Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic reviews: Midcentury Euro-modernism

Portland new music groups' excursions into 20th century Italian and Dutch sounds don't always connect with 21st century American ears.

On paper (or, this being the 21st century, screen), Third Angle’s March Made in Italy concert shouldn’t have worked for me. The program consisted of post-World War II Italian music, and with some exceptions, I’m generally no fan of European mid-century modernist sounds, which often sought to avoid the kind of emotional expressivity that many postwar artists connected with the horrors of the two world wars.

That music has its American fans, and some of it does connect with broader audiences, even me, but many midcentury composers’ renunciation of traditional notions of melody, harmony and rhythm tended to drive many American music lovers away from classical concert halls and into the sultry arms of vixen jazz and rock, which were eager to lavish upon music lovers those now forbidden fruits. And plenty of other composers were still writing equally innovative music that didn’t eschew those virtues, but the cool kid midcentury academic modernists tended to lump them in with the actual throwback conservatives, so their music often failed to receive the attention accorded the Euromodernists.

Third Angle New Music played Italian music at the Portland Art Museum. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

Third Angle New Music played Italian music at the Portland Art Museum. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

So my expectations were low as I settled into my seat at the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Ballroom, and they sank further as we endured not one but two introductions before hearing a note played. Someday, classical musicians will understand what many other musicians have realized: that talking before the first sound emerges usually punctures the inherent drama of the opening number.

That turned out to be the most conservative and ultimately least interesting piece on the program, Luigi Dallapiccola’s 1951 homage to his Baroque predecessor Giuseppe Tartini. Composed just before hair-shirt modernism took hold, the piano and violin duet reminiscent of other 20th century homages by, for example, Stravinsky and Respighi, and made an easy transition to the stranger — and surprisingly for me, at least — strangely compelling works to follow.

The weirdness began with Luigi Nono’s four-movement La Fabbrica Illuminata, a 1964 social protest piece that elliptically references the travails of Italian factory workers in the rebuilding nation. Third Angle wisely placed soprano Catherine Olson’s voice front and center. As we’ve seen in other shows, its icy purity is ideal for this kind of 20th century music, and also snugly fit in as an ensemble member in other works where a conventional operatic diva would have overwhelmed.

Actually the whole band (violinist Ron Blessinger, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, flutist Zachariah Galatis, clarinetist Mark Dubac, pianist Maria Garcia) was front and center, because the musicians played not on a conventional stage but on a runway thrust into the center of the ballroom. The idea, I guess, was to echo the runway upon which models strutted their Gucci and Armani fashions, and it brought the music closer to the audience; surprisingly, the lack of a big backdrop didn’t noticeably impair the acoustics. With scattered pre-recorded voices emerging from speakers around the hall, I could hear every eerie note clearly.


The concert also augmented the music with appropriate projected imagery from the art museum’s current Italian Style exhibit (of which this show was a part) that gradually faded into solid color backdrops, and they also tastefully deployed colorful stage lighting to further enhance the alternative reality atmosphere. Not only did the visual cues enhance the show for visual arts fans, it made me feel like I was in the middle of a sometimes disturbing, mostly bemusing dream.

That no doubt stemmed partly from the fact that they performed the movements without interruption. (They also wisely eschewed intermission, but I wish they’d found a way to do the whole program that way, even when switching players, so as not to break the spell.) But even with those breaks, the well-chosen program made a ghostly whole more seductive than the sum of its parts, though hardly one that will have me rushing back to listen to any of this music again on recordings. Olson’s supernatural vocalise and other singing on O King, Luciano Berio’s 1968 tribute to the murdered Martin Luther King and “Ultime Rose” from a 1981 song cycle by Salvatore Sciarrino, violist (and ArtsWatch contributor) Charles Noble’s dazzling solo turn in Fausto Romitelli’s spectral  Ganimede, flutist Galatis’s marvelously nuanced flutterings and other extended effects in Oscar Bianchi’s closing Gr… all somehow combined to create a memorable audio-visual experience.

Dutch Disappointment

On paper (screen), if you’re going to present postwar European music to a 21st century American audience, you could hardly choose a better composer than the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who turned 75 this year — another reason to pay tribute in concert. Classical music is obsessed with these anniversaries ending in zero or five, probably because they provide an excuse to play the same old music under a different thematic heading. That’s not the case this time, because I can’t recall having heard Andriessen’s music in Portland before, certainly not in this generous amount. Deeply influenced by the original American minimalists — another potential point of connection to Oregon audiences — it’s in turn been extremely influential upon the next generation of American composers: he’s the patron saint of New York’s Bang on a Can composers collective (Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon), and after this concert, I could hear exactly where much of their music originated.

Unfortunately, what I heard is also the part of BOAC I personally like least: the tendency to take an audacious concept and repeat it ad nauseam, rather than developing it in a way that makes you want to hear it more than once. Moreover, Andriessen’s Euromodern take on minimalism trades classic American minimalism’s mesmerizing beauty for jagged, jerky, often dissonant sounds that can be at its best, if not exactly enchanting, more like a boxing match than a ballet. It owes more to European marches than American swing.

This concert was almost the mirror image of Third Angle’s. Both featured a big ensemble piece  and included solo numbers interpolated between chamber works. But unlike the earlier show, this one got off to a scintillating start with Joel Bluestone’s solo on various percussion instruments (marimba, woodblocks, gourds) in Andriessen’s 1975 Woodpecker. Then followed an unnecessary interruption. Why oh why must so many classical concerts — and this is hardly the only one to do this when using different instrumentation on different pieces — sabotage their momentum with unnecessary stage resets? Why couldn’t the piano have been ready so that Monica Ohuchi could stride onstage as Bluestone’s applause faded, bow, and then sit down and play, instead of making the audience watch a couple of stage hands open a piano lid and move the bench?

At least Ohuchi’s fluent performance of 1999’s Image de Moreau was followed by a commendably brief and engaging welcome from FNM music director Kenji Bunch — a vast improvement on FNM’s last concert and so many other groups’ pre-performance blather. By all means thank the audience and the donors, but do it quickly, smoothly — and actually care enough about your listeners to take the time to rehearse it. If it takes longer than a couple sentences, put it in the program, not onstage. Bunch did it just right this time.

FearNoMusic played Louis Andriessen at Portland's Alberta Rose Theatre.

FearNoMusic played Louis Andriessen at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.

After those pleasant but not especially nutritious appetizers, I was ready for the main course. Andriessen’s most renowned creation, the pugnacious 1975 Worker’s Union is “a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline,” the composer has written. “Its rhythm is exactly fixed; the pitch, on the other hand, is indicated only approximately, on a single-lined stave. It is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step… like organising and carrying on political action.” And with the score demanding so much unison playing, any deviation is audible. Unfortunately, FearNoMusic’s timid, tepid performance proved Andriessen right about its difficulty. Too slow and stumbling, it could have used a conductor and probably a half dozen more rehearsals. In fact, tempos lagged throughout the show; more than most composers’, Andriessen’s music usually demands a sense of urgency, leaning toward the front of the beat rather than lagging behind. However you feel about Andriessen’s music, it should never sound boring, as it did too often this night.

The somber, equally challenging 1981 La Voce required solo cellist Nancy Ives to vocalize its Italian poetry while playing her cello. (It might have fit well on Third Angle’s program, though only the words, not the music, were written by an Italian.) Under these difficult circumstances, she made it through passably well, though this was another piece that evidently needed more rehearsal; for one thing, the physical motion needed to play her instrument kept pulling Ives too far from the mike to hear her vocals. With its abundant use of rests and conceptual simplicity, the next piece, the 1982 violin-piano duo Disco, reminded me most of David Lang’s work — but at its emptiest. The chilly, simplistic repeated phrases just kept going long after the point was made, without any of American minimalism’s compensating felicities — discernibly evolving rhythmic structures, sensuous trippiness, etc.

The concert closed with another piece I was looking forward to: the Northwest premiere of a major Andriessen work, Symphony for Open Strings, with the ensemble expanding to chamber orchestra size with the addition of some youthful players who probably felt a lot older after enduring an excruciating half hour dissonant long tones and little else of musical interest. I sure did. I’m actually a fan of some microtonal music, but like too much conceptual modernist work, this sour one had little to say and took way too long to say it. The concert closing applause was the weakest in memory.

I appreciate the impulse to bring major European music to these shores, just as I like to check in to see what contemporary European painters, dancers, and other artists are doing. It’s easy to get provincial, even living in a time and place with so much wonderful original music being produced (like, for example, Kenji Bunch’s, which is happily getting played all over Oregon this year). And I understand that this music — even if performed less raggedly than this night — just doesn’t speak to me — an American West Coaster raised on popular music — the way it does to its fans. (If you do fancy this music, please let us know in comments what you thought of this performance of it.)

Yet this show was played too poorly to delight even the limited pool of aficionados. At this late date, much conceptual modernism lacks even the shock-of-the-new value that was once its major virtue, and much of it has always eschewed the traditional musical beauties that might attract wider audiences. So although, as Third Angle’s Italian job demonstrated, it’s still possible to entertain today’s audiences with 20th century European modernism, much of it feels as dated as the late Romanticism that preceded it, and both concerts’  decades-old repertoire seemed more appropriate for museum-oriented groups than new music ensembles.

Louis Andriessen’s music certainly opened valuable doors for later composers, but that doesn’t mean it has a lot to offer to 21st century American listeners who are paying up to $30 and looking for more in their music than bold concepts. As other FNM and Third Angle concerts have demonstrated, later American composers — including BOAC’s Lang and Julia Wolfe, at their best — have taken Andriessen’s ideas and added their own twists to create music that offers greater appeal to American audiences, and a couple of generations of so-called post-modernist composers (some of them Oregonians) have since come along who don’t reflexively reject traditional and popular musical attractions — yet are no less forward looking than the old Euromodernists. While the occasional time-traveling European musical vacation can give us some needed perspective, I’m looking forward to Third Angle and FNM bringing us more music of the here and now, rather than the there and then.

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8 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Andriessen’s “Symphony for Open Strings” is one of my fave works – the CD conducted by Ed Spanjaard is stunning. Kudos to FNM for taking this on – intonation can be rather dicey with all 12 string players tuned differently!

    IMO, some of A’s music is THE best to have emerged from the so-called minimalist orbit. For example, I’ve been told that hearing “De Staat” in-person rendered by well-rehearsed top players is a life changing experience.

  2. art deco-instruction says:

    I cannot recall having ever read a music critique so infused with the critic’s personal taste and in particular how much it informs a prejudicial distaste for the period/place tenor of the origin of the musical works on offer. Sounds as though our critic would like to take over, not only as programming director, but as stage director as well — probably not a good idea. Directing a performer to take the stage, before the applause for the previous performer have completely died, is a severe breech of professional stage etiquette. Moreover, anyone so ADD afflicted as to find untenable a stage hand placing a piano bench and lifting a piano lid (30 seconds maybe, and perhaps a piano lid which might have obscured the previous performer from some corners of the hall?) just might be on the wrong journalistic beat. Where’s the OAW editor, that such an insignificant complaint is permitted to steal precious space from pertinent commentary on the music?

  3. Normally I don’t bother to acknowledge, let alone reply to, cowardly commentators who hide behind an anonymous handle, plus, y’know, the ADD. But I’m making an exception in this case because your note so perfectly encapsulates some of the attitudes that make classical music concerts so off-putting to 21st century audiences, and I appreciate the chance to nail down a point I should have made more clearly. First, I made it quite clear which parts of the critique stemmed from personal taste in the music and which from sloppy performance. Readers may judge accordingly. Judging by the audience’s unenthusiastic response, as well as comments from several other audience members afterwards, my negative impression was shared.

    Second, I’m unaware of some mythical book of professional classical etiquette and have seen plenty of examples of classical (and almost every other non-classical) concerts that “breeched” this alleged rule. For example, some concerts set up stations of instruments on different parts of the stage in advance so that musicians can quickly take the stage and start playing. Even if a performer insists on receiving applause before earning it, the previous performer might bow or wave to acknowledge applause after playing a piece and say something like, “Please welcome [next performer]!”, maintaining the show’s momentum and attention. But for listeners accustomed to other contemporary music concerts, stopping the action entirely for minutes at a time is puzzling at best and tedious at worst.

    But assuming this “rule” exists — it’s time to for an update. Arcane 19th century rituals — or “professional etiquette” — too often keeps classical concerts from connecting with 21st century audiences. Time after time, when music fans are asked why they don’t attend classical concerts, they reply that it feels like they’re intruding on an alien world full of unspoken “rules” and they don’t know the secret code. (For the latest local example, check out our interview last week with Northwest Piano Trio founder Hannah Hillebrand, who lamented how some of her friends refuse to attend classical concerts for this reason.) Nothing kills spontaneous reaction to music as feeling the need to read a book of behavior rules before attending, which is why so few younger music lovers bother. If performers want to reach those broader audiences, they need to connect on their terms.

    Assuming you’re a classical musician, anonymous friend, your self important attitude is a big part of the reason so many fail to connect: placing the musicians’ convenience and 19th century “etiquette” above the 21st century audience’s experience. Listeners are paying $30 and sacrificing their precious time to hear well rehearsed performances of entertaining, provocative music — not to worship at the feet of the musicians, or to sit in silence, watching a couple of guys move furniture that could have been set up before the show started, had the presenters given more thought to what the audience was enduring. At times such interruptions may be unavoidable, but that didn’t seem to be the case here, or in many classical concerts.

    FNM is hardly the only group that does things The Way We’ve Always Done it, and far from the worst offender. And I don’t think these oversights are intentional. Those of us, like me, who’ve attended so many concerts that include these rituals have a blind spot: we’re so used to them that we don’t even really notice them anymore, and it makes it hard for us to see how strange and boring they may seem to the non-insider audiences we’re trying to bring to classical and contemporary classical performances.

    Classical performers face a choice: accept constructive criticism like ours (and Hillebrand’s, and so many others from inside the field and outside it) and perform concerts in a way that excites today’s broad audiences, or cling mindlessly to its precious “professional etiquette” and “rules” that,if they ever existed, were made for audiences and concerts from past centuries, and appeal mostly to the tiny niches of classical insiders and midcentury modernist mavens.
    Happily, as we’ve reported often, several Oregon classical performers and presenters are less defensive, more forward looking, and more concerned about their audiences than you appear to be. They’re listening to well-intentioned feedback like that we’re offering, and adapting their presentation to serve today’s audiences, rather than their egos, and we’re happy to tell our readers all about it when they do.

  4. Georgio says:

    Reading this very confusing review was much more challenging than the concerts. The section about Third Angle transitions with no warning to the Fear No Music section without even saying a different concert is being reviewed. Fear No Music’s name isn’t even mentioned until three paragraphs in.
    Overall the reviewer jumps from thought to thought without transitions or structure. Stream of consciousness reviewing? I don”t know. I won’t say ADD because that would offend.
    Classical performers are pen t accepting criticism but the criticism has to be clearly enough written to be understood. This reads like a Boulez piece sounds and added nothing to my understanding of the music or the performances.

  5. Hi Georgio, and thanks for reading. I won’t mention ADD either, but you might want to look AT THE VERY FIRST LINE OF THE STORY — the title: “Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic reviews.” I trust most readers will remember that there’s a FNM review coming after the Third Angle review.
    I trust that the smart folks at FNM — which commendably made adjustments to its between-piece comments after my last review criticized them for lasting too long — will understand the gist of my review: that performing dated music that fails to speak to more than a niche Oregon audience, and playing it raggedly, does neither the composer, the music, the performers, nor the audience much good.

  6. Jen says:

    Yah, I was really disappointed in the FNM Workers Union. I heard the piece live for the first time a year ago in a student performance led by Ken Selden at the First Congregational Church. Following a pretty boring first half of choral music, about twenty five musicians lined up on the floor and played what was probably the loudest and most intense music ever played in that church. That is a great piece, but it’s got to be well played.

  7. Jeff Winslow says:

    1. Regarding staging, one interesting aspect of the runway setup at Third Angle’s concert was the small space available to performers. There was hardly any room to move stuff around, so they set it up so they didn’t have to. As one result, the transition between works seemed smooth even though they all had to enter and exit along that runway. (Note, I only caught the first half of the program.)

    2, While I also appreciate the purity of Catherine Olson’s singing, I don’t think of it as “icy”. Or if I did, it would the iciness of a smooth and delicious cocktail — in this case an aperitivo.

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