portland piano international

ArtsWatch Weekly: Triffle on a cloud, a lobster in the tank

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

Carol Triffle is Portland’s most prominent stage absurdist, a quiet comic renegade who makes a virtue of never connecting the dots. Her theater is whimsical, outrageous, so ordinary that it defies the ordinary, stretching it into cosmic pretzel shapes. It’s an anti-theater, almost, bopping narrative on the nose and then ducking around the corner to put on clown makeup and reappear as something utterly different, yet somehow also just the same. At its worst, it falls apart. At its best, it feels a bit like watching Lucille Ball or Danny Kaye caught inside a spinning clothes dryer and howling to get out. Head-scratching occurs at a Triffle show, and the audience can be divided between those who adore the effect and those who simply scratch their heads.

Source, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Sorce, Fagan, Hale, on a sofa, on a cloud, in a funk. Imago Theatre photo.

Francesca, Isabella, Margarita on a Cloud, Triffle’s newest show at Imago Theatre (where she is co-founder and, with partner Jerry Mouawad, creator of the mask-and-costume phenomenon Frogz), is the story, if that’s the right word, of three sisters who feud inseparably, supporting one another through thin and thin. Margarita (Ann Sorce, an Imago vet who’s utterly internalized Triffle’s madcap expressionist style) is the one who won all the beauty contests. Francesca (Megan Skye Hale) is the one who lost all the same beauty contests. Isabella (Elizabeth Fagan), the baby, is the one who seems to have just accidentally starred in a porno film. Isabella’s boyfriend RayRay (Kyle Delamarter) and Margarita’s fella Bob the Weatherman (Sean Bowie) drop in now and again, eager, somehow, to attach to the sisterly scene.


Murray Perahia review: Finding beauty in the beast

Revered pianist’s recital eventually bridges the gulf between performer and composer


A favorite misquote tells us music has charms to soothe the savage beast. But what happens when a work of music is the savage beast? World-renowned pianist Murray Perahia, in the grand finale of Portland Piano International’s current mainstream season, gave us his answer the afternoon of April 10 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.


Portland Piano International brought Murray Perahia to Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The program featured works that reflected turbulent times in the lives of über-classic composers Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms and of course, Ludwig van Beethoven. Early on it seemed the beasts were to be tamed, but in the end, something much less one-sided emerged that made one wonder: can man and monster meld into one great soul?


Joseph Moog review: Will power

Portland Piano International recitalist displays determination along with dexterity


At one point in Joseph Moog’s March 13 piano recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, the 28-year old German pianist unexpectedly blanked for a split second. He expertly recovered, and it’s likely the only audience members who noticed were those who were intimately familiar with the work, Claude Debussy’s “Souvenir from The Louvre” (an alternative version of the better known Sarabande from his suite Pour le Piano.) Nonetheless, Moog went back to the top, as if Debussy had written a section repeat, and the second time played through flawlessly and with unimpaired lyricism. He was determined to get it right!

It was a telling moment. Moog seems to be a determined young man. He smiles engagingly at the audience, and speaks of himself deprecatingly, but this Portland Piano International visiting artist, who also appeared March 12 with a different program, was all business when it came time to make the piano do what he wanted.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: John Rudoff.

Joseph Moog performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: John Rudoff.

Of course, anyone who seeks to stand on equal footing with the world’s touring piano virtuosos must be unusually strong-willed already. The thousands of hours of practicing required are only the beginning. Moog’s program on the 13th demonstrated that he has thoroughly mastered all such preliminaries.


Bolai Cao review: Abundant talent

Portland Piano International recital coupled a rising young piano star with veteran Oregon composer's newest work.


“Abundance” seemed to be the theme of Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Stars / Oregon Composers Commissioning Project concerts, a cheering offering for the cold gray days of February. After two previous concerts, including one in Salem, Valentine’s Day saw pianist Bolai Cao at Portland Piano Company, playing sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, studies by Frédéric Chopin, Reminiscences of Don Giovanni by Franz Liszt, and last but emphatically not least, a brand new work by Oregon composer Bryan Johanson. The Portland State University professor of music’s work was composed in homage to Scarlatti and bears the same Italian title “Essercizi” that Scarlatti himself called his sonatas.

Abundance because:

• Scarlatti wrote over a hundred sonatas a year for the last five years of his nearly 72-year long life;

• Chopin at the opposite end of his adulthood – before he even left the Poland of his youth for Paris – had already composed many highly original studies;

• Johanson’s new piece bristled with entertaining ideas;

• the Liszt, like nearly all the works on the program, unleashed a superabundance of notes from the piano.

Cao at 19 is even younger than Chopin was when he left Warsaw, but he cuts an imposing figure and his pianism was imposing as well. Two of his four Scarlatti selections were of the “OMG” variety, infamous among pianists for their lightning-fast figuration and wide leaps, but Cao displayed barely a trace of warm-up jitters. I would have preferred a more lyrical approach to a couple of the Chopin studies, including the well-known “Black Key” (op. 10 #5), which has many intricacies for the ear’s delight but which flew by at the pace of an east wind out of the Columbia River Gorge. On the other hand, the deceptively difficult “Waterfall” etude (op. 10 #1) was appropriately tumultuous and astonishingly accurate, and Cao’s lyrical side did come out to play in op. 10 #3, which a century later could have been a crooner’s hit.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Without losing any accuracy, and even more astonishing, any clarity, Cao reached the apex of tumult in Liszt’s madcap virtuosic paraphrase of the Mozart opera. Just about every trick from the Liszt playbook is in there – wide leaps, thundering octaves including blind octaves (playing very fast octave scales with alternating hands), and runs and arabesques galore – and yet, while those in the know roll their eyes, it somehow manages to stop just short of tastelessness. To realize its potential takes extraordinary pianism and Cao was equal to the task. Yes, I laughed at the end, but not from derision. Instead, it felt like popping the cork off Mozart’s celebrated Champagne Aria.

Johanson’s work didn’t require such fancy acrobatics, but it had its own challenges and brought another appreciative smile to my face. Its three movements, fast / slow / fast, each hewed closely to the model of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which were a milestone in the development of the form, as imaginative in their day as Beethoven’s 50 years later. The first movement punctuated fast runs and contrapuntal tricks with fanfares on exotic chords. The fanfares reappeared, subdued and almost unrecognizable – more like cries in the wilderness – in the pensive, even mournful slow movement. Intuitively I wanted them to be echoed in a triple articulation of the final chord, but things didn’t turn out that way. All long faces vanished in the finale, which romped to a thumping finish through short quotes from not only Scarlatti but also J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel (all three, by the way, born in 1685). A couple of the quotes added to the humor by squirting dollops of unexpected harmonic stability into Johanson’s somewhat angular lines and delightfully off-kilter yet ultimately center-seeking harmonies.

If you missed the concert and are feeling a resulting lack of abundance in your listening life, don’t fret. This was only the third of six such concerts this season, and six more are planned for next season. The fourth hasn’t yet been announced, so keep an eye on PPI’s website and Oregon ArtsWatch. PPI’s next recital features another young piano star, 28-year-old Joseph Moog, playing music by JS Bach, Liszt and Chopin on March 12 at Portland State University.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

News & Notes: Happenings in Oregon music

Newsworthy recent developments in Oregon classical and jazz music

Every now and then, when the press of covering live performances briefly abates, we try to catch up on a few recent announcements in the Oregon music world.

Head Honchos

 Portland Youth Philharmonic appointed Noreen Murdock as its executive director. Now the development director at Chamber Music Northwest and former executive director of the Salem Chamber Orchestra, she replaces Kiri Murakami-Lehmann, who’s moving to California.

Sarah Tiedemann

Sarah Tiedemann

Young Musicians & Artists (YMA) has named Portland flutist Sarah Tiedemann as its next executive director. Now entering its 51st year, YMA sponsors summer visual arts and performing arts programs in areas such as photography, dance, composition, and more for about 250 students grades 4-12.A frequent performer with Third Angle New Music, Salem Chamber Orchestra, and other classical music groups, Tiedemann moves from her communications position with Third Angle (and before that, Chamber Music Northwest) to replace Quinlan Porter, who departs after eight years.

Oregon Bach Festival selected Janelle McCoy its new executive director, replacing John Evans, who departed the University of Oregon institution last year. The mezzo soprano formerly directed Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the city’s Mendelssohn Club chorus, which premiered Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning Anthracite Fields. She’s also worked on the staff of several other arts and music institutions and performed as a singer with the Atlanta Symphony and other orchestras.

• Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir chose University of Oregon prof Eric Mentzel as its director. A member of the renowned early music vocal ensemble Sequentia, Mentzel also founded and directs Eugene’s Vox Resonat.

Eric Mentzel

Singer and professor Eric Mentzel.

Radio Waves

• The parade of classical music radio personalities to Oregon continues with the arrival in Eugene of Peter van de Graaff as music director and host of the University of Oregon’s KWAX radio, replacing the retiring Caitriona Bolster. His burnished basso profundo (he’s also a professional singer who’s performed with orchestras and opera companies around the country) has long graced the national late night classical radio program broadcast by Chicago’s WFMT since 1988.



“Holy smokes! I want to learn that!” thought then-eleven-year-old Washington native Charlie Albright as he listened to Richard Goode perform Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 in Lincoln Hall for Portland Piano International. His piano teacher Nancy Adsit was sitting next to him, and upon returning home they began learning the piece. Sixteen years later, now a winner of the 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Oregon’s next-door-neighbor has come full circle from being PPI’s eager young audience member to opening his very own PPI concert series this weekend with this same Janácek sonata.

Charlie Albright. Photo: Stan Giske.

Charlie Albright. Photo: Stan Giske.

Albright began his music studies at the age of three, focusing particularly on jazz until age seven when he began classical studies with Adsit. He earned an Associate of Science degree at Centralia College while still in high school. In addition to winning a 2010 Gilmore Young Artist Award and 2009 Young Concert Artists International Audition, Albright was the first classical pianist accepted to the Harvard College/New England Conservatory Joint program, receiving Bachelor’s degree as a Pre-Med and Economics major at Harvard in 2011, Master of Music degree in Piano Performance at the New England Conservatory in 2012, and Artist Diploma (A.D.) from New York’s Juilliard School.

Judging by his 2011 album Vivace, Albright is a pianist to be reckoned with. But before you hunker down for a serious listen, check out his Facebook page and watch him rock out to his own arrangement of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Willie Nelson’s “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”

In addition to gushing about Psy’s latest album, this young polymath shared a bit of his life story and music philosophies with OAW.

OAW: Your Wikipedia article is quite detailed, mentioning all the accomplishments and projects in your life, but it fails to mention your age or birth year. Why is that?

Well, I usually don’t put my age out for the press because age is often used to make funky comparisons between musicians. Art sometimes happens earlier and sometimes later in life, and if you latch onto age as a means of examining an artist, instead of thinking about what kind of art the person is doing, then the discussion becomes less about the art and more about the accolades, which isn’t as important.


Henry Kramer review: The new shall lie down with the old

Portland Piano International rising star recital links 21st and 19th century compositional adventures


Portland Piano International’s artistic director Arnaldo Cohen and executive director Ellen Bergstone Wasil should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves about now. They took a chance marrying their Rising Stars series of up-and-coming touring concert pianists with a series of twelve commissions to Oregon composers for new works inspired by classics of the repertory. As Henry Kramer’s November 15 recital showed, things are working out very well. There was a smidgen of esthetic mismatch between the new, represented by Eugene composer and University of Oregon professor of music David Crumb, and the old, represented by Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms, but it was easily smoothed over by Kramer’s extraordinary artistry.

Kramer's Portland performance took place at a car dealership. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Kramer’s Portland performance took place at a car dealership. Photo: Dan Wasil.

PPI also took a chance on the venue this time, the front showroom of south Portland’s Freeman Motor Company. That didn’t work out quite as well. It’s difficult to find and access for folks driving from downtown Portland, and it’s separated from busy Macadam Avenue by only a sidewalk and a line of apparently thick but giant windows. (Not only that, the e-mailed publicity sent us to their service department over a mile away.) Fortunately, the company put out a royal welcome to both artists and audience, and Kramer’s absorbing performances made it easy to ignore the low-level deviations from typical concert hall ambience.

Henry Kramer also performed at Portland's Terwilliger Plaza.

Henry Kramer also performed at Portland’s Terwilliger Plaza.

Chopin and Brahms were arguably the two greatest composers to live their lives entirely in the 19th century. Both were top-notch pianists, and both arduously honed their craft throughout their lives, but the similarity ends there. Chopin, an upper-class Pole who spent most of his life in France, devoted himself to piano composition, thoroughly exploring the expressive capabilities of what was then new technology and meticulously crafting works to give the illusion of improvisation. Never a strong man, he died in his 40th year from tuberculosis. Brahms was the son of a struggling musician and grew up playing piano for a pittance in the saloons of Hamburg’s waterfront. He composed in every genre of the time but opera, and while his music also often gives the illusion of artlessness, it even more often shows off his prodigious technique, so much so that the very different Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky referred to him as “that giftless bastard.” Brahms was also an avid rambler and hiker, and once nearly dragged his father to the top of a minor peak in the Alps.

Chopin may not have been much of a hiker, but his second piano sonata is as rugged a pianistic adventure as they come. Kramer powered through its difficulties with energy to spare, but also took care to, yes, pause to smell the flowers. A few stumbles in the opening section of the brutal Scherzo were forgotten as he aced the reprise. I wanted the iconic funeral march in the slow movement to be slower, more extreme, but there is the tone painting of a horse-drawn bier to consider. If you missed the performance, you can catch his Thursdays @ 3 performance on the All Classical radio website for another week, in particular his unusually beautifully nuanced performance of the spooky yet frenetic finale. There was a more uniform rush on Sunday, but it never became the incomprehensible blur favored by pianists less interested in music than showing off how fast their fingers work.

David Crumb.

David Crumb.

David Crumb’s new Nocturne began with deep bell tones and an intriguing and rather doleful harmonic ambiguity – was the key major? Minor? Was there going to be traditional harmony at all? The answer is… yes and no. There was nothing retro about it, yet Crumb seemed every bit as concerned as Chopin with the harmonic support a sustained bass gives to a singing treble. A pensive melody gradually developed, but as might be expected on the other side of the musically tumultuous 20th century, the work never split as simply into melody and accompaniment as Chopin’s nocturnes tend to. Edgier harmonies tinged more urgent filigrees as the work grew more animated, but eventually the opening mood returned to dissipate magically, floating off in a further evocation of bells. Kramer didn’t play this work from memory, but even so, it seemed to flow naturally from somewhere deep inside.  Well-judged pedaling perfectly melded ringing left hand accents with a right hand that did seem to sing.

If there were any doubts about the source of Crumb’s inspiration, they were put to rest by the following work, that exemplar of Chopin nocturnes, Op. 27 #2 in Db major. Kramer’s performance was unaffected and lyrical, exactly what the work requires. With Crumb’s more impressionistic opus still freshly in mind, I hoped Kramer would let this nocturne also float off at the end, articulating the concluding harmony with touch rather than with pedal, but he chose a simpler, traditional approach.

It’s also traditional for pianists to huff and puff their way through Brahms’ punishing Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which are as much etudes to hone keyboard technique as they are fanciful inventions on Paganini’s well-known ditty. It can even turn into a bit of a slog, but Kramer’s way with it was a revelation. (Unfortunately the only video available online, like the one above, doesn’t really do him justice – in it, he’s still more apprentice than sorcerer.) There was a great deal of athleticism, true, but the overall impression was of a work surprisingly light on its feet. His only miscalculation was plunging into the driving finale of the first half too fast and turning it into a gray avalanche of notes, the sign of a pianist not quite in control. Also, I wished that the sweeter, slower variations could have provided even more of a respite in the prevailing whirlwind. But in general all was as clear as could be, and Kramer found an amazing amount of music in what are, after all, a series of exercises. There is a lot of repetition in such a work, but he found many a poetic detail to bring out here and there, so that one rarely became impatient for the next variation. One variation requires the pianist to play glissandi in octaves with the right hand only, which the mere thought of can cause a lesser pianist’s hand to twitch in agony. Kramer’s seemed miraculously effortless.

Those glissandi are a good symbol for the entire experience. Crumb and Kramer are mavens of their respective arts who have no doubt worked like demons to achieve what they’ve achieved, yet to hear them talk, there’s nothing to it: they just do what they need to do. The result is enormously pleasing for their audience. With a payout like that, more classical presenters should follow PPI’s lead and take a chance on supporting local composers.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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