Third Angle/Hand2Mouth, Bright Moments previews: pop goes classical

Music by Portland pop musicians Elliott Smith and Kelly Pratt meet classical and choral performers in Portland concerts this week

Portlanders of a certain vintage still swoon over the music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a leader of Portland’s ‘90s indie-pop insurgency before he moved to LA and died too young just after achieving national fame, not least because of his whispery 1998 performance of Oscar-nominated ballad “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards.

Smith’s renown has steadily grown since his death in 2003. Hand2Mouth Theatre director Jonathan Walters recently heard about a New York show in which classical musicians treated some of Smith’s compositions as so-called “art songs,” and thought: we could totally do something like that in Portland. 

He approached Third Angle New Music about collaborating on such a project, and, naturally, the project became much more than mere arrangements. The Portland ensemble enlisted a half dozen rising Brooklyn-identified composers (ringleader Robert Honstein, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne, Scott Wollschleger and LJ White) to transform their Smith faves into bona fide contemporary classical music, ranging from recognizable arrangements to stranger derangements, even some interludes. The composers cabal then conspired on a unifying concept that Walters & Co. transmogrified into a theatrical presentation, complete with choreographed movement, costumes, lighting and more. 

Elliott Smith

“It’s basically one work composed of many works,” explains Third Angle interim artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. “They came up with the feeling of the show and how it ebbs and flows, and choreographed the movement. They had some lighting designs in mind from the get go. It’s not like a process where one thing happened first. Everything was happening simultaneously.”

You can see the results Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre when singers Sam Adams, Hannah Penn, Chloe Payne and Daniel Buchanan join Digitus XX Duo keyboardist Maria Garcia, string players Valdine Mishkin and Holland Phillips, and Oregon Symphony clarinetist James Shields in the hour-long performance piece A Fond Farewell. Singer and Smithophile Amit Erez a/k/a The Secret Sea, will open with Smith songs. 

This isn’t the first time classical musicians have covered Smith’s music — Portland Cello Project and others have arranged his music for “classical” forces — but this production transcends a mere concert presentation. “This show is dynamic and through-composed, taking the listener on a journey past a club, a cathedral, and every form of the sublime in-between,” wrote Tiedemann, an accomplished classical flutist who grew up in Portland during Smith’s heyday, on Third Angle’s blog. “I have teared up at rehearsals more than once, particularly in those moments when it feels like the music breaks out of his mental prison.” She notes that Smith often used relatively unusual approaches for guitar-based pop, and that he was heading into increasingly ambitious and experimental directions before his untimely death. In a way, maybe this project can offer a glimpse into a musical future that might have been.

The Kids Are All Right

Another combo of rock and classical is on the agenda Friday at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), 15 NE Hancock St, when Portland pop star Kelly Pratt teams his solo project Bright Moments with the Camas High School Choir and brass players plus fellow indie rockers. Thanks to Young Audiences of Oregon & SW Washington, PICA, Oregon Arts Commission and others, the former Beirut member, who’s worked with David Byrne, Coldplay, Arcade Fire and hundreds of other stars, created a new, polystylistic (metal to afrobeat and more) song cycle for the singers, brass and rock band. The Shivas, another band who met in southwest Washington school choral programs, will open. 

Pratt, Chessin and the Camas choristers perform Friday at PICA. Photo: Alicia J. Rose.

Augmented by well-known Portland film director Alicia J. Rose’s projections, it’s the latest collaboration facilitated by choir director and former March Forth trombonist Ethan Chessin, who’s also matched the kids with Portland indie musicians like AU, Alan Singley and more. The series also introduces aspiring young musicians to the realities of 21st century indie musicianship, from multimedia to production to a bit of the business side. Audiences get to hear contemporary, original music in more elaborate forms than four-minute pop songs performed on guitar-bass-drums-keyboard. And like Third Angle’s project, it delivers another blow to those old artificial 20th century walls that separate music into arbitrary categories that serve neither the listeners nor the music.

Third Angle and Hand2Mouth present “A Fond Farewell” at  7:30 pm 
Thursday and Friday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St. Tickets and info online.

Bright Moments and the Camas High School Choir perform at 7 pm Friday, April 13 at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA)15 NE Hancock St. Tickets and info online.

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

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