oregon symphony

The new CEO hire at the symphony might keep the Cutters at bay

Interpreting what the hiring of Scott Showalter by the Oregon Symphony means

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The news arrived yesterday that the Oregon Symphony had hired Scott Showalter from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new president and chief executive officer.

Showalter comes from the fundraising side of things at the LA Philharmonic, where he was vice president for development and supervised a staff of 25, so the immediate conclusion was that the symphony had landed an ace money wrangler who could do some donor-whispering tricks to corral more cash in the arts fundraising badlands of Oregon. In the lead of his story about the hire, The Oregonian’s David Stabler called Showalter a “heavy-hitting fundraiser,” for example. (Didn’t he get the memo that we were using Western metaphors, not baseball or boxing terms?)

A better way to think of this hire, though, is in the context of the battle going on at nearly every symphony in the country, the battle between Cutters and Re-inventors. At the Oregon Symphony, Showalter represents a victory for the Re-inventors, one that I wouldn’t have predicted last fall when it looked as though the Cutters on the board had the upper hand.

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News & Notes: Catching up on Oregon music and dance news

Oregon Symphony gets out of the concert hall; University of Oregon awards; community support for Oregon composer

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close.

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Around the country, orchestras are connecting with their communities (particularly members who don’t already frequent their concerts) through various outreach and education programs. Led by Resident Conductor Paul Ghun Kim, the Oregon Symphony this week concluded its “Concerts on the Go” series in Portland-area schools. Last week, orchestra members played a concert built around Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at two schools whose districts have committed to keeping music in the schools: North Clackamas School District’s Verne A. Duncan Elementary and David Douglas School District’s Gilbert Heights Elementary School, where two young Suzuki students played short violin solos. Yesterday, more than five dozen orchestra member performed a different concert at St. Mary’s Home for Boys that showed “the healing power of music” and the fact that young Oregonians can make a career in making music.

Oregon Symphony  members performed at Portland's St. Mary's School.

Oregon Symphony members performed at Portland’s St. Mary’s Home for Boys.

In another admirable community connection program, tonight (Wednesday), members of the Oregon Symphony Players Association head over to Brunish Hall in the unpronounceable Portland5 Centers for the Arts in an event co-sponsored by MetroArts, Inc., principal percussionist Niel DePonte’s arts education organization. They’ll perform music by Bach, Telemann, Portland’s own Kenji Bunch (what a great example for young Oregonians of how it’s possible for an Oregon native to make a successful life in music!) and more. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer will ask the musicians questions from listeners and audience members.

It’s the second of eight evening programs the orchestra musicians will present over the next week and a half in the return of last year’s free Classical Up Close programs; they’re also perpetrating “blitz” events in various spaces around Portland, including one at the downtown Powell’s Books last week, others at Portland City Hall and Portland State University and, today at noon, at the Symphony ticket office, 923 SW Washington St, featuring the splendid cellist Nancy Ives, with more to come.

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Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth

Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth.

by MARIA CHOBAN

I am obsessed with a piece called “Cascade.” My 10-year-old student wrote it, sorry he ever did, I’m sure, because he rolls his eyes every time I ask him to play it — which is at every lesson. What I’m particularly charmed with is his ending — out of the blue, two planned cluster chords terminate the catchy rhythmic episodes. He hunts for the same dissonant harmonies every time he comes to the end. And yet, he shrinks from all praise I gush, not because he’s shy; in fact, he’s a born ham. Why?

During Portland’s recent March Music Moderne, I attended an Oregon ComposersWatch event presented by Oregon ArtsWatch. One of the three composers invited to share their creative process with the audience spoke apologetically about the influence of one particular kind of music on his compositions. His music is accessible, nearly new age if it weren’t for the odd harmonic modulations I find in classical music, not in pop.  Other composers in the audience nod when he mentions the influence of a certain guilty pleasure on his music. One in particular also has a distinct, spare but not cliche harmonic style and one piece of his in particular (piano quintet) destroys the box this form once occupied for this configuration of instruments. But why the guilt?

In the program for this month’s Oregon Symphony concerts, you’ll find biographies of most of the composers whose music will be performed, from masters like Dmitri Shostakovich to contemporary film score legend John Williams — except for the composer featured on its April 26 program. Why?

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The Oregon Symphony's Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The Oregon Symphony’s Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

by KATIE TAYLOR

At the beginning of the evening, everyone’s eyes were riveted on the big nets full of balloons suspended from the ceiling over the orchestra seats. Colorful and festive, the balloons set the tone for the Oregon Symphony’s new year’s eve offering, Ode to Joy: A Holiday Spectacular — and when at the end of the evening they were finally cut loose, they received their very own round of applause.

Ode to Joy was a year-end party for the orchestra’s supporters and community, and on those grounds, it succeeded brilliantly. Mayor Hales and his wife were there, along with two past governors who shamelessly took to the stage, and the Timbers mascot, who put in an appearance to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and pop balloons with his chainsaw.

Thanks to the symphony’s master of ceremonies, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale, the program abounded in special guest stars. Lauderdale curated a first half of the evening that was fun, well paced engaging and clever, dominated by the usual suspects but including a few fresh faces.

The evening began with a kickass rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring a guest appearance by the 234th Army Band of the Oregon National Guard. Usually associated with Independence Day, Sousa’s patriotic firecracker was actually first lit on Christmas Day 1896. When the piccolo section from the Army Band rose for the final descant with its treacherous leaps and trills, the audience broke out in howls and applause.

On the night I attended (December 30), this was followed by the ubiquitous Storm Large singing a version of “The Lady is a Tramp” in which the lyrics had been Portlandized. The local cliches made me cringe in my chair a little, but Portlanders do enjoy hearing inside jokes about their hometown set to music, and this audience was no exception. Large was in great voice and gave a typically energetic and crowd-pleasing performance.

The dreaded Portlandization cropped up again later in the program with a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with words by former Oregon First Lady Mary Oberst. This number was sung (and danced!) by former Oregon Governors Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski and LGBT activist Terry Bean. I was impressed that the three of them had largely memorized all those lyrics — they must have had a blast preparing for this. The clever arrangement by Portland-based jazz artist and composer John Nastos included some entertaining musical jokes, like an officious trumpet voluntary at the mention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It lasted too long, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Equally crowd pleasing was a turn by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who played guitar and sang “Moon River” in a plaintive and likable amateur voice backed by the orchestra. I really wanted to like this, and again, I applaud the programming choice because it beautifully served the purpose of making the audience feel engaged with their orchestra and their city (even I have felt smug most of my life that Van Sant lives in my home town) — but I was a little too conscious of my heartstrings being pulled to really enjoy it. For the audience, however, I think it was probably the most affecting moment of the entire evening.

The first half also included performances by Pink Martini singer China Forbes, Portland cantor Ida Rae Cahana and, of course, Lauderdale, who manned the keys with his usual virtuosity — but the high point was the appearance by the Von Trapps, great grandchildren of the “Sound of Music” family, who recently relocated to Portland from Montana on Lauderdale’s invitation. The singers, three sisters and a brother, all in their twenties, are in the midst of recording an album with Lauderdale’s band, so he started them out with something very Pink Martini: a version of Francesco and Maria Pagano’s “Black Cat Tango” with the lyrics translated into Japanese. It was a poor fit, leaving me with a first impression of the Von Trapps as cute and wholesome and about as noteworthy as a good high school vocal ensemble.

Fortunately, Lauderdale had them follow this up with a remarkably fresh and highly unusual a cappella number written by the youngest brother, August. “Storm” truly sounded like the wild winds and wilderness, with exquisite coordination among the four singers and sweeping lines that sounded as spontaneous as birdsong. The unconventional yodeling solo at the beginning of the number by August Von Trapp could have misfired, but it was peculiarly gorgeous, only adding to the song’s unstudied-sounding originality.

A few numbers sounded a little recycled and tired, including the Barbra/Judy “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” sung by China Forbes and Storm Large that wrapped up the first half, reinforcing the general impression that the priority was to stir the crowd with the beloved and familiar.

After intermission, the symphony reprised its February performances of Beethoven’s  Symphony #9. The Ninth might have fared better as the first half of the concert, or it may just have been a complete mismatch. It’s difficult for an audience to go from a fast-paced and laughter-inducing pops performance full of variety and razzle dazzle to a Beethoven symphony that people tend to forget has three long movements before the big choral finale. However, the crowd listened intently, reserving their coughing for the breaks between movements and rising for the obligatory Portland standing ovation after the thundering close of the fourth movement.

The symphony was played with jewel-like precision under the baton of Maestro Carlos Kalmar. His approach to this work was a little more dynamically subdued than I am used to hearing, which really brought out the luster of the interplay between the winds and lower strings in the third movement but made the vigorous fourth movement sound a little restrained to my ear. Principal oboe Martin Hebert turned in some exquisite soli in a third movement liberally gemmed with lovely feature turns from principal wind and brass players.

The solo singers were an odd assortment. Local operatic favorites mezzo Angela Niederloh and baritone Richard Zeller were both in typically great voice and well matched. Tenor Carl Moe, a promising Portland State University student, spun out a fresh light lyric tone that was out of scale with Niederloh’s and Zeller’s but easy and lovely. Soprano Janeanne Houston sang ably but with a perceptible wobble and a pinched upper register. The overall quality of her voice was no match for Niederloh, Zeller and Moe.

The gigantic chorus, which included Portland State University Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina; the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus; and Pacific Youth Choir sang a little sloppily but with great zeal and produced a big, rousing sound.

The encore made me laugh out loud with delight — a version of “Auld Lang Syne,” with maracas! And an army band! And balloons! All of the evening’s performers came out on stage and sang their hearts out, and despite my jaded and curmudgeonly nature, I clapped just as hard as everybody else, proud of my city’s symphony and all of its talented friends.

The hope (my hope) would be that party pieces like this concert raise the support and the money to foster the less popular offerings on the calendar — the ones that might have great artistic merit but no balloons. On New Year’s Eve (and the night before), however, I wouldn’t have missed those balloons for the world.

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Things get HOT for the holidays

Chris Murray tosses a pitchy log on the Yuletide fire, MORE!

Very occasionally in oh-so-polite Portland arts circles, someone utters an intemperate remark or two. Startling! And then, some infinitessimal number of those very occasional remarks are emailed to a journalist. Oh happy day!

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in "The Aliens"/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Chris Murray and Isaac Lamb in “The Aliens”/Third Rail Repertory Theatre

So, yes, Chris Murray (who can be gloriously open about his opinions) sent Alison Hallett (the arts editor of the Mercury, who knows fun when she sees it) an email. ostensibly to explain why he’s starting a new theater company called Whizz-Bang. But it didn’t take Murray long to get himself into full rant (and as Hallett noticed, keyboarding on his phone (!)). You should read the whole thing because the issues it raises are really interesting but also because, yeah, intemperate!

Theatre seems produced largely through fear. Fear of the subscriber, the donor, the audience, the squeaky wheels. In most performance houses in America, it’s an old crowd that patronizes theatre. Portland has a ton of hip seniors who love theatre (thank fucking god), but there can nevertheless be a lack of excitement and funding for live entertainment that doesn’t fall into the standard category of theatre.

Now, I don’t think that the financials of what Murray wants to do actually pencil out, but that doesn’t make his observations about the current state of things wrong.

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If you missed the terrific tenor Nicholas Phan perform this past year in Eugene and/or Portland, here’s a chance to hear him singing a few folk song arrangements by Benjamin Britten.

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David Stabler, the eminence gris of The Oregonian’s arts staff, called up the Oregon Symphony to see how things were going. Maybe he’d heard some of the same rumblings I’d heard. Anyway, the news from the symphony was all good: donations are up, and ticket sales are up $1 million over last year. The only disconcerting note in the story? That these positives “do not point to a balanced budget.” Uh-oh. We’ll be getting into this very DEEPLY in January.

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It’s devoutly hoped that the Oregon Symphony doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the Minnesota Orchestra, where while the musicians are playing, management is “turtling.”

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Its 2010 “Joy to the World” album is probably playing on more stereos at the moment, but a new mini-documentary about the making of Pink Martini’s 2013 “Get Happy” album is up. Storm Large meets Phyllis Diller!

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The New Yorker’s John Lahr, himself a National Treasure, reports on the last show of Dame Edna

 

The Ensemble sang Victoria's Requiem in Portland.

The Ensemble sang Victoria’s Requiem in Portland.

by JEFF WINSLOW

I was just losing myself in the ornate, azure-flooded sanctuary of St. Stephen Catholic Church in southeast Portland, when exquisite harmony welled out from behind the pews. The Ensemble, a chorus made up of some of the city’s finest singers, had begun to sing Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Salve Regina,” the first work in an October 20 program that alternated Victoria works sung at funeral services with traditional Gregorian chants for the occasion, and culminating in his requiem mass, “Officium Defunctorum a 6,” written shortly after the death of the Empress Maria of Austria in Madrid in 1603 and dedicated to her memory. The sound filled the church so powerfully that I could hardly believe I was hearing only six individual singers, yet at the same time I was so captivated, helped by Victoria’s intricate yet effortlessly flowing counterpoint, that while I felt an automatic urge to check, I couldn’t bear to break the spell by turning around to look.

By the time I did, they had moved on to a plainsong chant, and were beginning a gradual process that would eventually see them – there were indeed only six – reassemble in front for the latter part of the program. Even the plainsong selections, sung by two voices, filled the space as if coming from all over. Director Patrick McDonough, who also sang, modestly gave credit to the building when we talked after the performance, and no doubt it’s a great fit for them. But  there’s no denying the power of the group, or its precision, which seemed to resound perfectly from every corner. At the same time, they projected a comforting warmth into the cool dimness, as if infused from the early autumn sunshine outside.

Some of the credit for that warmth must go to the composer. Victoria may have been a priest of the Counter-Reformation, but there’s little of the cool detachment  — some would say squareness— one might therefore expect, and which is indeed a signature characteristic of his more famous colleague Palestrina. Instead the music has an almost visceral appeal. Mournful, accented dissonances in the form of suspensions (where the harmony shifts under an initially consonant voice) are common. In the Requiem, these occasionally come so fast in various voices that one gets a hint of centuries later harmonic practice. Sometimes the harmony shifts under a pair of voices, which seems to double the expressiveness. And Victoria was sensitive to the tension suspensions create, often allowing it to dissipate in long melodic lines that may seem to wander, but in enchanting ways. Listening to these lines, it’s not hard to believe the composer was an accomplished singer too.

Aside from these details, the harmony consists of standard major and minor chords, as was traditional in the day, and those mostly even in standard configuration (what musicians call root position). It also shuns technicolor innovations common in the secular music of the day, such as Gesualdo’s. But the concert was almost over before I noticed the limited palette. Somehow Victoria arranged and rearranged it in a way that’s always engaging and never repetitive, and he did know just when to insert some especially colorful detail. This artistry is a gift to any vocal group. The Ensemble took full advantage, returning the favor with sensitive phrasing and fine tuning throughout. I’m sure it was quite a workout for them, but they gave very little evidence of it. I could have listened, happily absorbed, for a lot longer.

A 20th Century Requiem

Fast forward nearly four centuries. An ensemble as large as The Ensemble is small, the Oregon Symphony, along with Portland Symphonic Choir, Pacific Youth Choir, Pacific University Chamber Singers plus vocal soloists, bring us another masterpiece of exquisite harmony and expressive melody, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” this weekend. The forces are vast and the palette is too.  From the opening panoply of ringing bells, seeming to accompany a procession of bodies being dragged to their final resting places, through brutal depictions of battle (entirely second-hand however – the composer, a dedicated pacifist, was a conscientious objector during WWII), to the final heavenly harmonic transformation, Britten threw everything he had into this 90- minute masterpiece that meant so much to him.

He wrote the “War Requiem” in 1961 to celebrate the re-opening of Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, which had been mostly destroyed along with much of the rest of the city in the horrific German air raid of November 14, 1940. The cathedral was rebuilt according to a new design that incorporated what little was left of the ruins. Similarly, Britten’s work focuses as much on the aftermath of calamity as on promises of future bliss. It is magnificent, disturbing, and ultimately, perhaps, cathartic.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I heard The Ensemble sing the Victoria requiem, and I’ve been marveling lately at how their sensitive performance let me submerge myself gloriously in a 400-year-old work of music. I wonder how the “War Requiem” will seem to people a few hundred years from now. The question may be moot given the rapid pace of our technological development and its social consequences. But war seems set to continue indefinitely, if not (barring nuclear insanity) in the concentrated form the citizens of Coventry experienced. It’s not for me to say – after all, as an American just young enough to miss Vietnam, my knowledge of war is even more distantly removed than Britten’s – but I would like to think that, as with Victoria’s immortal requiem, people will still gather to perform Britten’s, and that listeners will still lose themselves in it, glory in its beauty, and find at least a part of whatever healing they may require.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and a board member for Cascadia Composers.

 Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

No, your screen isn’t deceiving you (at least not about Oregon arts); this is a special bonus edition of our usually weekly look at what’s happening in Oregon music. Don’t blame us; blame the profusion of worthwhile events happening Wednesday night!

I was actually tempted to call this one “News and Nose,” or “Nose and Notes” because, although opera fans have a couple of other treats coming up Friday (including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s TV premiere of one of today’s most prominent contemporary operas, San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” on Great Performances, and of course Portland Opera’s “Salome,” which we’ll preview on a silver platter shortly), anyone interested in contemporary visual, theatrical and musical arts should hie herself over to one of the half dozen cinemas in Oregon that on Wednesday are screening the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of its acclaimed 2009 production of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose.” This latest offering in the Met’s Live in HD series opened last Saturday and will be encoring at theaters in Bend, Beaverton, Happy Valley, Medford, Portland, Salem and Springfield.

Shostakovich’s quasi-Cubist score, which dazzles with everything from a percussion ensemble interlude to a gorgeous vocal chorale to a polka, is a precisely-performed delight, very different from the great 10th symphony he wrote at the end of this career, and performed by the Oregon Symphony last weekend. So is the source material, Nikolai Gogol’s proto-Surrealist 1936 short story, but the real star is the multifaceted visual design by one of the great visual artists of our time, South African theater artist William Kentridge. I’d wanted to catch this runaway Nose ever since I immersed myself for a full day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s encompassing 2009 exhibit of  the artist’s films and various components of his design for the Met’s production, which Kentridge based on the concept of the opera reflecting, or maybe refracting, the Stalinist politics and violence ravaging Soviet Russia at the time of its original production.

As I discovered in last Saturday morning’s screening, it succeeds brilliantly, with continuous projections, lighting, even supertitles all integrated with the precisely choreographed stage action. Matching the music’s montage style, hints of Terry Gilliam’s work, Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” even filmed cameos of the composer himself flit by, along with too many other images and shadow puppet style silhouettes to sort out. So much is going on at once, in fact, that it’s a little overwhelming to see it live. Which only makes me want to see it again.

However, that would mean missing a harmonic convergence of two ambitious new works by erstwhile Portland composer and pianist Andrew Oliver, who received a commission from Chamber Music America to write “New Traditions,” a new suite for his Kora Band, which for the past few years has made a fabulously fizzy blend of the West African kora harp, trumpet, and rhythm section. The group’s members have scattered to various points around the globe (Oliver to London), but are reconvening for a short West Coast tour, which alights at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s jazz club Wednesday night.

The equally attractive opening act, one of Oliver’s other ensembles, the Ocular Concern, will also be playing yet another brand new multi movement Oliver composition, his “Sister Cities” suite, featuring (in addition to the core jazz quintet) several prominent Oregon classical string players, plus Portland tango master Alex Krebs on bandoneon. Wait, you didn’t know Portland has a sister city in Argentina (the native land of that button accordion)? It doesn’t, but although the suite boasts plenty of global influences, they don’t derive from the music of those countries but rather from the letters of their names. It’s a terrific double bill of jazz-oriented new music by one of Oregon’s most valuable musicians. Let’s hope he returns home often.

Another young Oregon composer, Beth Karp, will perform her evocative original piano score to accompany a screening of Paul Wegener’s 1920 German Expressionist film, “The Golem” Wednesday night at northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose theater. And yet another Oregon composer, Eugene’s Michael Roderick, has written a tart, tango-tinted original score to another silent classic, F.W. Murnau’s Drac classic,  “Nosferatu,” which Roderick’s colorful band, Mood Area 52, performs Wednesday night at Portland’s Mission Theater and Thursday night at Eugene’s Bijou Cinemas.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX's Decomposers Night.

Beth Karp conducted a chamber ensemble at Classical Revolution PDX’s Decomposers Night.

Oregon Originals

Reversing her process with “The Golem,” Beth Karp composed another score (“Things That Go Bump in the Night”) for a string quartet and soprano Arwen Myers, and then chose a scene from a much campier old film called “Genuine” to accompany it at Classical Revolution PDX’S annual Decomposer’s Night Sunday at downtown Portland’s Star Theater. It was one of several new works by Oregon composers at this year’s edition, all enjoyable in their very different ways, and all crisply performed. Decomposers Night has grown tighter and better each year, with last year’s performance proving that CRPDX’s best work deserves a bigger showcase than its valuable monthly jam sessions.

This time, the added value emerged in the sense of freshness and discovery emanating from the solid new works by Oregon composers on the program, some written especially for this performance. Saxophonist Patrick McCulley’s “Chaining the Leviathan” showed compositional promise as well as stupendous solo chops, including multi phonics. It and the opening John Dowland song were accompanied by a projection of a live digital painting created in the moment by Portland artist John C. Worsley, and the magical effect of its gradual development (and especially the way the picture changed to reflect the music’s sudden jagged edges) compensated for the annoyance produced by the jittery cursor flitting about on the screen behind him.

Classical Revolution understands the importance of such complementary visual elements to some contemporary staged musical performances. The Waking Guild’s performance of flutist Jason O’Neill-Butler’s pretty “Sandman” included an aerial performance by Petra Delarocha.

The other new piece on the program, Reed College student Nathan Showell’s incidental music (for clarinet and string trio) to H.P. Lovecraft’s haunting 1922 story, “The Hound,” effectively counterpointed Willamette Radio Theater basso profundo Sam Mowry’s gleefully B-movie style reading of an excerpt from the tale. (As last year, Mowry made an engaging MC as well.) Showell, whose age and OLCC policies conspired to prevent him from attending his own premiere, is a promising new voice on Oregon’s music scene.

All the new works had something to say, but the evening’s highlight was an oldie: early 20th century French composer Andre Caplet’s 1909 “Conte fantastique,” inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous chiller “The Mask of the Red Death,” which persuasively added to a string quartet a harp (played here by Kate Petak), of all instruments, to conjure musical chills. I’d love to see this rarely performed music, reminiscent of Ravel, performed as part of a theater or dance expression of Poe’s tale.

CRPDX members also battered at the barriers between pop and classical music in violinist Mike Hsu’s chamber arrangement of a song by the doomy ’80s band The Cure, and by joining in a song by the next act, Portland rocker Myrrh Larsen, although it was hard to hear the acoustic instruments over the amplified rock band. The goth industrial Church of Hive followed, and it was heartening to see how easily the classical music, musicians and audiences blended so naturally with everyone else at the theater. It felt like classical music was part of a bigger story of contemporary Portland music, rather than isolated to an irrelevant tangent.

In fact, Decomposers Night provided one of three encouraging signs for Portland contemporary classical music this month. A week earlier, Cascadia Composers’ fall concert also demonstrated that organization’s increasing vitality. The music, all written by Oregon composers, ranged from academic modernism to atonal to electronic enhanced, and most of it was performed by the Oregon Brass Quintet, who drove to Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church from Eugene, continuing a trend toward top local performers at CC shows. Oregon music deserves strong performances, and it’s nice to see that happening both at Cascadia and Classical Revolution concerts. But even some of the state’s finest players need to allow adequate rehearsal time, which, judging by the aural evidence in a couple places, wasn’t always present here.

The strongest works  tended to be the shortest and composed for only one or two players. Pianist Monica Ohuchi’s incisive performance of Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s punchy Fantasy for Piano #1 showed that her husband, composer/violist Kenji Bunch, didn’t provide the only boost to the Oregon music scene stemming from the family’s recent relocation from New York to Bunch’s hometown of Portland. Justin Bulava’s searching solo on Portland composer Dan Brugh’s breezy Fantasia for clarinet and tape (a work written for him, which no doubt explains his fine performance) blended beautifully with the electronic textures. Ohuchi and trombonist Robert Taylor’s duet in Portland composer Cynthia Stillman Gerdes’s wonderfully woozy “Waking Up Slow” made me want it to go on longer, just like a morning slumber — but that would have violated the intent of the piece, which is all about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (but apparently doing so anyway, darn it).

Despite the occasional stumble, brass ensemble works by Rick Crittenden (“So Far from Home”), Charles Copeland (who also supplied the best program notes among many good ones here!), Liz Nedela (“Cool Breezes”), and David Leetch’s funny fusillade of fanfares all provided enjoyable moments. The most ambitious piece, Michael Johanson’s “Summer Rhapsody,” seemed aimed at an academic modernist audience, but Medford composer I’lana Cotton’s peppy 2001 brass quintet, “Speed Trap Blues” ended the concert on vibrant note. Cascadia is elevating its concerts beyond the vanity showcases composer presentations often amount to; they’re now becoming audience-friendly exhibitions that anyone who wants to know what’s happening in Oregon music need to hear.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

Pianist Monica Ohuchi joined members of the Oregon Brass Quintet at Cascadia Composers fall concert.

The third promising sign for Oregon classical music I caught this month happened at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where pops conductor Jeff Tyzik led the OSO musicians in a collaboration with three prominent current and former Portland indie rock singers. The symphony has won something of a reputation in classical circles for its earlier, relatively tasteful work with popsters, which in some hands seem like slumming, often featuring over the hill rockers with goopy strings further bloating already festering prog fare.

The symphony certainly deserves kudos for any attempt to actually engage, on an artistic rather than merely demographic level, other elements of Oregon’s vibrant music scene, but how would it work in practice? Would the orchestra really be helpful or even necessary to the music?

The answer came in the first set. You could tell this wasn’t a standard orchestra concert because the male orchestral musicians were dressed like 20th century bankers rather than 19th century butlers — que c’est casual! But songwriter Holcombe Waller strode onstage resplendent in white (he was joined by guitarist/violinist Ben Landsverk, who has some experience with classical music as well, and drummer Gavin Bowes), and on his songs with the orchestra, the big sound (with generally astute orchestral arrangements by Gabriel Kahane, Jherek Bischoff and Waller himself) really seemed to be what expansive songs like “Down & Cried” and “Moses” wanted. Waller’s ample voice and confident delivery (despite a slippery sustain pedal at one point) kicked the concert off to a promising start. I haven’t always tuned into Waller’s frequency, but his strong performance here made me eager to hear his upcoming collaboration with FearNoMusic at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater next month.

Now, none of this is to say that this is “classical music” per se — but who cares about such arbitrary categories? It was a singer with an orchestra, and the question really is whether the combination made musical beauty. In the theatrical Waller’s case, the combo worked a treat. With the following singer, former Portlander Mirah, not so much — both her small, breathy voice and the scale of her songs were overshadowed by the big band. The final act, one of my personal recent Portland faves, Black Prairie, also possesses a bigger sound that mostly worked fine with the orchestral accompaniment, but the combo didn’t really add much to the music itself.

The concert qualifies as a mostly successful experiment, but even if it hadn’t been, the symphony would have deserved credit for trying something a little different. Such efforts haven’t generally led new listeners to return for classical music concerts, although they often provide a one-time boost to the bottom line. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the product isn’t a travesty, and that was never a danger here. In fact, I would have enjoyed the show even more if they’d cut the non-orchestral pieces that consumed half of each set, though maybe those were needed for the pop musicians’ core audiences in case they didn’t like all those strings and brass. But the show ran a little long, and ultimately, the concept stood just fine on its own.

I hope this commendable, frequently satisfying attempt to connect with Oregon’s larger musical community leads to more such collaborations — preferably involving (maybe commissioned) music by Oregon pop-oriented composers, built from the ground up for orchestra, rather than tacked on as an afterthought. What a splendid opportunity that could provide for Portland’s more creatively ambitious pop musicians to make more complex music than they’re able to compose for a rock band, as well as for the orchestra and for Oregon music lovers who care more about musical quality and freshness than category. Judging by the three concerts I heard in the past couple weeks, this community teems with a wealth of creative musical talent, classical and otherwise, that’s ready to enlist the state’s finest musicians to make new, ambitious homegrown music for Oregon music lovers.

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