Three of the nation’s finest string quartets converge this weekend in Oregon’s busiest classical music weekend of the season so far. But before we get to listing the tough choices among chamber concerts, here’s an easy one: the best choral concert of the weekend, and one of the finest of the season happens Sunday afternoon at 4 pm at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall when one of Oregon’s finest vocal groups, Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, sings Benjamin Britten’s gorgeous “Hymn to Saint Cecilia,” an excerpt from Britten’s great opera “Peter Grimes,” and other less familiar but no less worthwhile works in honor of the centennial of Britten’s birth. And it’s worth cheering because for a couple centuries or so after, say, Henry Purcell (or Handel if you count the German expat), with occasional exceptions (a Holst here, a Sullivan there), English classical music radiated all the excitement of English food. Britten blew away that miasma of musical tedium, and this splendid program, one of several Britten centennial celebrations, shows how.
Now for that chamber music convergence. On Sunday afternoon in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series, the Princeton University based Brentano Quartet performs a brand new work by Princeton composer and California native Steven Mackey that commemorates the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, along with mid-period masterpieces by Haydn and Beethoven. You can read my preview of Mackey’s “One Red Rose” here.
Just days after the Kronos Quartet brought its new cellist to Portland, the august Emerson Quartet arrives in Ashland Saturday, sporting its new cellist, Paul Watkins. In a concert in the city’s fine Chamber Music Series, they’ll celebrate Britten’s anniversary with one of his quartets and others by Shostakovich and Beethoven.
Watkins (who also played in London’s famous Nash Ensemble and conducts the English Chamber Orchestra) drew the Emersons’ attention a few years ago when he performed in a tour with the quartet’s violinist Lawrence Dutton, organized by pianist Menahem Pressler, who joins the Pacifica Quartet Monday and Tuesday in one of this season’s most highly recommended installments in Friends of Chamber Music’s series at Portland State University. The 89-year-old Pressler, who manned the keyboard in the great Beaux Arts Trio for more than half a century (!) really does merit that cliched epithet “living legend,” and the Pacifica Quartet (now based, along with Pressler, at Indiana University’s famed music school as the group approaches its third decade) has in previous Oregon appearances lived up to its acclaim as one of the finest touring string quartets. On Monday night, they’ll play another happy hundredth birthday Benjamin Britten quartet along with Mozart’s final quartet and, with Pressler, Dvorak’s great Piano Quintet. Tuesday’s concert follows the same classical-modern-romantic pattern, with one of Haydn’s late, great quartets, the great 20th century composer Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet #3 and Robert Schumann’s ever-popular Piano Quintet, with Pressler. On Sunday afternoon, they’ll play the Britten and Mozart quartets along with that most beautiful of all string quartets, Ravel’s, at Linfield College. Read Portlander Alice Hardesty’s excellent interview with Pacifica violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson.
In Lincoln’s smaller recital hall Monday night, Arizona-based violinist Hannah Leland, who grew up in Portland, and pianist Haeju Choi will play a fine (and free!) program of Cesar Franck’s popular and powerful sonata, Aaron Copland’s reflective 1943 sonata, and another by Brahms. They’ll also play the program at Leland’s alma mater Willamette University’s Hudson Hall Sunday afternoon.
The big solo classical music show in Oregon this weekend features Croatian guitar virtuosa Ana Vidovic playing mostly Spanish music, plus J.S. Bach and more, Friday night at Marylhurst University’s St. Anne’s Chapel in Portland Classic Guitar‘s estimable recital series. There’s more Spanish music, this time from the Renaissance, Sunday afternoon when lutenist Raleigh Williams and singer Alice Davenport perform at Eugene’s United Lutheran Church. Also in Eugene on Sunday afternoon, the Cascade Slides trombone quartet plays Haydn, Bernstein, the Beatles and more at First United Methodist Church.
For a different kind of chamber music, check out Saturday night’s Kalakendra concert in downtown Portland’s First Congregational Church, featuring Dutch early music cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas, her husband and Ravi Shankar protege Shubhendra Rao on sitar and young tabla virtuoso Harshad Kanetkar. De Haas modified her cello to play Indian music, including adding a playing string and sympathetic strings to facilitate melodic ornamentation and elaboration.
It’s not quite an Oregon event, but Sunday, at Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver on the other side of the big river, the Douglas Fir Trio (pianist Cary Lewis, violinist Anthea Kreston cellist Jason Duckles) play Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio, along with other works also featuring clarinetists William Blayney, Barbara Heilmair, and Igor Shakhman and pianist Michael C. Liu. It’s part of the Vancouver Symphony’s chamber music series.
I’ve mentioned often how generous Oregon classical musicians are in putting their musical skills to work for worthy causes, and one of the most admirable organizations in this regard is Portland’s fab 45th Parallel, which often presents chamber music concerts by musicians from the Oregon Symphony and other top classical outfits. Its latest donation goes to another valuable Portland music institution, the historic Old Church, which has been bringing classical and other small-group music to downtown for decades. In a Saturday night fundraising concert, 45th Parallel musicians will perform Vivaldi’s ever-popular “Four Seasons” concertos, preceded by a wine, cheese and chocolate tasting and silent auction, and proceeds will go to fund the venue’s new outreach programs designed to bring music education to low- and moderate- income kids who otherwise lack access to it.
Bach is Back
And speaking of Baroque music, if last weekend’s Portland Baroque Orchestra concerts are any indication, this weekend’s shows (featuring five different J.S. Bach concerti) and the recording the band is making should be highlights of this year’s music season. If you’re hesitating about attending Sunday’s performance at Reed College (Saturday night’s concert is sold out) because Bach’s violin and oboe concertos are some of the most familiar Baroque music, don’t. In fact, some of these arrangements have long been derived — “reverse engineered” as PBO oboe star Gonzalo Ruiz noted in his pre-concert talk — from Bach’s later arrangements of them for harpsichord, including the famous BWV 1056 concerto that Ruiz figured out (using clues like the range of the notes in the score, the key signature and so on) gave the starring role to the oboe rather than the once-presumed violin. “Since no one had claimed it, I’ll claim it for the oboe,” Ruiz said. “Violinists have too much great music already. I have to fight for my masterpieces.” (He’s applied the same detective work to reconstruct other famous Bach works like a flute sonata and an orchestral suite.) Which is why Ruiz started his talk with a reference to the Rosetta Stone — performer-scholars have had to crack the code of the original language (i.e. instrumentation) by using “translations” the composer made later for other instruments.
Even if you’ve heard the other works on the program that didn’t have to be reconstructed, unless you’ve experienced them on period instruments and played by musicians experienced in the tunings and style of Bach’s era, you’ve only glimpsed their brilliance through a muddy window at best. With their plodding tempos, compromised tunings and bloated instrumentation, old recordings by big orchestras on modern instruments, some unaccountably still played on classical radio stations, can’t approach the lithe beauty of PBO’s performances. And even the earlier period-instrument recordings, usually made by modern instrument players who, bereft of the scholarly knowledge developed over the past couple generations, and familiarity with ancient instruments, lack the finesse and fluency of performances by today’s historically informed performers like Ruiz, many of whom who grew up playing in Baroque styles. In the program notes, Ruiz noted that one such pioneering period-instrument recording had to transpose a movement into a different key because the oboist, though one of the best of that early group of HIP players, simply couldn’t play it in the key Bach wrote it in.
Last weekend’s buoyant performances demonstrated the validity of PBO’s historically informed approach more viscerally than any scholarly treatise ever could. Ruiz, PBO artistic director Monica Huggett, and company (including several of the orchestra’s veteran fiddlers, who took turns in solo roles) threw themselves into Bach’s masterpieces with abandon, their bodies swaying to the rhythms (as in Bach’s time, the players, except for cellists and keyboard players, stand rather than sit). Clad in black, including a perspiration-sopping sports cap, Ruiz alternately resembled a swashbuckling pirate, a deft dancer, and a coiled panther on the prowl, pouncing on his solos. Violinist Rob Diggins (who doffed his coat offstage and returned resplendent in a burgundy and gold vest for his solo turn), his familiar BRobDigginsnagian beard returned to its fully forested glory after a shorn season, leaned into his solos, grinning with delight. A few slips, inevitable with these less-forgiving instruments and PBO’s go-for-broke style, were a small price to pay for such breathtaking performances, which the audience rewarded with ovations and bravos, sometimes even after individual movements. In this repertoire, PBO both displays and draws the kind of rapturous enthusiasm rarely encountered elsewhere in Oregon classical music — or any other kind.
A respected South American born, Vienna based conductor will lead Sunday and Monday’s Oregon Symphony concerts — but it’s not Carlos Kalmar. The newly appointed music director of the Houston Symphony, Andres Orozco-Estrada (who also heads an orchestra Kalmar once led in Vienna), conducts one of the season’s most appealing programs, which features Schubert’s big final symphony, an orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s entertaining “Petite Suite,” Igor Stravinsky’s 1931 neoclassical (really more neo-Baroque) Violin Concerto, starring one of the rising young stars of violin, the award-winning virtuoso Augustin Hadelich, who survived severe burns in a fire at his family’s Tuscan farm and after 18 months and several surgeries, moved to New York to enroll at the Juilliard School.
Another famous violin concerto isn’t on the docket this weekend when former OSO concertmaster Jun Iwasaki joins the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra in Portland and Gresham to perform Max Bruch’s rarely played 1878 second violin concerto. He wrote a third, too, but even most classical music fans are probably familiar only with the famous first. The all 19th century program, conducted by one of the CSO’s music director candidates (and like Iwasaki, who now fiddles in Nashville, another Tennessean), James Fellenbaum from the Knoxville Symphony, also includes Brahms’s Symphony #2 and a Verdi opera overture.
Alumni of Portland Youth Philharmonic are gathering at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium Sunday night to honor the memory of the orchestra’s long-time director, Jacob Avshalomov in a free, open-to-the-public concert that includes music by Mr. A, his father Aaron, and his son David (who will share conducting duties with PYP’s current director, David Hattner), plus Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and more. Jacob’s other son, Daniel, who plays viola in the American String Quartet, will occupy the first chair Sunday.
Music on Track
Oregon music is even happening in unexpected places this weekend. This weekend, the Northwest Film Center’s excellent idea to pair reissues of Alfred Hitchcock silent flicks with Portland musicians to provide a live soundtrack gets rolling, with Saturday night’s opening performance featuring the quintessential Portland band, 3 Leg Torso.
And speaking of rolling, on Saturday night, Portland’s continuing devotion to alternative transportation (to climate change causing auto-centric monoculture) and alternative music converge at the Streetcar Mobile MusicFest, which puts Portland’s bands and a choir on wheels for the enjoyment of riders on the Portland Streetcar’s CL line east side route.
Finally, a couple of farewells. Long time Oregon Bach Festival communication director George Evano is moving up to become the University of Oregon’s Interim Director of Marketing Communications for Development, where it’s rumored that his first project will be persuading Phil Knight to outfit the OBF Chorus in high-performance green and yellow reflective robes, with stylized duck feathers on the shoulders. The university hopes to have a successor in place by the first of the year, just in time to tell the world about Matthew Halls’ first season as OBF’s new music director. And on a sadder note for Oregon Baroque music, ArtsWatch just learned of the death this summer of Jim Rich, artistic director of the Jefferson Baroque Orchestra and a force behind the early music revival that’s really taking off in Southern Oregon, Eugene, and beyond. JBO’s 20th anniversary season is dedicated to his memory.