Weekend MusicWatch: Quiet Revolutions

Liminal Group presents a tribute to Gertrude Stein. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

Sometimes revolutions begin not with a shot heard round the world but instead with a superficially soothing sound. Historians often trace the explosion of musical modernism to Igor Stravinsky’s ignition in 1913, Rite of Spring, but the fuse was lit a decade earlier in Debussy’s beguiling Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Stravinsky himself touched off the next wave, neoclassicism, with the relatively restrained Octet a decade after the Rite.

Of course, you can’t get much quieter than John Cage’s 1952 silent landmark 4’33’, which we’ve discussed here recently and which kicked off March Music  Moderne. (Admittedly, that opening night event also contained percussionist Florian Conzetti’s blazing reprise of Xenakis’s Psappha (which I reviewed when he first performed it in Northwest New Music’s January concert), one of the loudest unamplified pieces I’ve ever experienced. And as Adam Tendler showed at PSU last month, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes are also gently radical. The LA-born Cage himself was, at least after discovering Zen Buddhism, a notoriously affable, even genial figure.

The same can’t be said for his protege/colleague, the big, blustery New Yorker Morton Feldman, but much of the latter’s music, performed at Third Angle’s haunting concert last week at the Portland Art Museum, lulls you into a false sense of security, much like Mark Rothko’s magnificent ’50s and ‘60s paintings now gracing the museum’s main gallery.

Unlike the noisy eruptions of his Abstract Expressionist predecessor, Jackson Pollock, Rothko’s slabs of solid colors sometimes became a kind of tasteful wallpaper for people eager to show off their mod artsy inclinations without clashing with the sofa. Similarly, in Rothko Chapel, written in the wake of his painter friend’s suicide, Feldman’s hushed choral whispers, expertly exhaled by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, and somber viola lines (beautifully traced by 3A’s Brian Quincey) initially sound merely melancholy. But with both artists, the closer you listen and look, the darker and more intense the underlying emotions reveal themselves to be. The museum’s darkened, sold-out Kridel Ballroom, augmented with some subtle lighting effects, provided a suitably meditative environment for a quietly compelling  performance.

Many of the other works on Third Angle’s program shared Rothko Chapel’s deceptively gentle surface: Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Cage’s Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard, the excerpt from Feldman’s epic String Quartet #2 (whose full performance I reviewed earlier). Other works by Cage, Feldman and their fellow New York school colleague Christian Wolff were a little more obtuse, but no less interesting. Combining the music with related excerpts of a recorded radio conversation between Feldman and Cage added some nice historical context, always a good thing in concerts like this, although some of their chat wandered a bit from the matters at hand. In all, it was one of the most memorable concerts of the year and thoughtful, engaging component to the month’s Rothko revels.

The Parker Quartet performed at the Portland Art Museum

The Parker Quartet also won friends for modern music in last week’s Friends of Chamber Music residency and performances. At both Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall and the art museum (as part of FOCM’s wonderful outreach program, which brings the music out of the concert hall and into free performances in intimate spaces), they performed Henri Dutilleux’s  Thus the Night and several of Gyorgy Kurtag’s quietly concentrated Microludes with the kind of fierce commitment that draws in audiences even when the music seems unconventional or challenging.

They also played more immediately familiar movements by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Janacek. The audience seemed entirely engaged, even though, judging by the many questions they asked after the performance, many seemed new to chamber music. A different member of the group briefly introduced each piece before they played it, which also helped establish a connection between audience and artist. Learning that the cellist, for example, was a metal head also made them seem more approachable and, well, human. Kudos to FOCM for bringing musicians down from the stage and close to listeners — a practice more of our classical music institutions should emulate if they want to build new audiences for this great music.

The concert I saw was also first rate, with a good Mozart quartet performance, a gripping performance Debussy’s glorious String Quartet that leaned toward the earthy rather than the elegant but didn’t suffer from that stylistic choice.

Kronos, Old Masters of New Music

Friends of Chamber Music’s next concert featured the ensemble that more than any other has spread contemporary classical music to a wide variety of listeners. Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington was actually born in Portland, though he founded the group in Seattle and it shot to fame in San Francisco, where the members continue to reside. Over the past four decades, the group has evolved from playing jazz to 20th century classical music to African music to embracing all sorts of pop and world music sounds

“I’ve never wanted our music to be narrow or feel self-satisfied,” the ever-restless Harrington (who’s now, amazingly, a grandfather) told me in an interview last year. “I want it to be alive and curious. I’m inspired by those kinds of animals that can shed their outer skin and find a new look or new color, can become something else.”

Kronos Quartet at Reed College

Kronos’s performance last week at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium found the group midway between a recent infatuation with Middle Eastern sounds (prominent on their 2009 Floodplain CD) and a renewed interest in New York voices, including the latest big statement world’s greatest living composer, Steve Reich: his 10th anniversary commemoration of the horror that happened not far from his home, WTC 911. As in the recently released recording, I found Kronos’s performance of the work to be powerful and worthy of the events it chronicles, yet less compelling than earlier Reich works such as the similarly conceived Different Trains, which incorporated sampled voices, Kronos’s strings, and other sounds to create an evocative sonic tapestry.

Another new Reich work on that 2011 recording featured New York-based guitarist Bryce Dessner from the fine rock band The National and the avant pop Clogs, whose driving Ayehm (commissioned by Kronos to honor Reich’s 75th birthday) kicked of the concert with pleasingly pulsating profusion of rapidfire, interlocking phrases that had the group concentrating fiercely.

Dessner is one of a promising crop of excellent Brooklyn-based composers who’s also a graduate of Bang on a Can’s indie-classical workshop, and so is Missy Mazzoli, whose Harp and Altar affectingly used swooping vocal textures in a love song to their artistically booming borough.

Mazzoli’s friend and neighbor (and recent Portland visitor) Gabriel Kahane contributed a major new work commissioned by the fearless foursome, The Red Book, based on Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which also used minimalistic evolving phrases as a platform for wistful violin tunes, including a section that cleverly pitted the first violin in disjunct rhythms and harmonies against the other three instruments but that seemed to extend a bit longer than its substance justified. Kahane’s work continues to evolve from fairly traditional song forms; he’s a composer to watch. (Oregonians know his dad, Jeffrey, whose appearance with the Oregon symphony last month  was only the latest in a string of performances with the Oregon Bach Festival as pianist and conductor.)

Another piece that slightly overstayed its welcome was Montreal composer Nicole Lizee’s otherwise fun and satirical Death to Komische, which delighted the audience with its use of obsolete gadgets like the Stylophone and Omnichord (wielded by the Kronos players between sequences on their old fashioned instruments), plus some of the band’s customary lighting effects. The short Middle Eastern works happily continued the band’s recent exotic explorations, but the best news of the night came in Harrington’s announcement that the band was working on a full-length project with yet another great New York composer, Laurie Anderson. Their radiant performance of Flow, from her 2010 album Homeland, provided the most purely beautiful sounds of the snowy evening.

Tomorrow’s Sounds

Another string quartet concert last week gazed even farther into the future. Like the Kronos and Parker shows, Classical Revolution PDX’s string quartet competition was part of March Music Moderne, but unlike them, it featured music grown right here in Oregon. Ten local composers submitted their work to a panel of judges — a pundit (moi), a player (FearNoMusic leader and violinist Paloma Griffin), and a professor (Portland State University composition faculty member and composer Bonnie Miksch) — who selected works by Daniel Hansen, Brandon Woody, and Paul Safar for honors; Hansen’s winning work will receive a professional recording by CRPDX’s string quartet, who, along with the dtq quartet, learned five new works and devoted eight hours of rehearsal to them. I enjoyed all of them.

Now in its second year, the admirable project (like similar but better funded efforts by FNM and Third Angle coming up this spring) represents a great gift to Oregon’s music community from CRPDX, whose founder, Mattie Kaiser, followed through on her complaint that MMM was too devoted to dead 20th century composers by investing considerable time and effort to seeding new works. I hope our other music institutions will take note of these projects, and similar ones by Portland Vocal Consort, Cascadia Composers and others and will start adding local sounds to their imported fare. One reason Brooklyn has such a fertile music scene is that the area boasts many opportunities for rising young composers to have their music performed.

Cellist Diane Chaplin and composer Justin Ralls

Another one recently appeared here when young composer Justin Ralls returned from music school determined to help create such a scene in his hometown rather than following the path of so many others to NYC, Boston, LA and other new music capitals. Ralls’s Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project’s concert Sunday at Someday Lounge featured yet another recent arrival on the city’s new music scene, cellist Diane Chaplin, who’s seemingly been playing new music everywhere in town over the past few weeks, including a several MMM concerts, one featuring her own new group, Northwest New Music. On Ralls’s Cymatica2, she coaxed eerie sounds out of her cello, emerging from low electronic textures that together sounded like a graveyard gate creaking at midnight, or a great beast growling in the dark.

The concert also contained some group improvisations (with Ralls on percussion, Lisa Lipton on clarinet, Erin Winemiller on cello and other musicians on guitar, keyboard, fiddle, cello and percussion) that sounded surprisingly cohesive and wouldn’t have been out of place in an avant-jazz show. Like Winemiller, I had to miss the rest of the concert in order to participate in the Classical Revolution composer competition. There’s so much new music brewing in this town, and so many generous musicians willing to play it and eager listeners ready to hear it, that it’s become impossible to hear it all. That’s a good problem to have.

Still another MMM show featured Agnieszka Laska dancers in a powerful work in progress, Broken Flowers, at Zoomtopia Studios last week. We’ll save a review until the work is complete and performed next fall but already it’s shaping up to be a potent look at sex slavery in America, told in movement and music instead of words.

Composer/pianist Lisa Marsh’s brown bag recital at downtown Portland’s Old Church last week could also have been a MMM show, featuring as it did some wonderful 20th century music by Claude Debussy, Federico Mompou (an underrated Spanish composer whose glittering, Satie-esque works deserve to be heard more often), the great Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, and her own breezy Serenades  written for her daughters. Marsh, who teaches at PSU and Portland Community College, has contributed to Cascadia Composers shows and is one of many local composers whose music deserves wider exposure. So do these free noon recitals at the Old Church, which is one of Oregon’s most important new music venues.

Jazz Meets Classical

Next Tuesday, March 26, the Old Church is the site for one of MMM’s most intriguing shows, when Vancouver BC composer Hildegard Westercamp brings her soundscapes to Portland. Westercamp is internationally renowned for her use of environmental sounds and electroacoustic textures to create vivid worlds of sound. Her work in acoustic ecology is too little known in this country, so this concert is highly recommended. The Old Church also hosts sopranos Kimberly Giordano and Beth Madsen Bradford, along with pianist Janet Coleman, performing music by Gershwin, Sondheim, Samuel Barber, Henry Purcell and more this Sunday afternoon. The same day, just around the corner at Portland’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Parish, violinist Janet Packer and pianist Anthony Padilla play Debussy and Polish composer Krzyzstof Meyer’s 2010 Imaginary Variations. You have to choose between them.

And between Westercamp’s concert and an event featuring one of Portland’s own great composers, David Schiff, who Monday night reads from his new book, The Ellington Century, at Powell’s downtown bookstore. Schiff’s jazz influenced music has graced recent Third Angle concerts, and he’s also one of the best writers on music around, as his essays in The Nation and The Atlantic have long demonstrated. You can hear updated versions of Ellington’s immortal tunes next weekend at March Music Moderne’s concert of music by Austin’s Graham Reynolds, Classical Revolution, and Blue Cranes; we’ll tell you more about that next week.

Violinist Lindsay Deutsch, conductor Yaacov Bergman, and pianist DickHyman perform with Portland Chamber Orchestra this weekend

Another jazz authority, pianist Dick Hyman, is in Oregon this weekend to play with the state’s most innovative orchestra, Portland Chamber Orchestra. In concerts in Hillsboro’s Venetian Theater Friday, Portland’s Reed College Saturday, and Astoria’s Liberty Theater Sunday, the 85-year-old New York-based master will play originals for jazz trio and orchestra, including a new arrangement of Gershwin’s (the original jazz-classical dude) Rhapsody in Blue. Hyman, who’s responsible for many of Woody Allen’s evocative Manhattan-based movie scores, has long contributed mightily to Oregon’s musical culture as frequent performer and (now-emeritus) jazz adviser at Eugene’s Oregon Festival of American Music.

March Music Moderne continues this weekend with pianist Maria Choban’s recital with tenor Ken Beare, Moussai Ensemble members Janet Bebb and Ann van Bever, and more, in music by Philip Glass, Portland jazz pianist and composer Art Resnick, the dean of Portland composers, Tomas Svoboda, and more in a free concert at that other pillar of homegrown new music, southeast Portland’s Community Music Center.

There is some token old music happening in Portland this weekend. Portland Baroque Orchestra plays music by Telemann, Vivaldi and other 18th century giants featuring Baroque oboe, clarinet and chalumeau (the ancestor of the clarinet) played by two of the greatest exponents of those instruments, Gonzalo Ruiz and Eric Hoeprich, plus expatriate Portlander Lisa Klevit-Ziegler, who’s lived in Europe for decades, on Friday and Saturday at Portland’s First Baptist Church and Sunday at Reed’s Kaul Auditorium.

And on Friday through Sunday at the Winningstad Theater in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland Taiko looks to its Japanese heritage by combining its percussion battery with koto and shakuhachi, the venerable zither and flute played by local masters Mitsuko Dazai and Hans Araki, plus traditional Japanese dance with Portland’s Fujinami Kai ensemble.

Finally, maybe the most intriguing event of all of MMM happens Friday and Saturday night at Liminal Space in inner SE Portland, when Liminal Performance Group stages an “immersive performance installation” featuring works created and inspired by Gertrude Stein, including composer/critic Virgil Thomson’s 1927 “Capital, Capitals,” music by the excellent Portland composers Doug Theriault and John Berendzen and the great 20th century American composer James Tenney (part of John Cage and Feldman’s circle), readings of Stein’s poetry by Portland poet David Abel, dance by Camille Cettina, videos by Anna and Leo Daedalus and Stephen Miller, and other uncategorizable performances and installations by various Portland artists, including long-time Oregonian writer Margie Boule. Stein’s genius ranged so wide that it takes such a diverse show to even glimpse its scope. This is one of those experiences that allow you to wander in, out and around, so you can arrive any time between 7:30 and 11 pm and catch glimpses of these contemporary responses to Stein’s creativity, although “Capital, Capitals” happens only at 8 pm.

Given all the other irresistible concerts teeming in Portland this weekend, you might have to make this one the nightcap. The music, dance and other art in this show is striking and original, yet hardly in your face. Like the art of Stein, Cage, Feldman and so on, Portland’s avant arts often rely more on wry wit, humor, subtly suggestive sounds, good natured provocation, and restrained gestures than on noise, flash and bombast. In many ways, and not just arts, Portland’s a receptive place for quiet revolutions.

Video still from “Capital Capitals,” in Liminal presents Gertrude Stein. Image by Anna and Leo Daedalus.

One Response.

  1. Claire Sykes says:

    Though I certainly appreciate Gertrude Stein, I confess, I am not a big fan of her work. And this is why I went to the Liminal evening on Saturday. I wanted to see how my experience of her might change. I did not expect to be so transported.

    When I entered that warehouse, I immediately stepped into a whole other world where time became irrelevant and space asked us to give ourselves over to Stein’s surreal architecture of sound and sensation through the confusion of doorways and velvet curtains into rooms and their visual, verbal and aural contents, against a backdrop of the quiet buzz of conversation and David Abel’s soothing, roving voice. It was the stuff of dream and reverie, and that’s exactly where I surrendered myself, especially during composer John Berendzen and choreographer Camille Cetina’s piece, to me the highlight of the night.

    Hypnotic and mesmerizing, it captured Stein beautifully, embodied in the dance’s reiteration of movement and variation of costuming, and carried by the repetitive midieval-like tonalities with their chanted unisons and fifths that sometimes bunched up into knotted, abstract chordals, all drawing out the natural musicality and meaning of Stein’s words while creating something that went way beyond the original source from which she drew. I took it in, sometimes sitting there with eyes closed and mind wandering, or wandering a mind that ceased to be aware of itself, as it drew me into some other consciousness, not a dream state, not a half-sleep, but some other dimension that didn’t require any room or measurement of a clock to exist. Who knows how long this went on? When David’s words coaxed me back up to the surface and the room slowly emptied out, audience voices in a murmur, I could barely speak.

    Stein, this brilliant artist of words, left me speechless, much like the Zen meditation that John practices does for him. And I understood how he, and I, could sustain such a piece for as long as it lasted (about an hour and a half, I was told later). That night, he took me inside with him. That’s what he did. I traversed that concentration and contemplation of the pulse of the breath in the trance of the word—and found myself someplace else entirely.

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