oregon symphony

ArtsWatch Weekly: thinking about Orlando, and the impact of art

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASSACRE. The latest one, unless another sneaks in before deadline, came in the wee hours Sunday morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a U.S.-born gunman carrying an assault rifle and claiming allegiance to ISIS opened fire, killing forty-nine people, wounding fifty-three, and then being slain himself in a shootout with police. He may or may not have been gay; several people reported that he was a semi-regular at the club. He was certainly homophobic. He may or may not have been a radical jihadist: initial indications are that he was acting as a lone wolf. Orlando’s is being called the worst mass shooting in United States history, at least by a lone gunman, and who knows how long that record will stand? (Other massacres have been more deadly, but not as quick or efficient: the Wounded Knee Massacre carried out in 1890 by U.S. Cavalry troops on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation left at least three times as many dead.)

We’ve been here before, over and over, from Sandy Hook to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Reynolds High School in suburban Portland to Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon, and on and on and on and on, world without end, amen, amen.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

It’s difficult to rank these atrocities – impossible, really – because whatever the body count, people are killed, survivors are shattered, worlds are torn apart. This one comes with an increasing sense of futility, a belief that the nation lacks the political and moral will to do anything about it. Here at ArtsWatch we won’t get into the political arguments of what can or can’t be done: those arguments are all around us, and by this point you know where you stand and how you will respond. I will say that some form of rational control on the sale of firearms, and a civilian ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons, are necessary in a civilized society. And I will note that this latest massacre hits cultural communities hard, because so much of the arts world has been invigorated and often led by GLBTQ artists and the creativity they’ve brought to dance, theater, music, the movies, literature, and visual art. So many gay people have been drawn to the arts, partly, because for all of its ordinary human quirks and bickering and biases and self-indulgences and jealousies and backbiting and exaggerations, the arts world is also open and generous and welcoming to talent wherever it rises. In that sense, we are all gay. We stand as one.


Oregon Symphony review: Mega-Mahler

Orchestra's season-ending performance of Mahler's massive third symphony matches its epic scale


Gustav Mahler was never one to shy away from a challenge. Though his music is now considered the apotheosis of German Romanticism, he started his musical career at the bottom, in 1880 taking a job directing operettas in the small Austrian spa town Bad Hall, as well-named in English as it was in German.  He steadily rose through multiple directorships to the pinnacle of the field in central Europe, the Vienna Court Opera, facing down anti-Semitism along the way. (He did have to go through the motions of converting to Catholicism in 1897 to achieve this final step.) He wrote the longest symphonies of his day, for the most massive musical forces, and had a track record of getting them performed. And not least, when past 40 he courted and married 22-year-old Alma Schindler, who as one wag has pointed out, was quite possibly the smartest and loveliest eligible young woman in Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler's third symphony.

The Oregon Symphony closed its 2015-16 season with a performance of Mahler’s third symphony.

In the years just prior to his Vienna achievements, Mahler wrote his longest symphony yet, his third, which the Oregon Symphony closed its season with last month. Still the longest symphony in the standard repertory, it has six movements (half again the usual number), clocks in at well over an hour and a half, and maybe unsurprisingly, shows signs of growing pains: for once, even a Mahler maven sometimes has the feeling he’s just fleshing out a plan. Of course, there’s a plan behind every one of his nine completed symphonies, but normally listeners are so entranced by what he’s cooked up next that they never notice.

The Third seems to have been a watershed for the composer. While it rarely specifically refers to either of his previous symphonies, echoes of it can be found throughout his later work, notably in his Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies. It seems to have taken a lot of effort to write; afterwards he took a break to write his shortest symphony.

It takes a lot of effort to play, too. Mahler was a demanding conductor of other composer’s works, and he also demands a lot from the musicians who perform and the organizations that produce his own music. All the wind instrument sections in his third symphony are larger than typical symphonic repertory (at the extreme, eight horns, double the usual number), and the wise conductor adds string players to match their volume. The variety of percussion instrumentation rivals today’s orchestral works, and there is both a women’s choir and youth choir as well as an alto soloist.

Oregon Symphony director Carlos Kalmar has honed the band into a reliable Mahler machine, with memorable, even awe-inspiring performances of the more commonly performed symphonies among its accomplishments. It was high time for them to tackle the challenging Third. I caught their May 23 performance, a fittingly grand finale for the orchestra’s 2015-2016 season.


Glenn Frey’s Ghost

The Eagles leader has more to offer classical music than just an Oregon Symphony tribute


Knoxville Tennessee, June 1977. The Eagles are seven grueling months into an 11-month non-stop tour. They finish the concert and prepare for the encores. It’s bass player Randy Meisner’s turn to thrill the crowd with his massive hit “Take it to the Limit” from the Eagles fourth album, One of these Nights (1975). Meisner is miserable, suffering from stomach ulcers that are acting up, nervous about hitting the famously high notes in that song. He’s been lobbying to retire this song for awhile. This evening he stands up to Glenn Frey, co-founder of the Eagles (along with Don Henley). He’s not going to sing the encore.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

The Oregon Symphony pays tribute to Glenn Frey on Monday.

Frey, who has dealt with ulcerative colitis most of his life, wheels around to the shyest, most anxiety ridden beta-male in the Eagles and spits

[T]here’s thousands of people waiting for you to sing that song. You just can’t say “Fuck ’em, I don’t feel like it.” Do you think I like singing “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” every night? I’m tired of those songs. But there’s people in the audience who’ve been waiting YEARS to see us do those songs. (from Alison Ellison and Alex Gibney’s documentary “History of the Eagles, part one)

An asshole, no doubt. But he’s The People’s Asshole! Fighting for the right of the audience to get its hard earned money’s worth. Fighting to make their evening memorable.

This Monday, May 9, the Oregon Symphony honors Glenn Frey, who died last January, with a show of Eagles tunes. Like many pops concerts, this one will boost the bottom line for an orchestra that probably can’t survive without them. But Frey’s legacy has so much more to offer classical music than just one of those nights.


Igudesman & Joo meet the Oregon Symphony

Classical music comedy duo returns to Oregon with new material and a really big backing band

Editor’s note: on Sunday, March 6, the classical music comedy team of Igudesman & Joo return to Oregon to perform with the Oregon Symphony in a program called BIG Nightmare Music that consists of classic I&J comic sketches and new material. Before the pair appeared last summer at Chamber Music Northwest in a duo show, Oregon ArtsWatch ran a preview written by Portland pianist and classical comedienne Dianne Davies, and an interview with Hyung-ki Joo. We’re republishing those together here to remind readers to check out the pair’s new show with the orchestra.


What started in a fight of probable smashing of chairs and music stands upon each other’s heads has grown into an influential friendship. What the two musicians were actually fighting about is still a mystery. Fortunately, pianist Hyung-ki Joo put an end to the outburst with a small offering of fish and chips to violinist Aleksey Igudesman that he just couldn’t resist. This reconciliation kick-started a fantastic duo resulting in the collaboration that birthed “A Little Nightmare Music,” which they’re performing at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest on July 20 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

Igudesman & Joo perform March 6 with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely

Igudesman & Joo perform March 6 with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely

In 2004, inspired by classical musicians and entertainment pioneers Victor Borge and Dudley Moore, Igudesman & Joo created their show, whose name is a twist on the Mozart serenade A Little Night Music. Much acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, “A Lit­tle Night­mare Music” is a unique show, full of vir­tu­osic pyrotechnics, captivating music and zany, out­ra­geous humor. You might see Beethoven’s “Für Elise” played with Joo’s own Karate style piano technique, or a piano lesson Joo gives Alesky that includes yelling and head slapping galore with every mistake.

Igudesman & Joo’s humor and music draw diverse audiences from clas­si­cal music lovers to people who would rather run for cover at the mere men­tion of Mozart. Their goal is to spread the true spirit of classical music to a wider and younger audience. If you are in the category of, “I hate classical music,” then this is the show to change your view.


Oregon music on record 2015: Contemporary classical

21st century sounds from Oregon composers and musicians

Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, and this one covers mostly contemporary music from Oregon composers. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 20122013, and 2014, or our previous entry focusing on Oregon early music ensembles.

David Schiff CD Cover ImageDavid Schiff: Chamber Music Northwest Premieres (2000-2014)
“All of my music is a form of autobiography,” writes Portland composer David Schiff in the liner notes to this new compilation. Judging by this two-disk survey compiling festival performances of five of his most recent compositions, the 70 year old composer has led a pretty fascinating musical life, and this important set chronicles the latest stretch.

The release is a product of one of Oregon’s most fruitful creative collaborations: the three-decade long partnership between Chamber Music Northwest and Schiff. Almost alone among major Oregon music institutions, CMNW has invested in its hometown’s creative potential through its frequent commissions of new music from the Reed College prof. The result is a body of chamber music that stands with any other American composer’s of the period.


Yo-Yo Ma in Portland: Youth served

Legendary cellist joins young orchestra players in impromptu performance, and gives them the best seats in the house

When Yo-Yo Ma walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, December 9, he wasn’t expecting to hear anyone but himself play music. While the legendary cellist was joining the Eugene Symphony for a sold out concert two days later, his Portland show, though presented by the Oregon Symphony, was a solo gig.

So what, he asked his escort from the Oregon Symphony, was the obviously live music he was hearing as he entered the lobby?

image2As anyone who’s seen the OSO lately knows, its concerts are usually preceded by Prelude performances by local musicians, almost always young ones. “We love to give young performers a place to perform and an appreciative audience,” says the OSO Vice President for Communications Jim Fullan. “In addition, it provides our patrons with some pre-concert entertainment, which they always enjoy.” Held on the second floor landing where patrons can get really close to the musicians and the music, the brief performances make a tasty appetizer to an evening with the Oregon Symphony.

IMG_2171This evening’s Prelude performers, a string ensemble drawn from the ranks of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Symphony Orchestra, were in the middle of playing Edvard Grieg’s ever-popular Holberg Suite, conductor-less, which they sometimes do, when maybe the most renowned figure in classical music walked up to hear their set.

After the MYSfits started the fifth movement, Ma moved behind the group to observe the cellists. After watching for a bit, he asked MYS cellist Tommy Cohen, “Can I borrow your cello?” He sat down, and suddenly, 15 young Portland musicians were playing in Yo-Yo Ma’s band, or he in theirs. At the time, several of the musicians did not even realize that Ma was performing with them – it was quite a shock to finish the piece and see him there in the cello section.

Yo-Yo Ma, of course, isn’t just any celebrity soloist. The 60-year-0ld virtuoso is known as much for his restless curiosity and an eagerness to break boundaries, from his world music explorations to his Bach PBS special working with artists in different fields, to his Americana oriented Appalachia Waltz project and many more. He’s made 90 albums, collecting 18 Grammy awards to go with his National Medal of Arts, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Polar Music Prize, among multitudinous other laurels. He’s also played Barack Obama’s Presidential inaugural (continuing a string of Presidential appearances that began with his eight year old performance before President Eisenhower), collaborated with a broad range of musicians from the Dixie Chicks to Philip Glass to Bobby McFerrin. And he’s involved in many non-musical causes as well.

YYM MYSMa began to chat with the young musicians, offering general words of encouragement, telling them how impressed he was with the group. It was a nice gesture, something that all of them would tell their friends and families about for the rest of their lives, before the star headed off to his dressing room to prepare for his recital. The experience of playing with an idol, up close and personal, was something they would never forget.

“Above all,” recalled MYS music director William White, “Yo-Yo’s message was to have fun, perform, and communicate through music.”

Alas, a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much a guaranteed sellout anywhere in the world, ticket prices are dear, and none of the kids had tickets to his Schnitzer performance. But that didn’t stop their new bandmate from including them. He spoke to Oregon Symphony reps backstage, and about ten minutes before his recital began, 16 chairs appeared on the Schnitzer stage, flanking the star, and the MYS musicians got the word that they would be joining the great cellist. And that’s how the young musicians of MYS wound up with the best seats in the house.

Ma proceeded to play three of J.S. Bach’s legendary solo suites for cello, along with music by 20th century Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun (a friend of Bartok’s), a 2004 work Ma’s own world music Silk Road Ensemble commissioned from Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, and the popular “Appalachia Waltz” written by Ma’s fiddle buddy Mark O’Connor, who is to his instrument what Ma is to the cello.


“What’s amazing about Yo-Yo Ma is that he made the kids part of the performance,” White says, “personally engaging each of them on stage through his performance, directing little winks, nods, and smiles at each of our students, seemingly trying to point out what he was doing, musically, with each of the pieces.”

“Let me be absolutely clear,” Ma announced to the startled Schnitzer audience at the close of his set. “I am the MYSfit on this stage.”

photoAfter his performance, Ma met with his new young colleagues, praising their skill and ability to play precisely without a conductor, dispensing advice (including some repertoire to try out), and even tips on presenting concerts in fresh ways. The students’ social media accounts quickly propagated with messages of gratitude and astonishment for the great cellist’s generosity. Yo-Yo Ma may not have expected to play in a band when he entered the Schnitzer Concert Hall, but by the time he left, he had a new one.

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Video game music: Turning passives into players

Video game soundtracks are encouraging a new generation to play not just games, but also music.


Civil (Explore) Piano Sheet
by BMacZero » Sat Dec 29, 2012 8:34 pm
Just got this game over Christmas, and I’m trying really hard not to play it 24/7! The game and UI designs are really excellent.
And of course, the music is also amazing. I was listening to the soundtrack and the track Civil (Explore) caught my attention, so I started trying to transcribe it for piano. Thought I’d share here for any other interested pianists. This is about the second half (1:38 on). Enjoy!


Now I’m pretty suspicious that the first phrase (16 bars) is wrong, so I’d love some input on that. I’m pretty confident with the rest of it, though.
And let me know or remove this if this violates any rights to the music.
(Thread from FTL.com’s forum)


“It would be nice if he would play a little classical music.”
“What do you mean?”  I ask the mother of my new piano student.
“Maybe some Mozart or Beethoven?”
“Ben Prunty IS your son’s Mozart!  And furthermore, he’s part of the new classical music!”

"Legend of Zelda: Symphony of Goddesses" comes to Portland's Keller Auditorium Sunday. Photo: Andrew Craig.

“Legend of Zelda: Symphony of Goddesses” comes to Portland’s Keller Auditorium Sunday. Photo: Andrew Craig.

My student is a Beaverton fifth grader who’s a recent convert to the video game Faster Than Light (FTL) and to the music of the game’s composer, Ben Prunty. While his mother was pleading with me to inject a little classical music (as traditionally and too narrowly defined) into his assignments, he was quietly telling me during lessons what was going on in these newsgroup communities which are in effect rebuilding classical music. These boards typically involve young people who are so passionate about the music that accompanies the video games they play that they’re doing anything they can to find out how to play that music themselves. It’s a huge phenomenon that has huge implications for the future of classical music. When I asked my student why I’ve never heard about this or why these scores have been so inaccessible, he said, “Because no one listens to ten year olds.”

My first assignment to this student was to find a copy of the music “Civil (Explore)” from FTL. He brought back the printed copy downloaded from the FTL forum above. His mom, seeing his enthusiasm for the music, has since come around to the value of this new classical music.

One of my other students, Nicholas Casali, a Legend of Zelda freak, has a much more understanding mom who bought him an entire book of Zelda tunes published by the market savvier Alfred Publishers. He’s methodically working his way through the entire book with its tricky rhythms and quirky harmonies.

Nicholas is only one of the hordes of Zelda fans, young and old (the game has been selling millions of copies for almost 30 years) who’ll be packing Portland’s Keller Auditorium (one of the biggest performing arts venues in town) this Sunday for the latest touring extravaganza, Symphony of The Goddesses. In March 2013 Nicholas attended the Oregon Symphony’s sold-out tribute to Zelda and composer Koji Kondo in the hallowed halls of the orchestra’s home, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Two years later in March 2015 he was back to hear rePlay: Symphony of Heroes, returning yet again in September 2015 to hear the OSO fete Pokemon, both to packed houses. He or other multi-generational attendees might not be going back to hear Beethoven, but with three trips to concert halls in one year, at least we’re getting a different and substantially younger audience to venture into places considered intimidating, possibly helping to overcome at least that barrier to exploring Beethoven. To underscore the “classical” connection, this performance features a four movement symphony arranged from the music written for various editions of the game, performed by a 90-piece orchestra and chorus made up of local musicians.

Last year, ArtsWatch covered how popular and seriously classical video game music has become — the soundtrack of our time.  It might be a bridge into other types of classical music or it might stand alone in its own classification with its own huge audience and fan base much like earlier classifications:  Baroque, Classical, Romantic… Hollywood film scores, Videogame soundtracks. More important than the possible seeding of new listeners for old music is the nurturing of new generations who want to play — not just listen to — classical music of our time and before.

What happened? Where did it all go right?


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