Weekend MusicWatch: Musical pictures at exhibition

Portland Jazz Fetival

Portland jazz legend Thara Memory conducts the Artfully Miles orchestra at Portland Jazz Festival. Credit: Fran Kaufman

The big music news of the weekend — which turned into one of those can’t miss culture maven events that spring up in Portland every few months — was unquestionably Friday night’s FearNoMusic tribute to the 20th century’s most influential composer and perhaps cultural figure, John Cage. FNM and various guest musicians from Portland State University and even Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar, Portland Opera associate conductor Robert Ainsley, and other top area musicians performed 11 of Cage’s provocative works in various spaces of Portland’s spectacular new YU art center. We’ll have much more to say about this dizzying event — and its subject — soon.

Cage’s influence might be detectable in the next most interesting performance — it’s not precisely a conventional concert — of the weekend. On Sunday, Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral collects two of the Northwest’s finest vocal ensembles, In Mulieribus and Cappella Romana, along with alt classical stars Portland Cello Project (whose new album has been announced for May Day, with release parties in April), koto virtuosa Mitsuki Dazai, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, and musicians from Portland Baroque Orchestra, the Oregon Symphony and more to sing, read and play music and words by composers such as Hildegard of Bingen and J.S. Bach and poets including W.H. Auden. Trinity’s recently arrived music director engaged guest artistic director Stephen Marc Beaudoin to devise lighting effects to turn the grand cathedral into an installation space, and (as in the Cage extravaganza), musicians will perform in different parts of the venue.

The Oregon Symphony brings a familiar pair of hands, those belonging to pianist Jeffrey Kahane, a regular performer over the years at the Oregon Bach Festival and one of the country’s most fluent Mozarteans, to play Amadeus’s expansive Piano Concerto #25 Saturday and Sunday. The program also boasts (if that’s the word for anything the characteristically restrained Brits are involved in) a couple of English works: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s fifth and greatest symphony, and Edward Elgar’s colorful London portrait, Cockaigne.

The orchestra will record the shows for its second CD of the Kalmar era, which featured an incendiary performance of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony #4. That must have given the OSO enough Brit cred to make the upcoming CD  all-English repertoire, including this weekend’s pair plus Benjamin Britten’s turbulent Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes. Jolly good idea to have another OSO CD and this repertoire isn’t over-recorded. Two others are planned for the PentaTone label; let’s hope that our state’s signature music organization, which receives substantial — hundreds of thousands of dollars — support from public entities such as the City of Portland, Metro, and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, the Oregon Arts Commission etc. will see fit to include music by Oregon and other American composers in its future recordings — and on its upcoming Carnegie Hall program. Last month, the orchestra announced a new three year contract with its musicians, which in these times is no small accomplishment. New contract, new recordings, a return to Carnegie — the OSO, which sounds better than ever, seems poised for higher achievements in the next few years.

The main Oregon music news this week is the Portland Jazz Festival, which offers an attractive mix of the city’s excellent local jazz stalwarts and some imported legends. The big names include Bill Frisell, Branford Marsalis, Roy Haynes and many, many others — including, commendably, plenty of opportunities for Portland’s local jazzers to shine in front of audiences who might not ordinarily chance upon them. The first concert I attended at Portland Center for the Performing Arts, featuring Portland’s Tony Pacini Trio and Italy’s Enrico Rava + Tribe, followed by a free after-show by Portland’s Better Homes and Gardens, was a magnificent success. Rava’s compositions and his unbelievably virtuosic young band led by titanic trombonist Gianluca Petrella made some of the most exciting music I’ve heard this year.

Eugene’s WOW Hall brings a couple of Portland alt classical stars, Vagabond Opera and MarchFourth Marching Band, south this weekend. Thursday’s Eugene Symphony concert brought an unfortunately rare contemporary composition, Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus, to the program — as well as a breaking controversy over the work’s provenance, discovered by NPR classical music critic Tom Manoff and UO trumpet prof (and Beta Collide founder) Brian McWhorter. Read about this still-unfolding story here and here. Because the short piece was co-commissioned by several orchestras around the country, it’s likely to turn into a national story.

In happier news for the ESO, it received a nice grant to support its fine work with student musicians from the National Endowment for the Arts. And next month, it’s sponsoring a commendable program of adult chamber ensembles, coached by symphony musicians. And on Friday, it honored the veteran radio announcer KWAX’s Caitriona Bolster, as its 2012 Advocate for the Arts, a well deserved accolade. Also in Eugene, the University of Oregon faculty ensemble, the Oregon String Quartet, embarks on a complete cycle of Beethoven’s magnificent string quartets in a concert at the university’s Beall Concert Hall Tuesday night.

FearNoMusic’s Cage extravaganza will certainly go down as among the most memorable of the year, but it was hardly the only worthy classical music event so far this month. The joint venture (in both Eugene and Portland concerts) among the University of Oregon and Portland State University chamber choirs and Pacific Youth Choir, which paid tribute to and were coached by legendary Harvard University choral conductor Jameson Marvin, had to make anyone feel optimistic about the future of choral music. At the Portland show, the high schoolers of PYC, directed by Mia Hall Savage, sounded at least as strong as a good college choir in their opening set of music by Orlando di Lasso, Trond Kverno, Hubert Parry and the spiritual “Soon Ah Will be Done.” The excellent UO singers, conducted by Sharon Paul, who’s made them into one of the best college choirs in the country, revealed a plush, accurate sound and fine soloists in their spirituals and other works. The bluesy arrangement of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” especially shone.

But they were somewhat eclipsed by the utterly exciting singers from PSU, who gave ferocious performances of powerful but rarely heard music by the 20th century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and the murderous Renaissance composer Gesualdo, as well as a world premiere: PSU composition prof Bonnie Miksch’s hilarious The Ballad of Y2K, which lampoons some of the fringe beliefs in the born again culture she grew up in. might have premiered at a performance in a local church but for a section that began “Our Mainframe, Who art in danger, faulty be thy name….” I hope to hear this fun contemporary satire again on local stages. The PSU segment concluded with another of music director Ethan Sperry’s arrangements of Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman’s music. “Balleilakka” had the students singing, dancing, hollering, waving handkerchiefs, and generally rocking the jammed Lincoln Recital Hall. Under Sperry, PSU’s singers are making some of the most exciting music on Oregon stages — and I don’t just mean classical music stages. After all that excitement, the two encores with combined choirs flirted with anticlimax, but showed just how bright the future of choral music in Oregon looks.

Last week’s 45th Parallel concert at Alberta Rose Theater made me excited for the future of that venue as a Northeast Portland outpost for classical music. Chamber Music Northwest, Electric Opera, Opera Theater Oregon and Classical Revolution PDX have already staged excellent concert there, but it’s nice to see more traditional fare — in this case, great quartets by Schubert and Dvorak — in the handsomely refurbished, acoustically dry space as well. Candles and table lamps onstage lent a warm intimacy to the proceedings, which emphasized rhythmic punch over singing melodies. The players — violinists Greg Ewer and Adam LaMotte, cellist Justin Kagan and violist Hillary Schoap — gave an earthy rather than elegant performance, which went pretty well despite the inevitable lapses inherent in playing such ambitious music with what is essentially a pickup ensemble; they’d never played together as a foursome. Some reflective screens might have mitigated some of the dryness, but then audience members wouldn’t have been able to sit onstage (as invited by the group) to get even closer to the proceedings.

In another admirable attempt to loosen the formality of the concert stage, audience members were invited to use their smartphones to tweet and otherwise tell the world about the experience, a tactic I’ve seen several times this year at dance and music performances. Didn’t bother me any, and I’m glad to see performers experimenting with bringing shows into the 21st century and bringing audiences closer to the action. It was a treat to hear the group that had recorded the music for an ad that was being played at a major American sports event that day. The group has also recently accompanied singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman on a new recording, and she joined them for several of her warm, breathy songs. The crowd seemed to really enjoy it, and I hope to see more indie classical music at the Rose.

LaMotte played in last week’s concert with his other band, Portland Baroque Orchestra, in a concert starring the amazing German flute and recorder player Matthias Maute, who’s got to be one of the finest musicians among many ever to perform with the group. His arrangement of one of J.S. Bach’s most famous works, the Italian Concerto, didn’t quite work for me; perhaps I’m too accustomed to hearing it in its original incarnation as a solo harpsichord work, and I missed the expressivity of the original violin in his arrangement of another J.S. Bach classic, the Concerto in D minor, that substituted a beautifully played recorder in the solo slot But every piece on the program was at least entertaining, and Maute and fellow Baroque flute guest star Janet See worked nicely with the locals, most of whom are also regulars on the Baroque music circuit. The closing number, Telemann’s colorful Concerto in e Minor, one of the real classics of the 18th century, was about as joyful as anything I’ve seen on a Portland stage this year. Maute danced around the stage, grinning at each solo, trading phrases with See,, lending an air of drama, excitement and fun to a piece that contains all three in abundance. In the equally exuberant folk dance encores, he hammed it up, cracking up his fellow musicians, literally stomping out the rhythm while never losing musical integrity. As with the PSU singers, it’s a treat to see classical musicians bringing the fun back to concerts that can sound all too solemn.

There was plenty of delight in Portland composer David Schiff’s spiffy new Class of 1915, which debuted at Chamber Music Northwest’s concert last weekend. From the deliberate spicy dissonances of the first movement through the bluesy second and mischievous swinging third, Schiff captured the dance energy of the great transitional American music (from ragtime to jazz) of the early part of the 20th century. It’s a fun piece that I hope gets played again here and elsewhere, and often. Unfortunately, the trio of CMNW all stars weren’t nearly as effective in one of my favorite chamber works, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio. You expect occasional rough patches in a new piece like Schiff’s, but I was disappointed at lapses in the second and fourth movements of this classic, and a sometimes heavy handed, if tonally accurate approach that lacked the elegance of the Altenberg Trio’s recent performance of this gorgeous trio here.

But the main problem throughout the concert was, at least from where I sat, poor balance — all the performers occasionally overplaying in every piece, and the piano in particular often drowning out the amazingly nuanced vocals of the evening’s real star, soprano Mary Nessinger, who’s made a specialty of the concluding work, Arnold Schoenberg’s haunting, music-changing melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. She was the third speaker-singer I’ve heard in this role in different settings around the country, and by no means the most famous, but she inhabited it in a way that it’s hard to imagine anyone else could. I could say lots more about her utterly gripping performance, but you’ll find most of it and more in James McQuillen’s characteristically perceptive review. However, I don’t think Kaul Auditorium — or any standard concert stage − is the proper venue for this unique work, which was actually conceived for a cabaret. It needs a more theatrical setting, with dramatic lighting (the lights at Kaul washed out Nessinger’s face in a way that was more ghastly than appropriately ghostly), a more intimate feeling. Maybe the new performing arts building under construction at Reed will provide such a place.

Instrument balance also posed a passing problem at the Julians concert last weekend at First Presbyterian church. On a couple of songs, at least from where I was sitting, a rock drum kit totally overwhelmed the singing — and superb singing is why you go hear this assemblage of some of Portland’s finest female vocal talent in the first place. And it seems pointless to try to out-rock a rock band like Queen when what makes the Julians so successful is their arrangement of pop and rock songs for “classical” voices. More subtle, imaginative percussion — bongos, perhaps — would have served whatever purpose was intended for the drums. A similar problem occurred with the acoustic guitar accompaniment to Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation,” because the singer moved upstage of the guitar, which made it hard to hear her voice over it.

Otherwise, there was plenty to enjoy in the concert, which smartly alternated singers and combos and even stage positions throughout, lending more variety to the concert — other groups could learn a lot from the Julians’ smart, audience-friendly stagings. Visual projections of the singers added little but didn’t distract either. Each soloist deserved her showcase, but they’re strongest in the full four voice vocal blend. Although their rhythms can occasionally sound a bit squared off in some pop pieces, they seem to sound more comfortable in that rep with each concert, though still not quite as persuasive as in classical numbers. Highlights included covers of songs by Tears for Fears, Thomas Morley, Regina Spektor … they’re like a musical magpie’s iPod set on shuffle. Unfortunately, another concert (see below) forced me to leave after hearing only three of the concert’s four “seasons,” but I did get to hear Renee Favand-See’s lovely Lighting the Leaves, which proved quite effective at illustrating its text, with voices appearing and receding like rising sunlight gradually dappling and illuminating different leaves. But though sung immaculately by the Julians, the piece really deserves a full choral treatment, which I hope a local chorus will grant soon.

That concert was British pianist Paul Roberts’ latest (of something like 20) visit to Portland, courtesy of Portland Piano International. His sensitive approach to the sublime music of Debussy and Ravel, and his illuminating explanations of the relationship between the two composers and their music, were utterly fascinating. Too many pianists interpret all this music in a gauzy “impressionist” style that doesn’t always suit particular compositions that look in different directions, but Roberts seems to give each piece precisely the perspective it wants, with particular emphasis on expressivity and clarity. It was easily one of the best recitals I’ve seen this year, and I could have listened for another hour. Fortunately, I’ll get another chance, as will those turned away by the sell-out: he’s returning this summer, with a new book about Ravel, too.

Finally, readers whose interest in the fine new string quartet Brooklyn Rider was piqued by our discussion here should sample the outstanding new CD, Seven Steps, which contains much of the music on their Friends of Chamber Music program and which streams for another few days on National Public Radio. It immediately takes a prime place among the best classicals CD of the year. It’s available through NPR’s excellent new free app that anyone who has suitable digital receptacles should investigate.

2 Responses.

  1. Sally Sue says:

    “most influential composer……..cultural figure”?

    I guess I should accept that blogs contain assertions, not statements of fact (or “widely shared” opinions). To each his/her own, I guess!

    • True, any statement about Cage’s influence, mine included, is hardly one subject to objective Certification. But whatever your own feelings about his work, what cannot be gainsaid is its effect, and that of his philosophy as propounded in the enormously influential books such as Silence, on the next three generations of composers and others artists. In his recent autobiography, John Adams noted that he, like every young composer he knew, was profoundly affected by Cage’s work. (my copy of the book is on loan to a friend so I can’t quote it.) Although he wasn’t alone, it was Cage and his friends and collaborators in the art and dance worlds who gave artists from Fluxus to Radiohead the creative permission and freedom to expand the parameters of art. Very few artists of any century exerted so powerful a liberating influence. They may not even know it, but artists who do the kind of ‘happenings’ we still see fairly often owe a big debt to Cage and his comrades, althgh the roots extend back to the Dadaists at least.
      Cage’s aleatoric notions, conceptual ideas (instruction pieces, for examle) and percussion works alone would mark him as a major idea generator for 20th century art. And then there’s his notorious silent piece, 4″33″ (which a naive college friend of mine called ‘four feet thirty three inches’ before I set him straight), the subject of a book by that most astute of music journalists, Kyle Gann, now a music prof at Bard. Here’s what he writes about the influence of that single work:

      “One of the most common effects of 4’33” — possibly the most important and widespread effect – was to seduce people into considering  as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art…. Its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between “art” and “non-art” is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions. 
      “Indirectly, 4’33” led to the developments from which grew the simpler and more accessible new style of minimalism…. Fittingly, 4’33” cleared the deck for a new American music, freer from European influence than the nationalist streams of music in the 1920s and 1930s. From 4’33” younger composers imbibed a freer attitude toward sound, adding their own processes into Cage’S emptiness…and leapfrogging over his logical constructs to create the conceptualist and sound art movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the post minimalist and totalist movements of the 1980s and 1990s.
      “The rise of experimental American music in the late 20th century can be traced to the lineage of composers who took 4’33” very seriously indeed. Nor were they the only ones. Yoko Ono and john Lennon paid homage to 4’33, as have a number of pop musicians and rock bands. Despite all those who still call it the “emperor’s new clothes,” it has become a cultural icon, a beginning point, a permission to dart off into any new imaginative direction.”

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