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Music News & Notes

Catching up with recent news in Oregon classical music

We’re usually so busy previewing and reviewing performances that we rarely have time to catch up on other news in Oregon classical music. So as winter turns to spring, here’s a roundup of a few comings and goings of important figures on the scene, honors, and opportunities. If you have more news you’d like us to consider sharing with ArtsWatch readers, please let us know.

Steven Zopfi conducted Portland Symphonic Choir in Michael Tippett’s oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time.’


Scott Showalter

• Whither Showalter? **Updated**
The biggest news in classical music so far this year is yesterday’s sudden departure of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s already legendary Deborah Borda for the New York Philharmonic, which she ran in the 1990s. Why is this news in Oregon? Because current Oregon Symphony president Scott Showalter’s previous job was Vice President for Development of the LA Phil, following stints as Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. A classically trained pianist, Showalter is a graduate of Stanford University and UCLA and has extensive experience in fundraising, which is now the primary job of orchestra CEOs, and a big reason why the NY Phil brought back Borda, a prodigious rainmaker as well as visionary. **UPDATE**: A symphony spokesperson says that Showalter has no plans to leave the OSO, which has enjoyed record ticket sales and donations under his leadership, and that he expects Borda to do great things in New York as she did in LA.

• PSU departure
Former Portland State University Dean of the College of the Arts Robert Bucker, an esteemed choral conductor, has been named Interim Vice Provost and Dean of the Faculty at New York’s prestigious Manhattan School of Music. A search is underway for his replacement.

Stephen Zopfi.

• Choir conductor change
Portland Symphonic Choir artistic director Steven Zopfi is departing after 14 years, as a result of a scheduling conflict with his work as director of choral activities at the University of Puget Sound. A search has commenced for his successor.

• Opera recovery
As Oregon ArtsWatch was first to announce publicly (you really should be checking our Facebook page!), Eugene Opera has cancelled its productions of West Side Story and La Tragedie de Carmen scheduled for March and May. The company announced last week that a small group of supporters has jointly pledged to donate a total of $60,000 when the company receives a matching $60,000 from other donors. The combined total of $120,000 is specifically earmarked to pay existing obligations to local artists, technicians, and businesses; it will cover about 75% of the current debt of $160,000. A separate $20,000 matching grant will begin funding the company’s next season.

• New opera series
Meanwhile, a new opera-oriented series has sprung up in Portland. The  Opera Wildwood Concert Series is a project of Luigi Boccia’s Vox Artis Foundation, which seeks to establish, organize and sponsor concert and lecture series, live and studio recordings, seminars and publishing/broadcasting activities through a specialized Youtube channel, in the U.S and abroad. Vox Artis also aims to provide encouragement, training opportunities, career assistance and financial support, including scholarships and awards, to promising and talented young singers and/or scholars,” according to its press release. The inaugural concert at Portland’s Wildwood Company on 3rd Avenue featured promising young opera singers. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for the latest developments with this new company, and other news in Oregon classical music.


Piano Day
Pianists are invited to sign up for Portland Piano International’s Piano Day — the first such celebration in the US. For the last two years, other countries have celebrated the 88th day of the year (corresponding to the number of keys on a standard piano), March 29, in 20 cities across the globe. Now, from noon – 10pm, pianists will play a total of 1000 minutes of piano music of all genres at four locations in the Portland Metro area at different times: the studio at All Classical Radio, the atrium at Portland City Hall, the platform at the Washington Park MAX Station (260 feet underground!) and the stage at Alberta Abbey. Pianists of all ages and abilities will perform on some of the City’s best pianos. The events will be free to the public, but each performer will be raising funds from the community with a minimum goal of $10 per minute played. The funds raised will be used to support the educational programs of Portland Piano International. Sign up to play or sponsor a pianist at http://portlandpiano.org/piano-day.

Battle of the Bands.
The Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) is accepting registrations for its second annual Battle of the Bands competition, which happens Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom. Eight employee bands, sponsored by their companies, will perform in front of friends, family, co-workers and a panel of celebrity judges as they vie for the title of Best Company Band and other prizes. The event will raise more than $80,000 for RACC’s annual Work for Art campaign.

Participating companies pay a sponsorship fee of $5,000 or more, which includes complimentary tickets and other benefits. Bands must be made up mostly of employees working for the sponsoring company; only one musician in each band may be exempted from this requirement. All bands must register by Monday, April 3.  This year brings a new lip sync video competition. For more information and application materials, visit workforart.org/bob/.


• NYC bound
The Eugene a cappella group, Synergy, composed of high school girls from across the region, won a regional competition in Portland in January, becoming one of 10 finalists competing in a national competition in New  York City April 21. The group’s director, Megan Lenhardt, co-founded the University of Oregon’s renowned Divisi a cappella group, and its current incarnation will perform along with Synergy, its male counterpart Some Cool Guys (which is also headed to New York for the competition), Divisi co-founder and a cappella star Evynne Hollens, will perform at a benefit concert this Sunday, March 19, at First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive St. Eugene to raise funds for the NYC trip.

• Grabbing gold
Pianist Trevor Natiuk, violinist Symphony Koss, and flutist Ashley Teng, won gold medals in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s 23rd Annual Young Artists Competition. The three gold medalists receive a $1000 scholarship and the opportunity to perform with the VSO at its April 22 & 23 concerts at Skyview Concert Hall. Five other students received medals and scholarships.

• Music & Community
Eugene Vocal Arts and its founding artistic director and conductor, Diane Retallack, won the Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music in the community division for the recorded performance of the newly commissioned world premiere of Shadow and Light, an Alzheimer’s Journey in 16 movements, by Portland composer Joan Szymko. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch feature about the project.

Eugene Vocal Arts artistic director Diane Retallack.

The American Prize is a series of new, non-profit national competitions in the performing arts providing cash awards, professional adjudication and regional, national and international recognition for the best recorded performances by ensembles and individuals each year in the United States at the professional, college/university, church, community and secondary levels.

• Alumnus Achievement
Roger Kaza, Principal Horn for the Saint Louis Symphony, received the Mary V. Dodge Lifetime Achievement Award at Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Winter Concert on March 4, after performing with his old orchestra during its winter concert. PYP, by the way, now offers $5 tickets to any performance to all students, from elementary school through grad school — a practice more classical music groups that want to build tomorrow’s audiences should consider.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Portland Baroque Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: Gifted guests

Guest conductors and musicians ably lead local orchestras in familiar music


The Portland Baroque Orchestra had set themselves a difficult task in presenting all four of J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites in one concert. Alongside the Brandenburg Concertos and a number of concertos for various instruments, these suites represent the most expansive of Bach’s purely instrumental music. They also represent a hell of a lot of notes, especially for the wind instruments. Another challenge — or opportunity — lies in choosing how many instruments to use, for the scores are not specific about this.

For the first of three concerts, on February 17, the PBO marshaled its largest ensemble: 22 players, including conductor and harpsichordist John Butt, familiar to Portland audiences for the vibrant Messiah he directed with the orchestra a few years ago. It was a distinct pleasure to hear these classics treated as orchestral pieces rather than chamber music, with one player per part, as is the practice on more than one contemporary recording.

Portland Baroque Orchestra played JS Bach’s four orchestral suites.

After the customary Ouverture, a first movement modeled on a French style, a 16-piece ensemble sailed into the additional ten movements, all named for baroque dance forms (courante, gavotte, forlane, menuet, bourrée, passedpied) of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. Their playing in the two bourrées was especially noteworthy. The first, the eighth movement of the piece, was very effective with the violins moving constantly under the meter in three; the second, the ninth movement, was superb in its lavish sighing motifs in the strings.

John Butt led PBO.

Mr. Butt then played a seven-minute piece, the Ricercar a 3, from Bach’s Musical Offering. This exercise in contrapuntal writing seemed rather sterile after the orchestral glories of the the Suite No. 1. But the band returned to form in the Suite No. 4. After a difficult Ouverture, in which the abrupt two-note figures sounded a little rough (no doubt, they would improve in the next two concerts), the entire band, minus the flute player, seemed to enjoy themselves very much, especially in the seventh and closing movement, the Réjouissance (rejoicing), which was taken at a ferociously fast clip. Bassoonist Nate Helgeson, a local treasure, demonstrated his astonishing ability in the first Bourée movement, immediately after the Ouverture. (Mr. Helgeson will be featured in PBO’s Spotlight on Bassoon concert on April 29.)


Today seems a good time to introduce you to one of our newest correspondents, C.S. Eliot. When the movie Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul prowled into town (it’s landed at Cinema 21 after a couple of sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival) we found ourselves looking for just the right sort of writer to respond to the film’s unusual subject matter, a writer with inside knowledge of the peculiarities of the feline world. And C.S. made a poetic plea to speak up.

Well, all right, it was a yowl. C.S., we regret to report, is an imperious sort, given to stark pronouncements and prone to making unseemly demands on the management. Thus, forthwith, C.S.’s first dispatch for us, ‘Kedi’ review: Turkish delight.

The streetwise cats of Istanbul.

To tell the truth, this partnership is a work in progress. We’re not sure C.S. understands the concept of objectivity at all. But C.S. makes no bones about his opinions (he prefers to leave the bones for the dogs), and C.S. will speak out. There’s no stopping him, really, although you can slow him down if you put out a bowl of tuna juice. Let’s stipulate that a good writer is not necessarily a saint.

In the case of Kedi, not only is C.S. an expert on the subject, he also has a talented collaborator, longtime ArtsWatch correspondent Maria Choban. She speaks Cat semi-fluently and is adept at translating the pith of C.S.’s opinions. We see their partnership as vital to our coverage of the next touring production of Cats to hit town (lyrics and original concept by C.S. Eliot’s distant relative T.S.), and to the Puss in Boots scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. And if someone in town will please put up a production of the musical Archy & Mehitabel, C.S. likely will be our representative in the reviewer’s box. We’ve tried, but we just can’t seem to come up with a literate cockroach who’ll work for what we can pay.





Companhia Urbana de Dança at White Bird. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança. White Bird brings the energetic Brazilian dance troupe to the Newmark Theatre for shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Born in the shanty towns and suburbs of Rio, the company blends hip-hop, urban, and contemporary dance into an Afro-Brazilian stew.


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

The Persian poet Rumi told a version of the ancient story of three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. In Rumi’s telling, the three men, not blind but each holding a small, dim candle, meet in a dark room. Each discovers one section of what turns out be the elephant—tusk, tail, trunk—and decides that one thing is what the elephant is: smooth and hard or thick and long or a hairy worm. They argue over who’s right, and as they move closer together, the combined light of their candles enables them finally to put their pieces together and see the big picture.

Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch loves that version so much that he made it the basis for Aspects of an Elephant, the substantial new orchestral work that the Oregon Symphony commissioned and premieres this month.

“On one hand, it seemed timely, with the polarized political climate these days and how everyone’s talking in the dark without consideration of another perspective,” Bunch explains. “Also an orchestra is a really good metaphor for how diversity can be a strength. You have all these different instruments that seem like they don’t belong together, but when you get them all working together, it makes this amazing music.”

Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

It’s also an apt metaphor for Bunch’s own music and career. If you only heard him play and sing in his bluegrass band, you’d peg him as a folkie/Americana musician. If you spotted him in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony or with his Thunder Egg Consort, you’d think of him as a performing classical music violist. If you witnessed him teaching young Oregonians, you’d see him as a valuable mentor for the next generation. And if you heard any of the dozens of original works he’s created over the last quarter century for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instrumentalists, and singers, you’d think of him as one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms like the blues and European-based classical music.

The truth is, Bunch is all those things. He’s also a Portland native (1991 graduate of Wilson High), a Juilliard School graduate and 22-year-New Yorker, and, as of 2013, a Portlander again — and to hear him tell it, for good.

“In the three and a half years since Monica and I moved back, neither of us could have imagined it could have turned out this well for both of us,” Bunch marvels. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate and grateful. We’ve both been able to be involved in music community, people have been so welcoming and embraced us. It’s felt like the right decision for so many reasons. The kids love it here. We’re never going anywhere else!”

And why not? Despite initial trepidation that leaving New York, the center of America’s contemporary classical music universe, might limit his burgeoning career, Bunch and his wife, the accomplished classical pianist Monica Ohuchi, quickly became mainstays of Oregon’s contemporary classical music scene. And now with two of the biggest new works of his career about to hit the stage at the same time in Portland and Eugene, Bunch’s career has soared to an even higher summit than he reached in New York—and back then such observers as The New York Times and The New Yorker identified him as one of America’s most promising young composers, his works increasingly performed around the country and beyond.


ArtsWatch Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:


Oregon Symphony review: Russian revelation

Violinist Stefan Jackiw's performance of Prokofiev violin concerto with the orchestra brings new insights


Sergei Prokofiev composed his second violin concerto as he was about to abandon a whirlwind international existence as a piano soloist (of his own works and others’) and guest conductor to return to the Soviet Union, which turned out to be more intransigent than he had expected. Yearning to be closer to his Russian roots, Prokofiev hoped that his homeland (he was born in 1891, long before the Bolshevik revolution) would enable him to write music closer to his heart and less beholden to the Stravinskyan and super-modern tastes of the West.

The result was a mixed bag; although hailed on his return to the USSR as a hero, he soon fell victim to Stalin’s absurd strictures for artists and found himself, despite his enormous reputation in the West, tossed from pillar to post, a prize-winner one year and a pariah the next, until the end of his life in 1953.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto was in a way his homage to a sort of music he hoped to enlarge upon in the future, more overtly lyrical than his famous piano concertos. Before moving from Paris to Moscow, he wrote his concerto for a French-Belgian violinist named Robert Soëtens, and it received its premiere in Madrid that same year, 1935.

Having approached it via a recording by Itzhak Perlman with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I was eager to hear my first live performance. It turned out to radically change my view of the concerto.

Stefan Jackiw performed with the Oregon Symphony.

First, the Oregon Symphony began its Russian-themed concert by playing an American work, but one with Russian connections. The young composer Sean Shepherd wrote Magiya (“magic” in Russian) for the National Youth Orchestra of the USA for its first season and tour with the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. The seven-minute composition for full orchestra makes lavish use of the percussion section in a spirited romp, perfect for an orchestra of young players. Maestro Carlos Kalmar gave the piece the sort of reading any composer loves, attentive to the smallest detail yet in full command of the overall effect. A very effective concert-opener.

Next came what was for this audience member the high point of the evening, a riveting performance of Prokofiev’s concerto by soloist Stefan Jackiw and Kalmar’s Oregon Symphony. Unlike the Perlman recording, which treats the concerto more or less as a traditional showpiece, Kalmar and co. presented a nuanced and more delicate interpretation, but one that still contained plenty of Prokofiev’s muscularity.

The first and third Allegro movements were not racehorses but rather exercises in gossamer filigree superimposed on vigorous rhythms. And the middle movment Andante assai was positively stately. I felt as if I had heard the piece, for the first time, as it was meant to be played.


ArtsWatch Weekly: let’s start over

A new year, a fresh start: Oregon gets set for a cultural revival in January and 2017

We’ve got that nasty old 2016 in our rear-view mirror now, and as our newest Nobel Laureate for Literature once warbled, Don’t look back. Nothing to see there. Or too much to contemplate. Sure, sure: what happens in 2017 will build on what happened in 2016, which built on what happened in 2015, and on and on down the line. But right now, let’s look ahead.


TRADITIONALLY, JANUARY IS IN THE MIDDLE of the artistic season and also the beginning of what’s called “The Second Season” – a chance to buckle down after the holidays and reinvigorate. Here are a few things, big and small, coming up this month to keep your eye on:

Kara Walker (American, born 1969), “The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18),” 1999–2000, courtesy the artist. Part of “Constructing Identity” opening Jan. 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

Fertile Ground 2017. This is one of the biggies, made up of all sorts of “smalls.” Begun as an annual festival in 2009, it’s blossomed into one of the biggest, most sprawling, and most intriguingly unpredictable events on Portland’s cultural calendar. For eleven days, in venues scattered across the city, dozens of new performance works by Portland artists will take the stage: plays, dances, solo shows, puppet shows, interactive shows, musicals, more. Shows will range from the biggest companies to indie pop-ups, and from full-blown world premieres to workshops and readings. Trying to keep up is bound to leave you breathless. Jan. 19-29.