Weekend MusicWatch: Investing in the future of music

FearNoMusic led Portland musicians in Terry Riley's In C

Although March was Portland’s officially dedicated month of new music, contemporary sounds have continued to resound unabated on stages around town. Last week, the country’s most celebrated vocal ensemble, Chanticleer packed Northwest Portland’s capacious St. Mary’s Cathedral with a program of music by non-decomposing composers — half of them still alive, a fact that would merit mention only in a classical music review. (Check the season announcements of most of Oregon’s theater and dance companies, where the expired creator is the exception.) The dozen-member “orchestra of voices” proved just as persuasive in appealing music by contemporary composers such as Eric Whitacre, Arvo Part and Jan Gilbert as in the magnificent polyphonic Spanish Renaissance works by the great Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria and his much lesser known countryman and contemporary, Sebastian de Vivanco.

The audience seemed to especially like Lebanese American San Francisco-based composer Ilyas Iliya’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which used simple means (a baritone solo over long-held, suspended chords and unusual harmonies) to create a spellbinding aura of sound. For the program closer, Jan Gilbert’s “Grace to You,” most of the group arrayed themselves along the side aisles, leaving three soloists at the front, embracing the audience in their vibrant vocals. A pair of gospel oriented encores (arranged by the group’s retired music director, Joe Jennings, who pushed the group into earthier territory) ended a show that drew rock-star level cheers, whoops and shouts from the capacity audience. Anyone who imagines Portlanders won’t respond to contemporary music should have heard that audience response.

FearNoMusic's Jeff Payne & Paloma Griffin

Of course, Portland has its own new music proponents, and one of them, FearNoMusic, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. So it was appropriate that their concert last weekend at downtown Portland’s Old Church kicked off with the two founders, percussionist Joel Bluestone and pianist Jeff Payne, duetting in a popular piece by America’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich. They first performed Clapping Music (which is what it sounds like — two performers clapping in interlocking, shifting patterns) almost two decades ago. The band followed with other audience-chosen favorites, starting with three short string quartet movements by John Adams, Gabriel Prokofiev and Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda. The contemporary music world used to be a fairly forbidding place, and as classical composers — even the supposed uber serious J.S. Bach — have always known, lightness and humor in music like these opening pieces doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trivial. Bluestone played another Portland-born piece by one of Svoboda’s successors at Portland State University, Bonnie Miksch’s glittering, all-metal solo percussion work Ever Widening Rings of Being, one of the highlights of the 2009 season. The first half concluded with a magnificently spellbinding performance of Japanese composer Somei Satoh’s haunting, minimalist-influenced Birds in Warped Time II, which I think can fairly be called a 20th century classic. Violinist Paloma Griffin (FNM’s new artistic director) and Payne held the audience rapt.

The group invited 30 or so musicians from across Portland’s diverse musical community to join in the 1964 minimalist anthem In C by pioneering California composer Terry Riley. It’s a piece that’s performed fairly often, and the composer’s instructions allow wide latitude in instrumentation and performer choices, so no two performances are ever alike. This one was especially singular because it started off with Riley’s student, Portland Indian music guru Michael Stirling, accompanied by sitar, intoning a kind of vocal alap (the semi-improvised introductory part that establishes the mode in traditional Hindustani ragas) that implicitly referred to Riley’s later deep involvement with that music, which he’s performed in Portland often. (I wished that the vocal had continued throughout.) The other musicians gradually joined in, with Payne keeping the pulse with the insistent C repeated on the piano throughout the half hour long performance. This performance, featuring lots of strings in the Old Church’s reverberant acoustic, had a tidal feel, with the music washing over the audience and performers.

Coming on the heels of last month’s modern music extravaganza, this confluence of so many performers I’ve seen on Portland stages  this year — too many to name — underlined the collaborative nature that really distinguishes the Portland classical scene from many others. Congrats to Payne, Bluestone, and their colleagues for two decades of essential work, and to Griffin and the rest for bringing so many adventurous musicians together to celebrate not only this essential Oregon institution, but also Northwest new music in general.

Speaking of which, the city’s other excellent new music group — and how many cities can boast even one? — reaped a strong return on its own investment in tomorrow’s sounds Thursday and Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.  Third Angle Music Ensemble’s new commissioning project premiered winners and runners-up in regional, national and international categories, preceded by video or live intros from the composers, which sometimes brings audiences closer to the music.

Third Angle's Ron Blessinger, Susan Smith and Hamilton Cheifetz. Photo: Tom Emerson

Indiana composerStephen Snethkamps Disembodied offered intriguing electronic textures that used heavily processed instruments and live flute (played by Sarah Tiedemann) to create a continuously involving sonic journey. Chinese composer Wang Mao, who’s studying with 3A friend (and leading American composer) Chen Yi in Kansas City, contributed a piece that evoked the sound of one of my favorite instruments, the Chinese zither called a zheng, featuring violinist Ron Blessinger coaxing various squeals, slides, and splashes in a brilliant performance with equally deft pianist Susan Smith. Both the playful Spirit of Zheng and the next piece, Oregon composer Greg Steinke’s …found dreams… (which added cellist Hamilton Cheifetz) used extremely clever devices to create a colorful atmosphere, but both seemed to be more about clever gestures than a compelling musical vision, although to be fair, Steinke’s piece is only part of a larger composition. Again, the performances — especially for premieres — were absolutely first rate. Any composer is lucky to have such superior musicians applying such total commitment and skill to her work.

Third Angle’s performance of the only non-new piece, downtown New York composer John Zorn’s sassy Cat O’ Nine Tails, even bests Kronos Quartet’s original recording. In typical Zorn fashion (in that style, anyway), the collection of fragments lurches from section to section, more collage than coherent statement, like scanning a bizarre radio spectrum. It’s a lot of fun, especially when played with confidence and good humor (including some pantomiming S&M whip action using Brian Quincey’s viola bow) as it was here.

The international winner, young English composer Tom Coult’s Chronophage, effectively (and obsessively) evoked its inspiration — a very scary looking clock device, which he displayed in his video intro — and played with notions of time sequence and tempo, but ultimately took too much of it (time, that is) to make its point. Its fading ending, like a rocket soaring into the sky until it vanished from view, was particularly effective. All these pieces were fun to hear, exciting to play, and presented memorable musical device or effects, but as intriguing as the gestures were, none of them seem as likely to enter the performing repertoire as the national prize winner, Indiana/Stockholm composer Matthew Peterson’s Nacken, a Blessinger solo that used harmonics to capture the mischievous — and ultimately dangerous — spirit of its namesake water nymph. I can imagine a violinist playing it in a solo recital alongside a Bach or Paganini showcase.

Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project founder Justin Ralls was on hand to introduce his regional winner, Anthrophony, a musical representation of a walk through Portland’s Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Coincidentally, I had just hiked there myself a few days earlier, so maybe I was primed for it, but whatever the reason, this rich work for septet and electronics seemed to evoke nature’s own divergent yet non cacophonous concatenation of sound, much as Hildegard Westerkamp’s soundscapes did last month. Ralls layered and interwove a multiplicity of instrumental lines, yet managed to hold them together with pulses here and there. Maybe it outstayed its welcome a bit, but the rich Anthrophony certainly marks Ralls — who leaves for the San Francisco Music Conservatory soon — as a composer of high ambition and enormous promise. You could say the same about Third Angle and this wonderful annual commissioning series — a real investment in the future of music.

Speaking of such investments, FearNoMusic is back on stage Sunday at Lewis & Clark College’s Evans Auditorium with one of the city’s most valuable contributions to the arts: its venerable Young Composers Project, which gives budding composers age 9-18 the rare opportunity to have their original ideas coached and played by some of the finest classical musicians in the country. Young local musicians will also be featured Sunday at the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s all-Bethoven chamber orchestra concert at Portland’s Wieden+Kennedy building. College musicians are on stage this weekend and next at PSU in a performance of one of the great 20th century operas, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, courtesy of Portland State’s nationally renowned opera program, which often achieves near-professional standards. And still more talented next-gen musicians are on stage –and working with the great violinist Midori no less — in the Eugene Youth Symphony’s concert Saturday at the Hult Center in Eugene.

There’s still more contemporary music at Lincoln Hall Saturday night when the city’s newest contemporary music group, Northwest New Music, performs the wild musical theater work Eight Songs for a Mad King, by the great British composer Peter Maxwell Davies, plus other striking modern works related to madness by Charles Wakefield Cadman, Thomas Larcher and Morton Feldman. Every one of NWNM’s concerts in the past year has been memorable, and this promises to be even more so. Along with founders Diane Chaplin (cello) and Florian Conzetti (percussion), the concert includes busy Third Angle pianist Susan Smith and flutist Sarah Tiedemann, fresh off their 3A concert in the same space the night before. And Bay Area poet musicians Cloud Shepherd read their words and play ambient music Sunday at north Portland’s Waypost.

Even the old music concerts are embracing the new. The Oregon Symphony’s weekend concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall featuring Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg include a couple of fine 20th century works (which pass for new in the museum world of many major orchestras): Aaron Copland’s 1933 Symphony #2 and Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, plus Camille Saint Saens’s big Organ Symphony. And the superb singers of Portland’s female vocal ensemble In Mulieribus and guests pair some of the oldest classical music known — the sublime songs of medieval abbess, healer and composer Hildegard of Bingen — with contemporary responses to it by Northwest composers Robert Kyr and Karen Thomas in a must hear concert for choral music fans.

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