Weekend MusicWatch: American Tunes

Northwest New Music performs Rzewski and Bartok Tuesday.

Northwest New Music performs Rzewski and Bartok Tuesday.

For decades, American classical music institutions, maybe out of an entirely misguided, early- 20th century sense of cultural inferiority, have neglected American music in favor of mindless recycling of 19th century European classics. For instance, the Oregon Symphony devotes 97% of next season’s classical performances to non-American music. In fact, there’s a great wealth of fine, listener-friendly American orchestral music available to American orchestras (some of it even written by Oregonians, as the Eugene Symphony demonstrated this week in commissioning and premiering a new clarinet concerto by Portland composer Tomas Svoboda), but too many music directors are too conservative, conventional, indolent or timid to go seek it out and bring it to audiences who may never have heard it.

That’s why this weekend’s all-American Oregon Symphony program — and the news that it will record this month’s performances of American repertoire for its next CD– is especially welcome, even though it’s really a drop in the bucket of the orchestra’s mostly European repertoire. Which is really a shame, especially since OSO music director Carlos Kalmar more often plays American tunes with his Grant Park Orchestra, and since the orchestra’s crackling performance last weekend of American composer Walter Piston’s lively 1938 ballet score, “The Incredible Flutist” (which will be on the upcoming OSO recording) decisively displayed how adeptly they can play it.

So if you want to hear one of the best orchestras in the west play American music, seize the chance at this weekend’s splendid program of homegrown classics, including Leonard Bernstein’s exuberant 1954 “Serenade” (which though inspired by Plato’s Symposium is anything but academic), Aaron Copland’s grand 1946 Symphony #3 (into which the composer incorporated his celebrated “Fanfare for the Common Man”), and a welcome rarity: “bad boy of music” George Antheil’s spiffy 1925 “Jazz Symphony.”

Of course, those composers are long demised, but you can hear music by one of today’s most renowned American composers, Frederic Rzewski (a pupil of both Randall Thompson and Piston) on Tuesday at downtown Portland’s Old Church, when Northwest New Music continues its modernist explorations with a concert of Rzewski’s later works, including his tribute to American composer Elliott Carter and “Pocket Symphony,” the highlight of eighth blackbird’s all-Rzewski album “Fred.” The show also includes a lovely 20th century European classic, Bartok’s “Contrasts.”

American composers have usually had more luck with getting Americans to sing their choral music, and thanks to the pre-eminence of Beaverton-born composer Morten Lauridsen, our major choirs often sing Oregon music. On Saturday and Sunday, Choral Arts Ensemble closes its season with Lauridsen’s poingant “Lux Aeterna,” written while his mother was dying, with instrumental assistance from the University of Portland Orchestra; David DeLyser conducts both groups. The program also includes music by other notable Americans such as Randall Thompson and Pete Seeger.

Jazz Journeys

Rzewski has lived in Europe for four decades now (he teaches in Belgium). He won’t be here this weekend — but another avant garde expat will. On Friday, legendary free jazz pioneer Burton Greene joins two of Portland’s finest jazzers, drummer Tim DuRoche and bassist Andre St. James, along with Seattle trombonist Marc Smason, at southeast Portland’s Piano Fort, which will also screen a new film bio of the 75-year-old pianist, who was born in Chicago, made his reputation in New York, and then spent the next few decades performing in Europe.

DuRoche and James, two of Oregon’s busiest musicians, somehow have found time for another ensemble, the Kin Trio, whose excellent debut disk, featuring the meditative “minimalist bebop” of saxophonist Sunjae Lee, gets a free release party Saturday at southeast Portland’s Ford Food and Drink on SE 11th and Division.

There is some compelling non-American — and non European music — available in Oregon this weekend. On Saturday night, the city’s veteran Indian music guru, Michael Stirling, performs late-night ragas (10 pm to the wee hours) with a couple of accomplices at the beautiful YU gallery in southeast Portland. On Sunday at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus, Uday Bhawalkar bestows the gift of one of  North Indian’s most venerable vocal traditions, dhrupad. And on Friday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, the Georgian ensemble Zedashe plays, sings, and dances music from that ancient land, which before its long Soviet subjugation nurtured another of humanity’s most powerful and primeval musical traditions.

Zedashe plays Georgian music at the University of Oregon Friday.

Zedashe plays Georgian music at the University of Oregon Friday.

Also in Eugene, at First United Methodist Church this Sunday, you can hear a fusion of American and other music (including whale songs) in Paul Winter’s “Missa Gaia.”

Eugene is also the place for old European music this weekend. On Saturday at the Hult Center, the UO Opera Ensemble and University Symphony perform a Spanish Baroque opera “Acis and Galatea,” composed in 1708 by Antonio de Literes, which they ingeniously pair with a 20th century Spanish (actually Catalan) one-act, Xavier Montsalvatge’s 1947 setting of “Puss in Boots.” And on Sunday, the Emerald Chamber Orchestra performs more Baroque music, on period instruments and tunings, including cantatas and concertos by Handel and Telemann at downtown Eugene’s First Church of Christ, Scientist.

In gratitude for the title, here’s a work by another major American composer, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” – which, ironically enough, isn’t.

 

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