Apologists for Oregon’s hidebound classical music institutions whine about how hard it is to program new music. Crusty old-school audiences (unlike every other performing art form in America) won’t take a chance on unfamiliar names, they claim. New works are expensive. Etc etc.
So what are we to make of plucky Eugene Opera? Seemingly moribund a few years ago, the company has resuscitated itself not by exclusively programming the usual top ten operas that make up a high percentage of American opera program, but instead by also including works by contemporary, West Coast composers. Last year, it was a well-received production of John Adams’s 1987 breakthrough, “Nixon in China,” and, opening this weekend at the Hult Center for two performances only, it’s another contemporary classic: San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” which has received more than 30 productions and rave reviews since its 2000 premiere.
The company’s general director since 2006, Mark Beudert, has built the production into a larger citywide discussion, with events at the University of Oregon law school, Eugene Public Library, City Club, and Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts, and including appearances by composer Heggie and by the author of the celebrated book the opera (and Tim Robbins’ masterful 1995 film) was based on, Sister Helen Prejean. Maybe Oregon’s other institutions can learn survival lessons from what once seemed to be a dead man singing.
The state’s other major opera company also opens an unusual production this weekend — but it’s hardly new. In fact, Handel’s 1711 masterpiece “Rinaldo” pre-dates most of the standard repetitive fare by a century or two. The rediscovery of Baroque opera, which grew out of the general early music revival of a couple generations ago and led by visionary conductors such as William Christie starting in the ’80s, is one of the happiest recent developments in classical music, allowing us to hear some of the greatest music of the period in its original context. Handel wrote some glorious concerti, orchestral suites, and more, but his operas and oratorios contain some of the Baroque master’s finest music.
And what a treat to hear it interpreted by musicians who really know how to do it right, Portland Baroque Orchestra, directed here by Gary Thor Wedow, and using instruments and tunings Handel would have recognized, which ideally balance the vocal style and allow plenty of space for Handel’s famous extended arias. And since this most welcome Portland Opera production happens in the relatively intimate Newmark Theater rather than the cavernous Keller Auditorium, the singers don’t have to shout to be heard, focusing all their energy on the quality of Handel’s glorious tunes. We’ll have more to say about “Rinaldo” soon, but already we can tell you that it’s a production abounding in sly humor (especially in the design), spectacular (and period-appropriate) special effects, some standout singing, and of course some of the most magnificent melodies ever concocted by anyone. These PO/PBO/Newmark collaborations have provided some of the opera’s most enjoyable moments in the past few years. It’s smart to take advantage of PBO’s presence to give Oregon opera lovers the kind of rare early opera treats that many cities would love.
Andre Chiang as Argante
Speaking of Baroque music, Eugene is the place to hear more of it. Sunday afternoon, cellist Ralph Stricker-Chapman completes his survey (with some explanation) of another of the era’s towering masterpieces, J.S. Bach’s ever popular Cello Suites, in an Oregon Bach Collegium concert at United Lutheran Church, 22nd & Washington. The same day, organist Julia Brown plays music by Bach and his three most prominent composer offspring at First Methodist Church.
March Music for Mods
We started out with contemporary music, and of course it IS March, so that means March Music Moderne continues in Portland. With fabulous works by three of today’s finest composers, Esa Pekka Salonen, Osvaldo Golijov and Arvo Part, plus another by one of the 20th century’s finest, Bela Bartok, Friday night’s superb Arnica Quartet concert at Portland’s Old Church boasts one of the best chamber music programs of the entire season, not just MMM.
Saturday brings a trifecta of today’s sounds, beginning at the UO’s Portland campus White Stag Building with a free noon show of flute and guitar music by Toru Takemitsu, Bang on a Can’s David Lang, Andre Jolivet and more performed by Eugene’s beta collide flutist Molly Barth and Kentucky guitarist Dieter Hennings. Further flute fabulousness ensues at 4 pm at Hipbone Studio, when Ashland based flutist Tessa Brinckman joins omnipresent koto queen Mitsuki Dazai in more music by Salonen, several Japanese composers not named Takemitsu, the fine New York composer Elizabeth Brown, jazzer Chick Corea, and even an original collaboration by the two excellent performers themselves. The evening brings a forecast of Friends of Rain, the Lewis & Clark College faculty new music ensemble that’ll play music by two 20th century titans, Benjamin Britten and Takemitsu, plus other leading contemporary composers like Gabriela Lena Frank, Nickitas Demos, Shulamit Ran and L&C faculty members Michael Johanson and Brett Paschal.
Sunday brings two more doses of March Madness. At 3 pm at southeast Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, Cascadia Composers displays its latest collection of music by today’s Oregon music creators, featuring a wide range of performances by some of the city’s top performers for sax quartet, solo piano, accompanied singers, and various chamber combinations. And that night, it’s back to Lewis & Clark College’s Evans Auditorium for new music for gamelan orchestra, as the school’s Venerable Showers of Beauty ensemble performs music by Oregon’s greatest composer, Lou Harrison (with help from trumpet and cello), Seattle singer/composer Jessika Kenney (including a work based on an ancient Persian setting of a Rumi poem), plus new works by one of Java’s leading composers, Aloysius Suwardi, and more.
The series shifts to Marylhurst College on Monday, with a performance of Stravinsky’s ever-delightful deal-with-the-devil fable, “A Solider’s Tale,” along with follow ups by jazz composer/trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (an Americanized version with libretto by his mentor, Stanley Crouch called “A Fiddler’s Tale”) and others by Marylhurst student and faculty composers, all performed by musicians from the Oregon Symphony, Portland Chamber Orchestra, and more, conducted by Portland State University prof Ken Selden. The festival continues at Marylhurst on Tuesday with a recital of American art songs composed by the great Ned Rorem, John Corigliano and more.
The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra puts a new spin on an old favorite when it brings up UO percussion master Pius Cheung to play the famous solo part in George Gershwin’s chestnut, “Rhapsody in Blue” — on marimba. New Zealan- born conductor Andrew Sewell also leads the orchestra in a cinematic 1940 overture by Kiwi countryman Douglas Lilburn that evokes their native landscape, plus Dvorak’s Symphony #7.
Dvorak fans are in luck this weekend because the Beaverton Symphony is also playing the great Czech composer’s popular Symphony #8 (which the Oregon Symphony will play next weekend) and Romance for Violin and Orchestra, plus a Rossini overture.
Chamber music fans don’t have long to recuperate from last week’s Shostakovich hangover. On Friday in Vancouver, the DTQ Quartet play music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and one of its own members , Tatiana Kolchanova. Then Friends of Chamber Music brings to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall yet another young, rising string foursome, the Enso Quartet, to play music of Britten and Brahms (Monday), and the wonderful 20th century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, Beethoven, and more on Tuesday.
Finally, the Oregon Guitar Quartet (David Franzen, John Mery, Jesse McCann and Bryan Johanson) brings its inventive arrangements of Baroque, folk, and more to the Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center on Friday.