uninspired performances stemming from under-rehearsal and perhaps overfamiliarity with pieces they’ve probably played dozens of times, though not necessarily with the players they’re performing with in Portland.

The Dover Quartet played and talked at Whitsell Auditorium.

The Dover Quartet played and palavered at Whitsell Auditorium.

At informal community outreach events like July 15’s free performance at a packed Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum, the be-jeaned young musicians’ eager engagement with audience questions (Who made your instruments? Why do you look at each other when you play? How often do you change strings? Were your parents musicians? Etc.) probably won new fans for chamber music. Their spiffy performances of music by Debussy and Leclair received deserved applause, too. As ArtsWatch guest writer Charles Noble pointed out, that energy extended to their Club Concerts as well.

However, the one I saw stumbled off to a slow start, with trumpeter Jean Laurenz’s comments preceding the actual music and following remarks by CMNW artistic director David Shifrin and host Christa Wessel, whose always interesting comments and questions really held the show together. Better to start with the music and then talk to cover stage transitions. Laurenz’s tentative reading of a Baroque oboe concerto whose transcription to trumpet apparently forced too plodding a tempo didn’t help, especially to Portlanders accustomed to fleet, fluid performances by the historically informed Portland Baroque Orchestra.

O'Connor and Schlosberg at Doug Fir. Photo: Tom Emerson.

O’Connor and Schlosberg at Doug Fir. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Interest picked up when young composer and pianist Daniel Schlosberg played his new piece “Strange Ancestors” with CMNW flutist Tara Helen O’Connor. Their demonstration took longer than the haunting, Webernesque piece (which also suffered from a technical snafu) but nicely demystified the compositional process. The Dovers’ obvious devotion elevated Viktor Ullman’s String Quartet #3, and the young mixed ensemble of strings, piano and woodwind players pulled off a crackling performance of Martinu’s delightful Jazz Age Kitchen Revue, a perfect piece for rising young players.

Clavecin en Concert

A week later, another quartet of mostly relatively young players descended unexpectedly when the Canadian early music ensemble Clavecin en Concert filled in at the Mount Angel Abbey Bach Festival at the last minute for an ailing Julianne Baird. Given the circumstances, it feels almost churlish to criticize their generally punchless performance of J.S. Bach’s music in the freshly varnished Damien Center gymnasium. But despite the liquid, singing tone of Gregoire Jeay’s flute playing in a Bach sonata, and the expressive power of cellist Elinor Frey’s performance of one of Bach’s mighty cello sonatas (unbelievably, the first time she’d played it in public), they just couldn’t seem to muster much excitement. Even in one of Bach’s most heartbreaking arias, “But You Should Also Pray” from the cantata Make Yourself Ready, My Spirit BWV 115 (one of a half dozen they performed), soprano Odei Bilodeau’s lovely instrument couldn’t compensate for her lack of breath control in what’s admittedly a tough piece to sing. Quite a few audience members left at intermission, but I heard enough positives scattered throughout the program to make me want to sample this group again in more congenial circumstances. Even so, the Bach Festival’s welcoming spirit, intimate performances, and incomparable setting — spectacular Willamette Valley views, dinner on the lawn, Aalto Library and the rest — makes any visit enjoyable. And there’ll be another opportunity for music lovers to enjoy the Abbey soon.

The next day, in Portland, another ensemble took other music by another Bach and brought it into the 21st century. But first, we’ll take a look at a pair of midsummer concerts featuring promising young composers and even younger players.

Next installment: Youth movement continues with Cascadia Composers.

The view from Mt. Angel Abbey.

The view from Mt. Angel Abbey.

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2 Responses.

  1. Jason Sabino says:

    Hi Brett – Thank you so much for the wonderful review! I’m glad you enjoyed our concert at PSU this past June.

    I wanted to make a quick correction – I am actually Filipino, not Korean. I guess I talked so much in my introduction to the Korean folksong to the point I came off as such, haha.

    If any of you would like to keep up with choirs at PSU, we have a new website for the Portland State Chamber Choir ( and a new YouTube Channel for all PSU choirs ( with videos from our past concerts. Thank you for your support!

  2. Thanks, Jason, sorry about that. We made the correction and also added a mention of the release of new PSUCC CD, which I’m looking forward to hearing soon. Thanks for letting our readers know about the spiffy new website and YT channel, and good luck on the choir’s upcoming journey.

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