portland piano international

Music News & Notes

Catching up with recent news in Oregon classical music

Note: this post has been updated after news of the passing of one of America’s great musicians.

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.


George Li review: Miracles aplenty

Stellar Portland Piano International recitals reveal classical piano's next star


I could hardly believe my eyes. At intermission, the audience members were calmly milling around the Lincoln Hall lobby, chatting and buying refreshments and talking on their phones, as if they had just seen the first half of any old concert. Didn’t they realize what they’d just heard? I wanted to shake them out of their nonchalance and yell in their faces, “Don’t you have ears? This kid is great!”

George Li. Photo: Christian Steiner.

To call pianist George Li a kid is no exaggeration. But although short and baby-faced at 21 years of age, he’s nevertheless elaborately experienced, having given his professional debut at age 10 in Boston and won the silver medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, among other honors. His onstage aplomb at his Portland Piano International recital on Saturday afternoon, February 11, at Portland State University, was immaculate. Before beginning each piece, Li paused over the keys as if meditating, raised his hands very slowly, and then plunged immediately into the rhythm of the music. Once underway, he looked as if he were concentrating intensely while also dreaming; his hands never stopped.

During the opener, Josef Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Mr. Li showed technique to spare and seemed to negotiate the music with no real effort. Fast and slow music alike emerged under his fingers with exemplary clarity. And with his phrasing and expression, he succeeded in making each of the three movements a little mini-sonata of its own, and this in a piece that although programmed more frequently than most of Haydn’s other five dozen sonatas, is not especially memorable. I thought to myself, if he can make this Haydn piece sing like this, what miracles might he produce with Chopin’s Second Sonata, the next piece on the program?


Nelson Goerner review: He has the technology

Portland Piano International recitalist is master of extremes in music by Beethoven, Schumann and Handel


During the 1817 Christmas season, English piano manufacturer John Broadwood & Sons, as much a technology innovator in those days as Apple or Google is in ours, sent Ludwig van Beethoven one of their top-of-the-line pianos as a gift, complete with a laudatory engraved inscription in Latin.

As luck would have it, Beethoven was working on the big piano sonata that would eventually be published as his op. 106. Although it’s unclear, due to his advancing deafness, how much he could directly appreciate the piano’s features, he praised it enthusiastically to his friends and associates. Finally, he had an instrument that he felt measured up to the range of his genius.  It can hardly be coincidence that the sonata became the magnum opus we know today simply as “The Hammerklavier” – the German name then current for the piano, that celebrated its advanced mechanisms much as today’s “smartphone” is distinguished from yesterday’s mere “phone.” It turned out by far the longest and most difficult piano work of the time, and even today is considered a touchstone of pianistic virtuosity.

Portland Piano International brought Nelson Goerner to Oregon in November. Photo: Richard Brase.

Many classical music fans would count themselves lucky to hear two outstanding live performances of the sonata in their lifetimes. Here in Portland, we’re fortunate indeed, because thanks to Portland Piano International we’ve now had the opportunity to hear two in the same year. As I wrote in May, Murray Perahia wowed a Schnitzer Concert Hall audience with his version, and the first Saturday in December, those fortunate enough to be part of a relatively small audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall heard Nelson Goerner’s quite different but just as accomplished version. They were like two brothers: Perahia the serious one, recounting an epic from his own world, and Goerner the sunnier one, giving the crowd an exalted song and dance, something he senses they’ll love.

At first, Goerner gave away no hints how it might go. The Argentine-born Swiss pianist’s opening number, George Frideric Handel’s early 18th-century “Chaconne” – Beethoven would have called them Variations – “in G major” HWV 435, came across as a pleasant and busy essay of the period that would likely sound more impressive on the older technology instrument (a harpsichord) it was written for.

Robert Schumann’s 1837 “Dances from the League of David (Davidsbündlertänze)” was written just ten years after Beethoven’s death, but it’s a world of fantasy away from the music of the “Hammerklavier.” Gone is the titan wrestling with deep questions of musical form, replaced by a one-man show of colorful characters. Schumann’s “League of David” was a made-up inner circle of music cognoscenti revolving around the characters Florestan and Eusebius, who represented two extremes in Schumann’s own psyche. Eusebius was intellectual, precise, thoughtful, daydreaming, while Florestan was all action, impulsive, outgoing and adventurous.

Schumann left notations that suggest Florestan and Eusebius should get equal say in the Dances, but there was more Eusebius in Goerner’s precise yet lyrical performance. Unfortunately the most sublime moment in the entire work, where, after all musical loose ends are wrapped up, a blissful Eusebian afterthought takes off apparently in the wrong key, was ruined by a clueless cougher. Nonetheless, in dance after dance, I felt myself beguiled back to a simpler time, when music seemed to have all the answers, when I was surrounded by the warmth of family and school friends and my head was filled with hopes and dreams of the future.  No doubt the sweet directness of Goerner’s interpretation created a kind of intimacy that opened up such memory lanes.

Drama and Suspense

Eusebius’ sensitivity informed Goerner’s Beethoven too, notably in his particularly harmonious way with passages that use the extreme ends of the piano simultaneously, and in passages the composer specifically marked to reverberate by holding down the damper pedal throughout. The former can sometimes sound cartoonish and the latter muddy and unfocused, but Goerner had no such problems. In particular, his pedaling at the end of the first movement created a fittingly grand finish to one of Beethoven’s most exuberantly massive essays in sonata form.

But Florestan could not be kept in the background. He burst out in the beginning and ending sections of the antic scherzo, where Goerner somehow evoked the chuckling of a madman. Even in the languishing slow movement, he notably animated a bridge into a reprise of the unconsolable opening lament – a bridge that risks sounding like an undergraduate exercise in harmony – so that it became a vignette of drama and suspense. Most of all, Florestan’s spirit somehow permeated the most intellectual movement of the four, the final gargantuan yet high-spirited fugue, so that for the first time in my experience, it seemed to fly by and end almost too soon. And yet, Eusebius joined in too, for every detail was clear throughout.

Nelson Goerner performed at Portland State University. Photo: Richard Brase.

I went to congratulate Goerner on his performance, and though I had never noticed while he was on stage, in person I was reminded of what the great Soviet-era pianist Emil Gilels once said about his young compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy: “He is small, but the grand piano is not too big for him. He does what he wants with it. Others who are big come to the piano, but it is too big for them.” Whether he comes to the piano, or as happened with Beethoven’s new instrument, the piano comes to him, Goerner does what he wants with it, and wonderfully well.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist.

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

ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.


Sara Daneshpour review: Taking flight

Rising Star pianist soars in Portland Piano International recital


Pianist Sara Daneshpour is young, and speaks softly, almost shyly. But her hands flash across the keyboard like lightning and unleash heavenly thunder.

As her November 5 recital at Portland Piano Company, part of Portland Piano International’s Rising Stars series, got underway with two mild-mannered selections from French Baroque composer and seminal tonal theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, there was no hint of such godly powers. But she was definitely in command: melodies and harmonies were clear, phrases were elegantly shaped, and layered voices were distinct.

Sara Daneshpour performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Richard Brase.

Even in Maurice Ravel’s atmospheric virtuoso test piece, “Ondine,” which begins and ends with the most delicately piquant resonances, there were only a few rattling rumbles. The various elements were mostly clearly audible and well proportioned as in the Rameau, despite the flurry of fast fingerwork. Only a few unfocused moments and the fact this work is almost always performed as part of a set of three hinted that it may still be in development as a piece of Daneshpour’s repertory. Even so, with a little help from Ravel at the top of his game, it was easy to be uplifted to some magical land by her artistry.


ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum




Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.


Tina Chong review: Adventurous women

Portland Piano International rising star recital pairs female composers' new work and neglected classic


The first work that Portland Piano International’s Rising Star Tina Chong played, the first Friday evening in May at Portland Piano Company, did not initially seem to promise any magic moments. True, the title of the 1836 composition was “Nocturne” and the fluid melody and colorful harmony suggested Frédéric Chopin, or at least, a composer who avidly studied and understood that musical conjurer’s newly published works. But like so many Nocturnes, especially by lesser composers, it seemed a simple song in A-B-A form, or if you will, verse / chorus – bridge – verse / chorus (with, as it turned out, a short coda or outro).

And yet something astonishing happened at the end of the bridge. The return of the verse felt nothing like the blithe “oh here we are at home again” restart regurgitated in myriad familiar and forgotten examples of the form. Instead, while the prevailing figuration slyly flowed on underneath, the harmony levitated for a few seconds, skipped the verse’s opening chord altogether and alighted on its first moment of instability. The effect was almost unbearably poignant, as if the adventurer at the keyboard was turned back out onto the open road just when she was at her most vulnerable. One treasures such moments of tone poetry in Chopin, even in Brahms and Beethoven.

Tina Chong performed in Portland Piano International's Rising Star series.

Tina Chong performed in Portland Piano International’s Rising Star series.

Move over, guys. The composer was 16-year-old Clara Wieck, soon to become the wife of much better known composer Robert Schumann. But “composer” was deemed an unsuitable job for a 19th century European woman, and Clara went on to become instead one of the most famous pianists of her time, her own original music buried in obscurity. Two heads are better than one, and no doubt she and Robert influenced each other’s work – there are signs even in this early Nocturne. But Robert got all the credit.