imani winds

ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL


Chamber Music Northwest review: winds of change

Imani Winds leads a series of wind-assisted concerts featuring new music


Strings tend to dominate chamber music concerts, so it was nice to hear so many wind instruments at this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. It helps that artistic director David Shifrin is himself a master clarinetist, frequently appearing on concerts both with other wind players and with the customary strings.

Tara Helen O’Connor performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

My first taste of this year’s windiness came with CMNW’s July 21 New@Noon concert in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall. Tara Helen O’Connor started us out with Allison Loggins-Hull’s Pray for flute solo and electronics, the flute part mostly straightforward modal melodies evolving into fancy, violinish arpeggios and creepy, cinematic dissonances, the backing track full of jazz organs, Björk-y electronic beats, watery reverb, and poppy chord changes like something from an ’80s Laurie Anderson tune. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Loggins-Hull’s “Urban Art Pop Duo” Flutronix has performed at the Brooklyn Museum and covered The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

Hsin-Yun Huang performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We did get a bit of strings that day, with Hsin-Yun Huang’s solo viola performance of Joan Tower’s Wild Purple, a merry crescendo of energetic virtuosity packed with Tower’s usual post-serial melodicism, dissonant glissandi against open strings giving way to Bartóky suggestions of folky pentatonicism and jolly bouncing tritones.

Then, Imani Winds breezed onto the stage. Bassoonist Monica Ellis introduced the group: “me and my winds are so happy to be back in Portland. We think it’s our fourth time…we’ll have to fact check that. It’s also a pleasure to be ensemble in residence.”


Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest.

Anyone checking out the audiences (and occasionally ambulances) at Chamber Music Northwest has reason to worry about its enthusiastic but aging audience – and its sometimes-faltering veteran performers. Too often in recent years, performances by CMNW’s regulars have seemed rough and under-rehearsed, with the regular stable of New York-based classical musicians perhaps riding too much on their long relationship with Portland fans and their starry names that seem to garner ritual standing Os, no matter how occasionally shaky the playing. As accomplished as these performers are, they still need to rehearse to achieve more than superficial competence and chemistry.

Note: some of the material here appeared in an earlier News & Notes post, which we’ve updated to include new reviews and provocations, and separated for easier reading.

To be fair, the touring ensembles CMNW brings in during the festival and in its non-summer series are usually much sharper. Clarinetist and artistic director David Shifrin’s incisive playing seems as sturdy as ever. And in the first weekend’s concerts, CMNW regulars showed that they’re capable of gripping performances, in duos by Kodaly and Ravel, especially in the latter, which featured that ever-genial ambassador of new (and often not-so-genial) music, the great cellist Fred Sherry and the exuberant young violinist Yura Lee, whose striking orange dress and flopping bangs made her resemble an aquatic anemone, swaying in the current while persuasively surging through Ravel’s sonata.

But even though the festival still offers occasional-to-frequent delights, as some recent concerts have demonstrated,  CMNW has clearly recognized the need for revitalization. Can those efforts succeed in helping the festival reach the new audiences it will need when its current one is gone?


Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan's "Allelulia" at its July 6 world premiere.

Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan’s “Allelulia” at its July 6 world premiere.


Last Saturday, the Oregon Bach Festival chorus sang a sweet surprise 80th birthday gift for retiring founding music director Helmuth Rilling – an “Alleluia” commissioned from the great contemporary Scots composer James MacMillan, who is working on a big new commission for the 2016 Festival. It’s a treat to see the OBF returning to sparking the creation of new music, as it did for awhile every other year a decade or ago, resulting in major works by Arvo Part, Osvaldo Golijov and other composers. (You can hear some of that music this Saturday night at 8 pm, and on demand for two more weeks, on Robert McBride’s excellent Club Mod radio show on Portland’s KQAC radio.)  It’s a coup made possible by a $25,000 NEA grant and by the festival’s executive director, John Evans, a fellow Brit who goes way back with Jimmy Mac.

Note: This story was originally published as part of a larger News & Notes post, but because of the volume of comments and interest, we’re republishing it and the other components as separate stories. Please continue this fascinating discussion below!

Yet amid all the good news, one question kept troubling me: why do our major Oregon classical music institutions keep sending American taxpayer dollars to non-American composers at the same time they fail to invest in the development of contemporary Oregon music? Of course, no Oregon composer is as famous as the above-listed worthies. But MacMillan didn’t reach the stratospheric compositional heights that qualified his for that august OBF commission by accident, or, as the old Romantic mythology would assume, solely by virtue of innate genius. In large part, MacMillan’s success stems from early and continuing support from his homeland music institutions—the kind of nourishment that backward-gazing organizations like OBF and others have failed to provide Oregonians.


Chambered nautilus: BodyVox’s unsinkable classic

The Portland dance troupe and Chamber Music Northwest send out an eloquent "S.O.S."

Harpist Bridget Kibbey: Nearer my God. Photo: David Krebs

Harpist Bridget Kibbey: Nearer my God. Photo: David Krebs


Jamey Hampton’s “S.O.S.” was the best piece on the program when it premiered at the Schnitz nine years ago in a BodyVox/Third Angle collaboration called “Water Bodies.” The same is true of the company’s current collaboration with Chamber Music Northwest, “In Motion,” which opened Thursday night on the cramped stage of St. Mary’s Academy. (It repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.)

Hampton’s eloquent, innovative, understated choreography; the score – a compilation of Sarah Adams’ hymn “Nearer My God to Thee,” Gavin Bryars’ minimalist music, and Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” –  the simple costumes, lighting design and film projections all come together in a piece that pays tribute to what we know about the heroism of the crew, the passengers and, above all, the musicians, who stayed on deck playing the hymn as the allegedly unsinkable Titanic went down in April of 1912.

“S.O.S” begins with Eric Skinner, Daniel Kirk, Jonathan Krebs and Josh Murry, wearing overcoats over union suits, pushing a platform containing harpist Bridget Kibbey and her instrument across the stage to the musicians’ corner, while she plays, a metaphor for that heroic string quartet of over a century ago.  They are joined by that lovely dancer, Anna Marra, and Katie Staszkow, who are dressed in simple, elegant satiny nightgowns.  Together they kneel, listen, look up at a film projection of icy seas. They move together as if in a lifeboat. There is a glorious duet for parting lovers. And all of this is executed with skill, taste and subtlety.  “S.O.S”  is an elegy, making its point without melodrama or Hollywood special effects, celebrating the endurance of the human spirit, and the solace that artists can, and do, provide in moments of crisis.

Imani Winds' Valerie Thompson and dancers. Photo: David Krebs

Imani Winds’ Valerie Coleman and dancers. Photo: David Krebs

Skinner’s “Serein,” which also premiered on that White Bird-commissioned “Water Bodies” program, closed the first half of an evening that began with a lovely rendition of the introduction and allegro movements of an unnamed composition by Maurice Ravel by violinists Ani Kavafian and Yura Lee, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Fred Sherry, harpist Bridget Kibbey, flautist Valerie Coleman and clarinetist Mariam Adam. “Serein” is essentially a ballet, with no point shoes in sight, and in it Skinner makes more use of fifth position than he ever had to do in his years of dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre in the Canfield years. The Bartok score, replete with folk rhythms and a faintly Middle Eastern tone, was brilliantly played by Kavafian and Lee, and Skinner’s own solo was performed with the same joie de la danse that Jerome Robbins created in his “Dances at a Gathering.”  If the piece looked a little cluttered, a little busy, that may well be attributable to the small size of the stage.

As usual in a BodyVox concert, a couple of Mitchell Rose films were thrown into the mix.  “Treadmill Dreams,” in the first half, with Hampton and Roland on a bicycle, not only echoes the lighthearted interval in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the bandits and their moll celebrate their ill-gotten gains, it also reminds us that we can see, if we’re so disposed, some bicycles at the Portland Art Museum. The second film, “Unleashed” – one of the first BodyVox did with Rose, and featuring comic mayhem in a large office filled with cubicles – made me think of what the Oregonian newsroom might be looking like these days, except what’s happened there is definitely not funny.

Hampton’s ties to this city are deep and profound. He knows its history well, and in the sole new work on the program he and Ashley Roland paid tribute, comically, to a piece of visual performance art that – long before the “young creatives” came to town – proclaimed Portland’s weirdness to the rest of the country.  “Ex Posers” takes off on Bud Clark’s “Expose Yourself to Art” poster, the seedy overcoat replaced by white terry cloth robes, worn by the 10 company members, including Roland and Hampton, the two artistic directors. It begins by interacting directly with the divine members of the Imani Winds, who provided the music for the second half of the concert. Hampton and Skinner, backs to the audience, faced the musicians, spreading their bathrobes wide. Much cavorting with the robes open and closed takes place, too much actually, and while the d’Rivera and Piazolla score was spectacularly well played, a couple of Clark’s signature “whoop whoops” emitted by the dancers would have made the piece much more amusing.

“Foreign Tails” and “Reverie,” old repertory pieces – the former dating from Roland and Hampton’s Momix days, the latter a “let’s create beauty” reaction to 9/11 – were also performed, their respective scores beautifully played by the musicians, especially the Debussy that accompanies “Foreign Tails.”   I’m bound to say the audience, basically the music-lovers who subscribe to Chamber Music Northwest, loved them.

What I loved, will always love, is “S.O.S.” and the energy-charged musical interludes provided in the second half by Imani Winds: Valerie Coleman, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mariam Adam, clarinet, Monica Ellis, bassoon; and Jeff Scott, horn.


Final performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 29, and 4 p.m. Sunday, June 30. Ticket information is here.

Backs turned in "Ex Posers." Photo: David Krebs

Backs turned in “Ex Posers.” Photo: David Krebs

News & Notes: Chamber Music Northwest announces summer schedule

Annual summer series welcomes back old friends and brings new stars

Imani Winds return to this summer's Chamber Music Northwest festival. Photo: Adriana Elias/divulgação.

Imani Winds return to this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival. Photo: Adriana Elias/divulgação.

Last night, with artistic director David Shifrin snow-stranded on the East Coast, Chamber Music Northwest interim executive director Elizabeth Harcombe announced the annual summer series’ 43rd season — at a reception held on her birthday.

New venues: after 28 years, CMNW will no longer stage performances at Catlin Gabel school, shifting its Tuesday concerts after this summer to Lincoln Hall at Portland State University in downtown Portland, where the classical action increasingly is. While Lincoln is closed for final renovations this summer, CMNW will hold concerts at nearby St. Mary’s Academy downtown.

Old friends: the superb Imani Winds ensemble returns to CMNW with a quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” on its centenary. Legendary film composer Lalo Schifrin’s “Letters to Argentina,” which received its West Coast premiere at CMNW in 2005, also returns, along with fine recent additions — Portland dance troupe BodyVox and the Protege Project, which brings rising young stars (this time, the Dover Quartet) to clubs as well as concert halls.

Composer Andy Akiho.

Composer Andy Akiho.

First timers: violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, rising oboe star Liang Wang, and prize-winning young composer Andy Akiho make their CMNW debuts this summer, which also includes world premieres by prominent contemporary American composer Lowell Liebermann and the great Portland jazz pianist/composer (and PSU prof) Darrell Grant.

Other highlights include a concert of music from early 20th century Paris, a father-son show featuring pianist/ conductor Jeffrey Kahane (an Oregon Bach Festival staple) and composer/ singer Gabriel Kahane, a concert of works by five American composers born in 1938 (including John Harbison, Joan Tower, and Seattle-born William Bolcom), a father-son show featuring pianist/ conductor Jeffrey Kahane (an Oregon Bach Festival staple) and composer/singer Gabriel Kahane, appearances by pianist Alessio Bax, the Miro Quartet, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, and much more. ArtsWatch will provide continuing coverage of the festival again this summer.