On Saturday, Portland’s ever-adventurous FearNoMusic ensemble takes another step into the future by bringing My Brightest Diamond frontwoman (and classically trained soprano) Shara Worden from Detroit to sing the solo showcase in composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s haunting “Penelope” at northeast Portland’s intrepid Alberta Rose Theater. Like the Third Rail play that ran in Portland last spring, Snider’s acclaimed song cycle is inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey,” but told from multiple perspectives, in lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who’s worked with drama kings Tony Kushner, Rinde Eckert and others. Worden, a songwriter herself and former backup singer for Sufjan Stevens, sang in the original, much-admired 2010 production with the great New York new music chamber orchestra Signal. This performance will feature Portland’s own superb FNM musicians, many of whom also play in the Oregon Symphony and other fine aggregations.
As in its performance with electro cellist Zoe Keating at Portland’s rock-oriented Aladdin Theater last year, this show represents another step in the group’s admirable evolution under new director Paloma Griffin, as FearNoMusic (which celebrates its adulthood with a 21st birthday bash on Friday) reaches for new audiences beyond the traditional “classical” venues and playing music that approaches postclassical territory from the indie rock side, though “Penelope” is hardly pop as we know it. It’s part of a larger convergence we’re seeing with, for example, members of the avant pop band The National performing with Bang on a Can and Steve Reich. The ridiculous iron curtain that so long and so damagingly separated classical music from contemporary culture is finally starting to crumble, and FearNoMusic is leading the deconstruction crew in Portland.
The barrier is being permeated from another direction, too, as musicians trained in both jazz and classical composition, like Don Byron and Bill Frisell and others productively prove in compositions that incorporate jazz gestures and elements of improvisation. One of the more promising updaters of what composer, classical musician and jazzer Gunther Schuller termed Third Stream music half a century ago is the young University of Oregon-trained trumpeter composer Douglas Detrick, who brings his AnyWhen Ensemble (modeled in some respects on the Gravitas Quartet led by Seattle based creative jazzer Wayne Horvitz, like Frisell a one-time star of New York’s downtown avant jazz scene) back to Oregon from his current New York home. In concerts at southeast Portland’s Community Music Center on Saturday and downtown Eugene’s Jazz Station on Sunday, the ensemble (packed with current and former Oregon jazz and classical players and profs) will perform Detrick’s ambitious new ten-movement suite, “The Bright and Rushing World.” It’s a shame that Portland audiences will have to choose between this fascinating concert at “Penelope.”
Both AnyWhen shows open with performances by another of Oregon’s finest new music ensembles, Beta Collide, led by trumpet master and UO prof Brian McWhorter, performing their exceptional original arrangements of music by the late Canadian singer Lhasa de Sala. And AnyWhen saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi, another NYC Duck, will hang around to perform with his sextet at the Jazz Station and Portland’s celebrated Jimmy Mak’s jazz club next weekend.
These exciting, bleeding edge concerts make Sunday’s Club Mod/45th Parallel concert at Alberta Rose, which would otherwise qualify as the weekend’s top contemporary show, seem almost old fashioned, devoted as it is to ancient music from way back in the 20th century. But no fan of classical or contemporary music should miss this live-on-stage edition of Robert McBride’s excellent modern music show on Portland’s all-classical radio station, KQAC. The menu, which announcer and 45th Parallel violinist Greg Ewer will introduce from comfy chairs onstage, includes American music by early 20th century composers such as Charles Ives, Arthur Foote and George Gershwin, as well as later lights such as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, John Williams and Steve Reich, and it’ll be performed by some of Portland’s most accomplished players.
Unless you’re a fan of the Canadian Tenors, who are performing a poppy kind of show with the Oregon Symphony Friday, this isn’t a big weekend for orchestral music. Actually, this is the way a classical music weekend should be — and was, until early in the last century — bursting with mostly music of our time, spiced by the occasional museum piece, rather than, as now, the other way around. (You wouldn’t see such an outrageously retro-gazing ratio in theater or dance, for example.)
This weekend’s not-so-moldy (it was last produced here in 2005) oldie is Puccini’s evergreen verismo melodrama “Tosca,” which Portland Opera reprises in a traditional production for the umpteenth time beginning Friday. The opera ends with a famous plunge, which resembles the trajectory of so many conservative classical institutions that turn their back on music of our time these days, but judging by the vibrant new music onstage in Oregon this weekend, the prospects for classical music revitalizing itself and reaching new audiences here are decidedly on the upswing.