Weekend MusicWatch: Promising new voices

This weekend is so packed with terrific music that when OAW’s James McQuillen and I compared notes on the eight Portland concerts we’re covering this weekend, we discovered that there was no overlap—and that, sadly, we both have to miss still another very attractive show. Plenty of cities would love to face such dilemmas. Even more would be thrilled to see so many examples of classically influenced music made and enjoyed by musicians and music lovers under 40—some even under 20.


Avant cellist Zoe Keating performs at the Shedd in Eugene and the Aladdin Theater in Portland this weekend.

In another post this weekend, James and I will discuss Thursday’s fascinating 45thParallel performance. The string quartet featured — amazingly — the 16-year-old concertmaster of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Michael Siess. That orchestra closes its season at Arlene Schnitzer  concert hall Sunday afternoon with a splendid program of one of the most popular orchestral compositions of our time, Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral; one of the 20th century’s most striking works, the fascinating Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s spooky Sensemaya; another 20th century classic, this one written in Oregon —  Ernest Bloch’s Hebraic Suite, plus Brahms’s Symphony #2.  If you close your eyes, chance are you won’t realize the players are teenagers.

Still more young classical music talent will be on display at the same time Sunday afternoon, across the street in the Newmark Theater, when Portland Piano International brings pianist extraordinaire Christopher O’Riley’s popular radio show From the Top to town. The concert will feature promising young left coast musicians including Portland teenager Ruta Kuzmickas, and will be broadcast later on the all-classical station the 45th Parallel concerts benefited.

The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra bids sayonara to its director of the past dozen years, Huw Edwards, Friday at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Saturday at Mt. Hood Community College theater, with a program that includes Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, and music by Berlioz, the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, Delius and Verdi. In contrast, the Oregon Mozart Players welcome back their recently departed artistic director, Glen Cortese, on Saturday at the Hult Center, where they’ll play one of his compositions, Songs for All Seasons, with soprano Emily Johnson, plus music by Mahler and Ravel’s iridescent Mother Goose Suite, ostensibly for kids, but as beautiful as anything ever written for grownups. Also on Saturday at southeast Portland’s All Saints Episcopal Church, Oregon Chamber Players will honor their founder, Timoteus Racz, who died suddenly last month, with a tribute concert featuring three of his compositions plus a Haydn symphony, a Mozart flute quartet, a Handel organ concerto and more.

Portland Symphonic Choir’s Saturday and Sunday shows boast an excellent all American program of music by the first published American composer William Billings through contemporary works by the popular LA composer Eric Whitacre, Leonard Bernstein (whose Candide returns to Portland Opera next week), Libby Larsen and Aaron Copland.


Portland Baroque Orchestra plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations this weekend.

If you happen to be in Ashland next weekend — and I understand there’s often some decent theater thereabouts — you might check out solo flutist Tessa Brinckman, who plays in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ensemble, often in music by retiring OSF composer Todd Barton. Using a half dozen flutes of various kinds, she’ll premiere some of his new music and her own, plus works by Australian composer Ross Edwards and American composers Alex Shapiro (who lives in the San Juan Islands), Shirish Korde and Higdon at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall on Thursday, May 10. Let’s hope she can bring this program to Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra closes its season this weekend with concerts at First Baptist Church Friday and Saturday, and Reed College Sunday. Artistic director Monica Huggett leads a group of string players in an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s immortal keyboard work, the Goldberg Variations. Also on Sunday, a group of Baroque specialists from Portland, Eugene, and Seattle convene under the banner of Seattle-based Baroque Northwest at Eugene’s First Methodist Church to play court music of the era.

Also in Eugene, the pioneering solo cellist Zoe Keating performs  Saturday night at the Shedd after shows in Seattle and Portland with FearNoMusic ensemble. Every time I’ve seen the former Portland resident play at the Aladdin Theater, including this one, the show’s nearly sold out, so this was a good chance to bring some of the lanky avant cellist’s young fans to FNM’s brand of alt classical music. Some of the fans I overheard discussing  were enchanted by the band’s zesty performances of movements from quartets by John Adams, Portland composer Tomas Svoboda, and Gabriel Prokofiev  and by Paloma Griffin and Jeff Payne’s dreamy rendition of Somei Satoh’s spellbinding Birds in Warped Time 2 (all reprised from their April concert, which I reviewed here last week), while others seemed in different — primarily, I think, because it lacked the rhythmic regularity and easily graspable melodies that endear Keating’s music to pop music fans. Her spiky hair, sizzling pink and black tights and generally hip appearance probably help, too. Even though the musicians are all using “classical” instruments and training, indie classical music spans a vast range, and not everyone’s going to grok all of it. But the adventurous listeners who attend shows like this are at least open to trying music they’ve never heard.

Keating, who helped found the Portland Cello Project when she lived here briefly early last decade, uses laptops, MIDI modules and looping pedals to layer many tracks, creating an almost orchestral sound. (Keating explain how she makes the techno magic in the video below.) But it’s all propelled by regular rhythms that the rock crowd can tap our feet to, and short repeated melodies that have the same broad appeal to pop fans as some minimalist music (which also draws a younger, pop oriented audience) does. But Keating weaves these relatively simple elements into larger, cyclic structures in ingenious and intricate ways. She played music from throughout her career, from her familiar take on the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony #7 to a work in progress from a new album to be released by year’s end, and FNM joined her for a brief version of her studio piece Little Bird, from a recent documentary film score.

Although she’s shy (her classical career was snuffed by stage fright), her evident slight nervousness actually makes us sympathetic, and Keating’s warmth comes through in her introductory explanations and comments, which give audiences insights into both her character and her musical processes, creating a genuine connection between solo performer and audience that’s evident in the strong applause, shouts of encouragement and affection. The complexity of all that multitasking sometimes leads to technical and other problems; one piece ended midway with a “Dammit!” although she nailed it in her encore. But because we understood how the process works, we felt sympathy rather than scorn for her admitted screw up. Other performers can learn a lot from her popular shows.

Portland State University Opera's Dialogues of the Carmelites
closes this weekend. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Another of last week’s musical highlights happened at Portland State University, whose nationally acclaimed opera program, led by Christine Meadows, staged a powerful performance of Francis Poulenc’s 1953 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which continues through this weekend at Lincoln Performance Hall. As I wrote in Willamette Week:

[T]he high musical, dramatic, and design standards elevate this new production to near professional levels. Poulenc’s lush music, capably performed by the student ensemble led by Ken Selden,  Carey Wong’s appropriately austere sets and Peter West’s particularly effective mood setting lighting design provide most of the interest in the relatively static and somber early convent scenes. The action picks up with the intrusion of the revolutionaries, culminating in one of the most powerful scenes in all of opera. Visiting veteran British director David Edwards’s inventive staging (he also directed Portland Opera’s 2001 production) of the harrowing finale, accompanied by some of Poulenc’s most riveting music, is genuinely moving, devastatingly powerful and a shattering climax to a superior production.

The cast differs depending on which performance you see; I was especially impressed by baritone Max Moreno, Carl Moe, and Tiffany Hanson, but really, all the principals offered some effective singing and/or acting, and Prof. Douglas Schneider deserves kudos for his strong preparation of the student performers. Don’t miss this one.

Speaking of nuns, at southeast Portland’s St. Stephen’s Catholic church, In Mulieribus wrapped up a fine year with transcendent performance of music by the medieval abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen and contemporary Northwest composers Robert Kyr (a movement from the University of Oregon composer’s dazzling From the Circling Wheel) and Katherine P. Thomas (a reprise of the Seattle composer’s popular Lux Lucis from an earlier concert), along with works by the rising British composer Tarik O’Regan and Frank Ferko inspired by Hildegard. Nothing can really compare to Hildegard’s spiraling, ecstatic melodies, but Kyr married those qualities to modern and other ancient harmonies to produce a piece that worked as tribute and stood on its own. I’ve praised Thomas’s shimmering piece before, and also admired O’Regan’s soaring Columba Aspexit. Ferko’s Hildegard Motets brought in male singers, a lusher sound (with effective drone), and a soothing tone that at last gave way to spicier harmonies and peppier tempos. Immaculately performed as always by the nonpareil women’s vocal ensemble, it effectively combined old and new music. The closest earthly approach to a visitation of angels may be a concert by In Mulieribus.

I really wanted to like another opera that appeared in Portland last month, Theresa Koon’s long-gestating Promise. Alas, despite the hard work, good intentions, and some fine music (led by Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner and performed well by 45th Parallel regulars Greg Ewer and Justin Kagan, plus Opera Theater Oregon’s Erica Melton and clarinetists Jerry Simas and Hattner) this version of the show, which I saw at Portland’s Scottish Rite Theater doesn’t really hold the stage — though it contains enough potential to make its title appropriate.

A major problem is the main character, the fantastic sculptor Camille Claudel, whose tragic life had some dramatic moments but doesn’t really add up to an operatic one. Despite the script’s attempts to persuade us that her renunciation of art was a choice, as portrayed here, Claudel is still essentially a passive character, more acted upon than acting, which is why her brother Paul (convincingly performed and well sung by tenor Jon Kolbet) and father Louis (another good performance, by Stephen Guntli) seize the audience’s attention. Claudel’s mentor/nemesis Rodin is portrayed as a cardboard character (it didn’t help that the fine baritone Douglas Webster was hamstrung by a cold), and we’re given little reason to care much about Camille herself. Neither Rodin nor the gossip chorus roles are written convincingly enough to serve as proper foils to Claudel’s career. The contrived expository dialogue sometimes veers between wooden and tinny, mostly because it’s trying to convey a story that’s just not that inherently dramatic.

However, it’s a worthy effort, and a couple of touches point the way toward a different portrayal (if the composer is still up to it after all these years). The clever notion to use a quintet of Agnieszka Laska Dancers as physical representations of Claudel’s works (and a sort of silent chorus whose body language conveys various scenes’ emotional tenor), and a couple of projections of her images suggest that telling the story as a kind of less literal, imagistic dance drama might play to the subject’s strengths (her amazingly expressive sculptures, one of which is actually called The Gossips, which I confess I hadn’t seen until I perused the books thoughtfully on display in the lobby) and avoid her biography’s dramatic weaknesses. There’s enough strong music and other elements in Promise to make its title appropriate, though as yet unfulfilled.

Webster and soprano Catherine Olson (who turned in good work as the young Camille) performed in a much more sympathetic setting at last week’s Northwest New Music concert, stalking the stage and the aisles in a truly gripping portrayal of the madness of King George III in grandmaster British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’s famous 1969 drama Eight Songs for a Mad King. His commanding performance was one of the most compelling I’ve seen on a Portland stage this year, veering through the tetched porphyriac monarch’s sudden mood swings without succumbing to melodrama or staginess. The NWNM ensemble (cellist Diane Chaplin, pianist Susan Smith, flutist Sarah Tiedemann, clarinetist  Louis DeMartino, percussionist Florian Conzetti)  was right there with him in urgent performances, even when he snatched a (cheap) violin from Tylor Neist.

Chaplin and Smith sounded appropriately late romantic in early 20th century American composer Charles Cadman’s 1944 A Mad Empress Remembers, while Conzetti applied enormous delicacy, nuance and precision with his fingertips in Morton Feldman’s 1964 The King of Denmark — a typically Feldmanesque combo of tension and quietness the supplied a marked contrast to the high-intensity other works about madness on this fascinating program.

The real discovery was Austrian composer Thomas Larcher’s striking My Illness is the Medicine I Need, in which the bewitching soprano Catherine Olson sang texts from actual mental patients in an underplayed yet intense way that made them even scarier and more “real” — to the singer at least. The composition calls for a theatrical yet not conventionally expressive singing style that Olson pulled off brilliantly. I’m looking forward to her next performance, and to NWNM’s next season. This one was a triumph for the city’s newest new music group.

Catherine Olson and the Northwest New Music Ensemble

One Response.

  1. redipen says:

    What powerful work – let’s hope NWNM doesn’t abandon their valiant mission in the face of the daunting and despicable FUNDRAISING MONSTER – the palatable dejection of the violinist in the final minutes of “8 Songs…”, after his instrument has been seized and smashed by the “Mad King”, virtually says it all!

    One has to wonder about Davies’ own financial condition when he authored the work – Brits enjoy far better public support than we Yanks (even Mexico’s Feds support their arts better than Washington does its; unless one accepts the notion of “the art of war”) – nevertheless, the statement is obvious!

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