Weekend Music Watch: Jazz meets classical

Graham Reynolds and G0lden Arm Trio play Duke Ellington at March Music Moderne. Photo: Gene Newell

There’s one last chance to see Portland Opera’s engaging Galileo Galilei Saturday night at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Although it’s not the deepest take on one of history’s most powerful stories — one that still resonates today, when powerful political figures knowingly deny scientific reality that clashes with their political and financial interests — Portland Opera’s first 21st century opera definitely worth seeing, preferably from the balcony where you can best appreciate the set design. As I wrote (approximately) in Willamette Week:

Philip Glass’s 2002 chamber opera views Galileo through the wrong end of the telescope, rendering one of history’s most dramatic stories smaller than life. Unlike the composer’s earlier grand scale metaphorical evocations of famous historical figures like Gandhi, Einstein, Akhnaten and Columbus, PO’s 90-minute, relatively literal, intimately scaled production (15 instrumentalists, nine singers, single set) necessarily skims the surface, distancing us from Galileo’s relationship with his daughter, his world-changing experiments, and above all his dramatic, near fatal confrontation with the church/state’s view that the sun revolved around the earth. (Just substitute “climate change” or “evolution” for “heliocentrism” and they could have staged the inquisition scene at a 2012 Republican primary debate.)

But Anne Manson’s crisp conducting, designer Curt Enderle’s gorgeous set, Mary Zimmerman’s imagistic concept, Kevin Newbury’s clever, briskly circling stage direction, and generally strong performances in multiple roles by the company’s young studio artists (especially cardinals/oracles Matthew Hayward —outstanding in the show I caught — and John Holiday, Nicholas Nelson’s Pope and Andre Chiang’s Galileo) overcome occasional instrumental intonational lapses and Glass’s static stretches, plus some really tough vocal writing that taxes plucky leads Richard Troxell and Lindsay Ohse. After hitting cruise control about halfway through, the music and action burst back to life in a dazzling horn and percussion fueled final opera-within-an-opera that makes even this distant if colorful view of humanity’s greatest scientist well worth a gaze.

Also on Saturday at Portland’s Old Church, Portland’s 45th Parallel stages a tribute to Chamber Music Northwest founder Sergiu Luca, who died last year. One of his proteges, 45th Parallel and Oregon Symphony violinist Greg Ewer, will join veteran pianist Cary Lewis in music by Seattle native William Bolcom and Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, and then jazz violinist James Mason and colleagues from the delightful Portland band Swing Papillon will join them for a tribute to the jazz violin pioneer Joe Venuti.

Lindse Sullivan grabs it at Blue Monk. Photo: Gene Newell.

Categories Don’t Mean a Thing

Jazz and classical music were also trysting and shouting last weekend at one of the closing concerts of March Music Moderne. Illness and concert conflicts unfortunately kept me from a reportedly superb East Coast Chamber Orchestra concert sponsored by Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Mozart, Haydn and Shostakovich, and what sounded like a fascinating happening at Northwest Portland’s Peculiarium and MMM’s closing event featuring 20th century music in films. But the last show I did catch, at the Blue Monk, a jazz venue, was one of the most diverse of the bunch. It opened with Dutch composer Jacob TV’s arresting 1999 Grab It!, in which tenor saxist Lindse Sullivan duetted with barking vocal samples from the documentary Scared Straight. Owing much to the influence of Steve Reich’s landmark 1967 tape classic Come Out and a bit to Laurie Anderson’s work, the aptly titled Grab It! certainly seizes listeners’ attention, making a terrific concert opener, even if it does stretch a bit long for the material. Sullivan’s bravura performance reminded me of trumpeter Brian McWhorter’s intense solo showcase in the previous evening’s MMM concert at BodyVox Studio.

Members of Classical Revolution PDX followed with a trio movement by Dvorak, a Piazzolla gem, and songs from veteran classical accompanist Naomi LaViolette’s new album, which crosses into singer-songwriter territory. Accompanied by cellist Erin Winemiller and violinist Lucia Conrad, the singer pianist was in good form on her winsome piano ballads. As often happens in CRPDX performances, the dizzying stylistic range of just this opening set felt like a live version of an iPod shuffle, and I didn’t mind a bit. Today’s listeners seem far more comfortable experiencing music based on its quality rather than its category.

Classical Revolution members Erin Winemiller, Megan Moran
and Lucia Conrad. Photo: Gene Newell

The second set featured Austin-based pianist/composer Graham Reynolds, whose work I’ve admired since an Austin friend sent me some of his CDs last year, and I heard his music for Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun at last summer’s Time Based Arts Festival (and earlier, his score for the movie A Scanner Darkly). A stalwart of the city’s new classical scene who’s produced dozens of indie classical concerts, Reynolds comes to alt classical from the jazz side, and his rock rhythmed, barrelhouse piano-fueled reimaginings of Duke Ellington’s magnificent music at the Monk showed just durable those tunes can be — a point reinforced by Reed College music professor David Schiff’s new book, The Ellington Century, about which we’ll tell you more later. Famously “beyond category” himself, Ellington knew only two kinds of music: good music, and “the other kind.” He makes as persuasive a patron saint for MMM as John Cage.

Before his robust quintet (including Blue Cranes’ Joe Cunningham) unleashed rollicking versions of “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Caravan,” “Old King Dooji” and more, Reynolds led his Golden Arm Trio and a pickup orchestra of string players in his own uncategorizable triple concerto, The Difference Engine, inspired by Charles Babbage’s famous Victorian proto-computing concept, which in turn inspired a pretty good speculative fiction novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Reynolds’ music swung from a long, sweet string intro to his own dramatic Lisztian piano solo to a percussive string section to delicate piano and violin duet. His soundtrack background showed in cinematic chase sequences and a penchant for abrupt transitions and endings. Reynolds is making some of the most appealing genre defying music around. I wasn’t able to stay for all of Blue Cranes’ closing set, but what I heard at the Monk and in their opening set for Tim Berne at Alberta Rose theater last month certainly reaffirmed the band’s status as one of the Northwest’s most enjoyable improvising ensembles.

dtq quartet performs at Multnomah County
Central Library. Photo: Gary Stallworth

That was end of MMM, whose impact we’ll assess in another post soon, for me, at least, but those irrepressible Classical Revolutionaries were at it again on Saturday afternoon at the Multnomah County Central library, playing for an audience that, judging by admittedly superficial cues such as dress, race, age, and the presence of young children, looked mostly unfamiliar with the stodgy standard classical music set up. Apparently no one told them that they were supposed to flee in fear and confusion from modern and local music, because the audience seemed as gripped by the dtq quartet’s renditions of music by Shostakovich, last year’s CRPDX composition competition winner Lawrence Tsao, and former Portlander Scott Ordway as by the Mozart and Brahms — maybe more so. Congrats to Classical Revolution and the Multnomah County library for bringing today’s sounds and classical music to places where everyone can hear it.

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