portland piano international

MusicWatch Weekly: in- and outdoor sounds

It's worth venturing outside, smoke and all, to catch some late summer sounds this week, and indoor music is available too

Our weekly music listings, having recently moved back in with the parents over the summer, as so many graduates are doing these days, are pleased to announce that they’ve found their own place again and are busily furnishing it with shiny new previews of a select few music events around the state — many of them alfresco. There is no truth to the rumor that the Music listings were jealous that their Drama siblings just got their own place too….

Tia Fuller performs two shows with her quartet in Portland Friday.

Portland SummerFest

The annual summer music festival temporarily relocates from Washington Park (thanks to construction) to downtown Portland’s so-called “Halprin Sequence,” the lovely if sometimes overlooked public spaces designed by famed architect Lawrence Halprin to restore a few human-scale spaces to a downtown Portland neighborhood ravaged by ‘60s-style car centric urban renewal. As you stroll among Lovejoy and Keller Fountains, Pettygrove Park and the little Source Fountain from 5–9 pm, hear urban soundscapes, music by inventive Cascadia composers Jennifer Wright and Daniel Brugh, local opera singers accompanied by pianist Chuck Dillard, and more.

Wednesday, SW Lincoln and SW Market Streets, Portland.

Hunter Noack performs in three outdoor Oregon settings this week.

“In a Landscape”

Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to Astoria, Pendleton, Eugene, and ten other towns from the coast to the Steens. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances (and probably fire/weather related updates) through September 30.

Wednesday, Agate Beach Golf Course, Newport; Thursday, Mount Pisgah Arboretum, Eugene; Saturday, Suttle Lodge & Boathouse, Sisters.

Al Di Meola shreds on Wednesday in Portland. Photo: Alessio Belloni.

Al Di Meola

The paragon of jazz fusion guitar returns, augmented by a quintet that includes electric violin, on a 40th anniversary tour that features both electric and acoustic axes and tight, tuneful jazz influenced by various global traditions, from Middle Eastern to flamenco.

Wednesday. Revolution Hall, Portland.

Sam Hong plays Oregon music and more this weekend.

Sahun “Sam” Hong

Portland Piano International kicks off its next admirable (and free of charge!) Rising Star series with the young prize winning pianist playing Beethoven and Chopin sonatas, Brahms’s lovely Op. 119 pieces, and a pair of intermezzi by the fine Oregon composer Brent Weaver.

Thursday, George Fox University, Bauman Auditorium, Newberg; Friday, Terwilliger Plaza and Monday, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Tia Fuller Quartet (early and late shows)

The rising jazz alto/soprano sax star is probably best known for her work in Beyonce’s band and other pop star gigs (Aretha, Jay Z, et al), but jazz heads and critics have long admired her supple, energetic work with her own quartet over four albums.

Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: full-tilt boogie

Imago tilts the action in a topsy-turvy Greek classic, Brett Campbell's best music bets, "Jersey Boys" croons into town, new theater & dance

The question echoes down the centuries from the Greek myths and Euripides’ play, which was first set on stage in 431 B.C. and just keeps coming back: was Medea balancing the scales of justice when she murdered her husband’s new wife and her own children, or was she falling off her rocker? People have been arguing the point ever since (Medea shocked its original audience, coming in dead last in that year’s City of Dionysia festival), and the question of teetering out of control remains foremost, right down to Ben Powers’ recent adaptation of Medea for the National Theatre in London.

The ups and downs of rehearsal: Imago’s tilting stage for “Medea.” Imago Theatre photo.

Enter Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theatre, whose own theories of balance reach back to his mentor Jacques Lecoq, the French mime and movement master who advocated a “balance of the stage.” In 1998 Mouawad and Imago took the advice literally, creating a large movable stage, suspended three feet above the floor, that tips and leans as the actors shift position on it. They used it for an acclaimed production of Sartre’s No Exit, in which the constantly shifting balances became a metaphor for the play itself. The show was revived several times and traveled to theaters across the country.

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Llyr Williams review: Pace setter

Welsh pianist's performances of music by Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov demonstrate exquisite control of tempo and pacing

by TERRY ROSS

It’s been a great season for piano playing in Portland. We’ve had Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough, probably the two finest pianists in the world today, with the Oregon Symphony. We’ve had the talented duo Stephanie & Saar plus a bunch of local pianists playing Fredric Rzewski’s monumental The People United Will Never Be Defeated in Portland Piano Company’s Makrokosmos Project. We had young George Li, who may be the successor to Hamelin and Hough, in Portland Piano International’s valuable series. We had Wu Han playing chamber music and a concerto in Chamber Music Northwest’s Passions United program. And others from Jeffrey Kahane to Anderson & Roe and more.

Now comes Welshman Llyr Williams, again with Portland Piano International, in two different recital programs in PSU’s Lincoln Hall on April 1st and 2nd. Besides great technical skill and interpretive flair, what distinguishes these pianists from lesser colleagues and from each other?

In earlier ArtsWatch reviews I’ve described the playing of Hamelin, Hough, the pianists in the Rzewski show, Li, and Han. What, then, makes Mr. Williams different?

Llyr Williams performed at Portland Piano International.

Granted, among players of this calibre, differences are subtle. On the evidence of the April 2nd concert, Mr. Williams shows great and seemingly effortless technical brilliance, but so do Hamelin and Hough. The Welshman is a sensitive and bold interpreter of disparate composers, but so are all the others. Along with superb technique and heartfelt music taste, what especially distinguishes Mr. Williams’s playing is a remarkably fluid sense of tempo and uniquely keen feel for pacing, an attention to the distance between the notes that makes his choices, however phrased, seem inevitable.

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 7, the so-called “Grand Sonata,” this ability took the form of making a seamless whole of a movement containing wild contrasts in tempos. In the second-movement Largo con gran espressione, Beethoven’s key change from E-flat to C signals an entirely different approach, an invitation to a sort of smooth and cantabile playing that Beethoven favored over the earlier Mozartean style of crisp attack, more suited to the harpsichord. Here Mr. Williams created a lovely and almost (but not quite) static tonal picture that was one of the highlights of the afternoon’s concert. Thereafter, in the third and fourth movements’ Allegros, his rhythms and tempos produced a suave, if restrained, conclusion. The Fourth is an early (1797) Beethoven sonata that, despite its title and length, ends quietly.

In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, written in 1809 on a generous commission from another composer and pianist, Muzio Clementi, the scale is smaller: just two movements totaling ten minutes. In this merry piece, dedicated to Beethoven’s  friend Countess Theresa Josepha Anna Johanna Aloysia Brunsvik de Korompa (whew!), the composer briefly introduces the opening of a favorite tune of his, Rule Brittania, and also jumps with abandon from feathery passages to louder chords. Mr. Williams rendered these with his customary feel for the relationship of contrasting notes, a technique that tied the sonata together as if it were a single (if many-faceted) musical statement.

Two more of the greatest composers for piano occupied the second half of the program: Chopin and Rachmaninov. Representing Chopin was the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, one of the Pole’s most lauded compositions. Here Mr. Williams preserved his seemingly innate attention to pace while giving us, in the slow passages within this 13-minute piece, a sort of lyricism quite different from Beethoven’s, a signature Chopin dreaminess. Lovely playing.

Sergei Rachmaninov made his appearance in a rarer presentation: ten of the composer’s 24 preludes, written in all the major and minor keys in partial emulation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin’s Twelve Preludes. Rachmaninov’s pieces, which range from two to five-and-a-half minutes in length, are more often used as concert encores than programmed together. They show the range of Rachmaninov’s composing skills and tastes, emphasizing tonalities and rhythms more than his better-known cantabile melodies, familiar from his piano concertos. Mr. Williams moved from one to another, from Largo to Allegro to Moderato to Lento, with a keen sense of contrast and easy grace.

The final selection, Op. 23, No. 2 in B-flat Major, marked Maestoso, was a true showpiece that enabled our pianist to end with an appropriate flourish, bringing the audience to their feet in the first of two standing ovations. The second of these ovations came after a short, delicate encore by Edvard Grieg, which earned concert-goers a second Grieg piece by way of farewell.

Recommended recordings

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 4
Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon 4778806), 2013.
Sviatoslav Richter (Alto ALC1158), 2011.

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 24
Claudio Arrau (Testament SBT21351), 2004.
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon 413766-2), 1984.

• Chopin, Fantaisie in F minor
Murray Perahia Plays Chopin (Sony Classical Masters 88843062432), 2014.
Michelangeli Plays Chopin (Opus Arte OA0940D), 1962.
Wilhelm Kempff, Vol. 10 (Documents 297641), 1954, 1958.

• Rachmaninov, Preludes
Rustem Hayroudinoff (Chandos 10107), 2003.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 4676852), 1975.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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

ArtsWatch Weekly: Play it, Sam

On the 88th day the pianos will play, all over town. Plus: The Japanese Garden reopens, Brett Campbell's music tips, new theater & dance

Wednesday, in case you haven’t been counting, will be the 88th day of 2017.

A piano, as you probably know, has 88 keys.

And that seems like an excellent excuse to throw a big piano party, which is exactly what Portland Piano International is doing with its minimalistically named Piano Day. Portland’s Piano Day, PPI declares, is the first in the United States. The celebration first struck a chord in Germany two years ago when pianist Nils Frahm proclaimed March 29 as Piano Day, and it’s crescendoed rapidly to Japan, Slovenia, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, France, and elsewhere.

Dooley Wilson at the keyboard, playing “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 Warner Bros. movie “Casablanca.”

So what’s happening? Piano playing. Lots of it, by lots of pianists (no, not Francis Scott Key or Alicia Keys), in lots of styles, from noon to 10 p.m. in four locations: Portland City Hall downtown, All Classical Portland radio headquarters in the Portland Opera building at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge, Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland, and TriMet’s Oregon Zoo MAX Station. Listening’s free, but the pianists are also taking donations for PPI and educational programs, and a little payback is a good thing. Play it, Sam.

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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.’

Transitions

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.

Opportunities

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.

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George Li review: Miracles aplenty

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

by TERRY ROSS

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?

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Nelson Goerner review: He has the technology

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

by JEFF WINSLOW

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!