The Other March Madness: New music matters

Laska Dancers' Broken Flowers is a highlight of March Music Moderne

March marks a season of renewal. Even in the Pacific Northwest, notorious for its false springs, the first signs are springing up: daffodils in the gardens I cycle by, bursts of color in Portland’s Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden and Japanese garden, cat hair sheddings on the living room floor.

And new music is in the air. Last month’s Portland Jazz Festival and two major John Cage tributes, and this past weekend’s Cascadia Composers concerts heralded the official March Music Moderne festival concocted by Portland composer Bob Priest. My current Willamette Week interview/preview feature with Priest sketches the festival’s origins and intentions.

The other March Madness (not NCAA approved) kicks off at 7:30 tonight at Portland’s Hipbone Studio, 1847 E. Burnside with a party, performance and panel discussion about new music in Portland and Oregon moderated by one of the region’s true musical heroes, KQAC All-Classical FM radio senior announcer Robert McBride, who for decades has been a wry, wise, witty and worthy voice for classical music and advocate for its continuing vitality through his astute programming, his weekly must-hear radio show Club Mod (available for two weeks following the air date on the station’s archive site), and his community appearances. He’ll moderate the discussion, which begins at 7:30 pm and include The Oregonian’s veteran classical music critic and now distinguished feature writer, David Stabler; James Bash from Oregon Music News; pianist Maria Choban; and Classical Revolutionary comandante and violist Mattie Kaiser as well as Priest and me. Then comes music by John Cage, Jack Gabel, Iannis Xenakis, poetry by Claire Sykes, molti celli, dance, and more.

MMM is only the latest in a series of new music events Priest has staged throughout his decade in Portland, most of them free. Except for big events like the Oregon Symphony concert and Kronos Quartet, most of the musicians will be playing for free as well. I’m always amazed at how much work these busy performers — already burdened with rehearsals, day jobs, teaching gigs, other music obligations and usually some combination of all of the above — donate in order to get to play new music and offer it to our community. Even those who charge admission are lucky to break even on their immediate costs, not counting their rehearsal time, years of education and practice, etc. We should all be grateful to them for their efforts.

MMM master Bob Priest

Those generous unreimbursed efforts stand in stark contrast to the offerings of many of our professional music organizations, which do earn enough to pay the musicians’ and staff salaries — much of it coming from grants and subsidies that ultimately come from the taxpayers — yet reinvest a most a pittance in music by today’s composers, especially those from our own region. Of course, some ensembles specialize in kinds of music that don’t easily lend themselves to compositions by contemporary Northwest composers, although I’m sure there are plenty of composers that would be happy to accept a commission for a work played on, say, Baroque instruments.

There are noble exceptions, particularly among vocal ensembles, as recent concerts by Portland Vocal Consort, Resonance Ensemble, Oregon Repertory Singers, Choral Arts Ensemble and more have demonstrated. These groups regularly perform music of our own time and place and deserve the community’s gratitude for it. And unlike the prevailing notion of two or three generations ago (which itself was more myth than reality), it’s not like today’s music is incompetently written or inherently unappealing; in fact, too much of it strikes me as too conservative, yet certainly appealing to even hidebound listeners. American composers today, including many right here in Oregon, are creating wonderful sounds with broad appeal — but very little of it is performed or presented by our major classical music institutions. Why? And what can be done to reverse this shameful neglect of the future — and present — of classical music?

I’d like to use this month’s blossoming of new music to start a continuing conversation here on ArtsWatch about new and homegrown music —maybe even new art in general — in Oregon. Why aren’t local institutions bringing us more of it? Why should — or maybe shouldn’t — they? What can be done to encourage investment and development of contemporary Northwest classical music, and how can and should our state arts institutions — especially those that receive public funds — contribute to it?

Let’s start with our major classical music institutions, the ones that deservedly receive most of the attention, public funding and so on. As we mentioned last month, Portland Opera’s 2012-13 season contains no works that we’d describe as even near contemporary. At the same time, we have to praise the company for the rest of this season, which brings a new production of Philip Glass’s 1991 Galileo Galilei this month and a reprise of Leonard Bernstein’s delightful Candide in May. As we noted earlier, opera is terrifically expensive, and PO artistic director Christopher Mattaliano has often stated his desire to bring modern works to the stage when it’s financially feasible, which we hope will happen as this not so great depression continues to ease.

Last month, the Eugene Symphony announced music director Danail Rachev’s fourth season.  It opens with a terrific survey of some of the early 20th century’s most appealing sounds: Ravel’s great G major piano concerto, Gershwin’s overplayed but always enjoyable Rhapsody in Blue, the orchestral suite from Manuel de Falla’s dazzling Three Cornered Hat, and Bernstein’s ever-popular Candide overture. The second concert has John Williams conducting some of his film music, which I guess qualifies as contemporary music, though hardly intended as concert music.

The schedule boasts few other 20th century pieces — Aaron Copland’s evergreen Appalachian Spring, another Ravel, popular 20th century orchestral masterpieces by Prokofiev and Bartok, and a contemporary work by one of the leading American composers, Christopher Rouse. Best of all, it features the world premiere of an actual new, made-in-Oregon work: Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s Clarinet Concerto. Although it features only two pieces (more if you count Williams) by living orchestra composers (or anyone from the second half of the last century), the schedule counts as an improvement over recent years. Alas, none of the 20th century works are likely to be unfamiliar; listeners would have been better served by selections from the cornucopia of other music by Copland, Gershwin, Prokofiev and Bartok that’s just as great but far less often performed. And what about other deserving 20th and 21st century composers whose work appears too seldom on local stages? Still, it’s welcome to see the ESO remembering the legacy of 20th century music initiated by Marin Alsop in the 1990s and sporadically continued by her successors.

The Oregon Symphony’s next season highlights include Benjamin Britten’s magnificent War Requiem (performed this year by the ESO), the commercially clever though artistically chancy choice of Storm Large in Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (I think it’s a chance worth taking), a superb American concert with music by George Antheil, Bernstein’s dazzling Serenade, and Copland’s Symphony #3, and an excellent Stravinsky/Rodrigo/Piston concert. The rest of the season makes a few nods to modern life — a contemporary percussion concerto featuring the return of the great Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, Thomas Ades’s important 1997 orchestral work Asyla, another contemporary piece by Andrew Norman, an all-Gershwin show, a collaboration with the fine pop band Blind Pilot, and Henri Dutlilleux’s Tree of Dreams concerto. Toss in a Shostakovich here, and a Prokofiev there, and that’s about it for music since World War II. Oh, and a concert based on “one of the video game industry’s monumental franchises,” The Legend of Zelda. If anyone’s counting, that’s three living composers out of a couple dozen.

Granted, music director Carlos Kalmar, who has really built the orchestra into a first-class institution that can play almost anything well and some things brilliantly, has made a sort of specialty out of programming obscure works that are new to Portland or seldom heard, which is better than many orchestras’ endless recycling of warhorses, but that’s not at all the same as keeping the art form alive by bringing today’s listeners the  music of our own time and place.

It’s particularly disheartening that the orchestra will return to Carnegie Hall next year, and, given the rare opportunity to showcase our local creators before a worldwide audience…they blew it. True, there’s a contemporary work (Prangcharoen’s dizzying Phenomenon, heard in 2010), just as last year’s Carnegie concert featured a John Adams work (though not the one the OSO actually commissioned). But nothing by the dean of Oregon composers, Svoboda, whose spectacular Vortex was a highlight of the orchestra’s 2009 season. Nothing by Eugene’s Robert Kyr, who’s written a dozen symphonies (one performed by the OSO a few years ago) and as many other orchestral works. And most outrageously, nothing by the most famous composer to come out the OSO’s own hometown — Lou Harrison, the grand old maverick who wrote four symphonies and other orchestral works, and is presently being feted in San Francisco and New York for his immense contributions to music, particularly bringing the sounds of Asia to Western classical music.

It’s outrageous that Oregon’s own orchestra twice couldn’t find a place for living Oregon music in its biggest showcase, while somehow finding room for dead English, Austrian, German, and French composers. The next time the Oregon Symphony approaches the city council for public funding to send it to Carnegie Hall, it would have had a much stronger case if it were using Oregon taxpayer funds to put Oregon music on Carnegie’s national stage.

Compare the OSO’s upcoming season to that of the Seattle Symphony, which — not coincidentally — won national press for its boldness and Northwest components, including a premiere by the great Alaska-based composer, John Luther Adams. Here’s what the New York Times said about new conductor Ludovic Morlot’s programming.

“An elegantly planned and executed concert on Thursday evening featured the premiere of “So Far So Good,” a new work by the composer Nico Muhly, and a major soloist (the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, playing with velvety lucidity) in a major concerto (Chopin’s No. 2 in F minor)….

A highlight of next season is another premiere from an American composer: John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean,” which Mr. Morlot described as Mr. Adams’s largest-scale orchestral work yet, and which the orchestra will take to Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring for Music Festival in 2014. It is hard to think of a composer better suited to a city than Mr. Adams, with his sweeping yet delicate evocations of the natural world, will be to the outdoors-obsessed Seattle. (In November the other John Adams will conduct his own “Harmonielehre” and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto.)

People already seem to like spending time in Benaroya Hall, which is full of cafes and intimate corners. So it makes sense that the orchestra’s first new-music series, cheekily named [untitled], will take place on three late-night Fridays amid drinks and conversation in the hall’s airy lobby. The first program features music written in 1962 by Cage, Xenakis, Ligeti and others, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair; the second puts Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” alongside newer pieces by Jörg Widmann and Daniel Schnyder. But most intriguing is the last, with three premieres of works by musicians in the orchestra.

That program speaks to Mr. Morlot’s interest in fostering Seattle’s resident composers, a commitment also reflected in the annual Sonic Evolution event, which brings in new works inspired by Seattle’s past and present pop-music scene, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain.

Presenting music written by orchestra members is also a powerful gesture of good will toward players who sometimes felt alienated by Mr. Schwarz. In his season announcement Mr. Morlot was effusive in his praise of his musicians, saying that they “don’t need us on the podium except to remind them how good they are.”

It was a telling choice that in the current season, dominated by big-name soloists, room was made last Saturday for the orchestra’s former concertmaster, the elegant violinist Maria Larionoff, in Peteris Vasks’s 1998 concerto, “Distant Light.” Conducted by a guest, Olari Elts, rather than by Mr. Morlot, the program included staples — symphonies by Haydn and Mendelssohn — that sounded a little raw, but the performance of the Vasks concerto was stunning, incisive in folk-music passages and radiant in its tidal harmonic changes.

His plans, while bold, are also sensible. But he still needs his board’s full and sustained support of his mission. That means the increased presence of modern and contemporary music on subscription programs, an ever larger [untitled] series and financing for new commissions.

Why don’t major, taxpayer-supported Oregon music institutions have a new music series, or a regular commissioning series focusing on Northwest or even other American composers? Why isn’t the Oregon Symphony or other Oregon orchestras looking forward in the way Morlot is? Compare the OSO’s offerings to the excitement created by the other major West Coast American orchestras in Los Angeles and San Francisco, all replete with world premieres, commissions, and other contemporary works by the likes of Harrison, Henry Cowell, Robin Holloway and others. Does the Oregon Symphony believe that Portland and Oregon music fans are less open to new  and homegrown sounds than the music lovers of those cities? Or that our composers aren’t good enough to merit inclusion on even the Schnitzer stage, much less Carnegie’s?

I don’t think so. I’ve seen symphony president Elaine Calder, whom I admire for her leadership in bringing the orchestra back in the black, at many Third Angle and FearNoMusic events, and I believe she’s supported them in other ways as well. Kalmar has programmed modern music in his other posts. Both are clearly aware of what’s going on in contemporary classical music. Kalmar even read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” at last month’s FearNoMusic concert. And without the symphony, we wouldn’t have FNM, Third Angle, and other ensembles that include OSO musicians. The symphony plays an important role in fomenting new music even when it’s not on OSO programs.

Defenders of Oregon orchestras’ hidebound programming may claim that it’s been ever thus, but that would have come as news to Beethoven, or Dvorak or most other classical composers, who fully expected orchestras to play contemporary music — theirs. That’s why we still have it today. As historian Joseph Horowitz has documented, this fetishizing of the old at the expense of the contemporary is a relatively recent American phenomenon. How many Northwest composers will be denied the opportunity earlier composers had to get their music performed by orchestras of their time? And how many listeners are — year after year after year — denied the chance to hear what our own creative neighbors are capable of creating?

Look at the programs of other major Oregon performing arts institutions, like Portland Center Stage or Artists’ Repertory Theater or Oregon Ballet Theater? How many of the playwrights and choreographers are still alive and creating? Even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is devoted mostly to the Bard’s works, presents new and recent plays throughout its season. Why, out of all our arts institutions, do Oregon orchestras lag behind, and look mostly backward? Especially at a time when so many exciting new composers are writing accessible, adventurous music?

I have some ideas about why our orchestras and other classical music institutions are failing in their task to support today’s creative artists, and especially those from our community. But let’s go to the source and find out. I’m inviting the Oregon Symphony to contribute to this conversation and hope to post that this week or next. We’d also love to hear from composers, musicians, listeners and others who care about classical music and Northwest artists. I see this as the beginning of a conversation, not a screed or an indictment — a genuine plea for help in understanding why so many Oregon classical music institutions look so resolutely backward, and how arts lovers can help change that attitude. And we’ll be discussing these issues tonight in the MMM preview party panel. Come join us!

4 Responses.

  1. redipen says:

    we all know it’s all about the money – the majors are moving into presenting pop – a faction of creative something somethings find this gratuitous crossover hip and trendy, whilst its clearly shallow and pandering – marketers know they’ll sell more tickets crossing over with David Byrn than Ali Akbar Kan – never mind, why bother

    • Art Resnick says:

      Unfortunately this attitude is pervasive among all the performing arts and not limited to just the “majors”. Last year I attended a concert by a well known local contemporary classical music ensemble that featured a string quartet (I believe)written by a famous British pop star. Why else would this be done but to draw a larger audience? On the other hand perhaps the thinking was if we include this piece we may draw people who would be newly exposed to “our” music…really? You’d think with the proper publicity coverage performing more local composers works would pique the interest of concert goers living in PDX. Fear of alienation of the audience keeps the progress of our contemporary music from growing. It’s what keeps deaf ears deaf. Most of the audience here in Portland has no idea of the wealth of talented composers living in this area.

    • redipen says:

      coming right up at OSO

  2. Maria Choban says:

    My nephew accuses me of being a hipster; that I’ll not like The Beatles until they’re all dead and underground. But I love Zeppelin and they’re ubiquitous.

    I AM a hipster. And I’m damned embarrassed when I have to mumble to hipsters from NY or LA that although we have the largest chapter, Cascadia Composers, within the National Association of Composers/USA, and although I’m constantly cherry picking from Cascadia’s works for my own concerts which is unusual because I am SUCH a hipster it’s hard to capture my interest in any music, much less LOCAL music (smaller pot to choose from), I don’t know why the Oregon Symphony or the Portland Opera or Chamber Music North West or. . . . . think that xeno is better. You’d think I would, being a hipster and all that.

    Sadly, I find Portland’s parochial, small town mentality, well. . . . . embarrassing.

    Happily, this isn’t the case amongst the smaller organizations in Portland who along with me cherry pick gems from Cascadia or non-Cascadia locals for their concerts

    I’m not a locavore per say. Along with my compatriots, I scout the net for new music to perform (new = within the last 5 to 10 years). But I do take advantage of my composer connections close to home.

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