Weekend MusicWatch: The sound of place

Organist Juergen Essl, composer Jan Jirasek and conductor Yaacov Bergman
take their bows at Friday’s Portland Chamber Orchestra concert.

Composers have always used music to evoke nature and places. Vivaldi’s programmatic “Four Seasons,” Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence,” Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain” are just a few of many famous examples. Recording technology has lately made it possible to conjure up soundscapes, a term coined by Canadian composer Murray Shafer, whose concepts have been extended by the Vancouver based composer Hildegard Westerkamp, as she demonstrated in a memorable Portland concert last spring.

But no composer has been more successful at using sound and music not just to portray place in a sonic way, like a realist painter or photographer, but also to make listeners feel the emotion of being there than John Luther Adams. The Alaska-based composer used to get confused with that other West Coast John (Coolidge) Adams, but in the past decade, he’s won the prominence he’s long deserved for his atmospheric music, which often evokes nature. He’s sort of the Barry Lopez of contemporary music, and it’s no surprise that the two Northwest nature dwellers have collaborated in the past.

Having lived in Alaska for most of his life, Adams certainly qualifies as a Northwest composer, perhaps the greatest alive, and his music shares many of the qualities of other West Coast mavericks in whose tradition he walks, including early influence Harry Partch and his late mentors Portland-born Lou Harrison and Los Angeles composer James Tenney, while also drawing on the experimental sounds of quintessential New Yorker Morton Feldman.

Third Angle and guests perform Earth and the Great Weather.
Via Tom Emerson Photography.

On Friday, Third Angle New Music Ensemble kicked off its new season in the sympathetic space of Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, a supportive soundstage for Adams’s ten movement evocation of Arctic landscapes, “Earth and the Great Weather,” which incorporates recorded sounds of birds, rivers, thunder, an Eskimo narrator and translator, along with strings, singers (some of Oregon’s finest) and lots of percussion, ranging from ethereal to explosive.

Adams’s soundscape opens with recorded sound of wind and an almost chanted sequence of names, and high pitched vocalizations three superb singers from Portland’s Resonance Ensemble (again partnering with Third Angle after their productive pairing in last season’s “Rothko Chapel”), that blended into slow rising and falling string textures from a quartet (bass, cello, viola violin), who often created rising and falling glissando effects by running their hands up and down the necks of their instruments. The second movement used a percussion quartet unleashing rumbling drum sounds that could evoke anything from thunder to avalanches to hooves pounding the ground, and the 80+ minute piece continued in this fashion, alternating percussion quartet sections with layered instrumental/vocal/narrated movements that also included environmental sounds like birdcalls, flowing water, wind, thunder.

The narration, consisting of native Alaskan Inupiaq and Gwich’in names of various times, places and things: various incarnations of water like rivers and creeks; landforms from trails to mountains; times of events such as the time of whales migrating or caribou losing their antlers (maybe the single most beautiful movement); directions (“the other side of the river”) and more. In general the pace was languid, the way nature can seem when we’re experiencing its processes unfold in real time, with the interpolated, sometimes explosive percussion sections (and the exceptionally dramatic “the Circle of Winds” featuring low strings) adding pace and power.

From pop to classical

Though of course performance quality (in this case, generally pretty high) matters, it’s difficult to evaluate such a multifaceted creation solely by traditional musical standards such as rhythmic variety, harmonic development, or melodic inventiveness, tools that may or may not be useful in achieving Adams’s intended artistic result. “Earth and the Great Weather” isn’t striving to be a symphony or song cycle. It aspires instead to what the composer calls “sonic geography,” using music and non musical sounds (including recordings of actual sounds and narration, but also sounds produced by musical instruments that don’t follow conventional rules) to create an aural portrait of a place and time. If you accept that goal, then the question is how well this composition and performance achieved it. Even though my interest flagged in places, from too much repetition of similar, relatively simple techniques, and even though the narrated voices sometimes seemed a bit spell-breaking and literal, it succeeded in doing so more vividly than almost any piece of live music I can recall. I’ve never been to Alaska, but by the time the engrossing performance was over, I felt as though I had been transported to its austere beauties and immersed in its natural processes.

Regardless of its purely musical virtues, Third Angle’s “Earth and the Great Weather” — whatever you want to call it — was an unforgettable and evocative artistic experience that transcends category, perhaps an early step in a new kind of art, influenced by the work of the experimentalist and soundscape composers, that doesn’t yet have a name. As one of the last lines in the narration said, “Earth and the great weather have carried me away and moved my inward parts with joy.”

New season, new music

Adams is an inheritor of another great 20th century American composer’s aesthetic. George Crumb (who’s worked with Third Angle in the past) was conjuring sonic portraits of nature way back in the 1960s and ‘70s, and on Tuesday at southeast Portland’s Colonial Hills Presbyterian Church, the Portland ensemble Northwest New Music opens its season with one of his finest creations: 1971’s haunting “Voice of the Whale,” which uses masks, lighting, amplification and chamber ensemble (flute, cello, piano) to create a vivid aquatic soundscape. Along with a trio from 20 century German composer Boris Blacher, the group will also play other music influenced by Crumb from contemporary composers Ken Ueno and Ian Clark.

Portland Taiko performs Saturday and Sunday
at Portland’s Winningstad Theater.

Portland Taiko has long enhanced its music with dance, theater and other media, and the audience-friendly Asian percussion ensemble opens its season Saturday and Sunday at downtown Portland’s Winningstad Theater. The performance commendably features four world premieres of new works created by members of the ensemble.

Also Saturday at Portland’s Old Church, we’ll have a chance to hear how a pop musician, who went back to school to study music theory for a year, handles original music created for a “classical” ensemble. Alan Singley’s show is a benefit for the valuable Portland venue, which often hosts classical and contemporary music, and a brave first attempt to bust out of genre barriers by an ambitious musician with a lifetime love of classical music. You can read more about it here.

Third Angle’s concert was the most satisfying performance I saw last week, but not the only one to feature contemporary music. Portland Chamber Orchestra has earned a reputation as the most innovative of Oregon orchestras. Realizing that it will never be able to match the sheer resources and skill available to the Oregon Symphony, it wisely seeks new, open minded audiences who don’t necessarily need to hear the same old classics over and over again. Last weekend, PCO presented the world premiere of a new organ concerto by Czech composer Jan Jirasek, who wrote his “Dance with the Universe” for PCO’s guest soloist, the superb German organist Juergen Essl, and the piece used every bit of his virtuosity to summon a phantasmagorical atmosphere. The evocative opening section gave way to a spacy middle passage and accelerated to a frenetic finish. Jirasek’s bland orchestral writing couldn’t match the trippy solo part but I think some orchestras might find this Dance a useful addition to the repertory when they want a modern work to fill out an orchestra and organ program.
Essl was also superb in Haydn’s “Organ Concerto in F,” which alas is not a major work by that great composer. The concert closed with one of the greatest of all orchestral works, Mozart’s 41st and final symphony, and while the chamber orchestra sized forces brought a welcome transparency that often eludes larger orchestras than Mozart wrote it for, this performance’s plodding tempos and square rhythms kept it earthbound.

Back to Baroque

Oregon’s other major chamber orchestra, the Oregon Mozart Players, open their season and a new era led by their debuting music director, native Oregonian Kelly Kuo, with another of Mozart’s greatest symphonies, #38, whose opening movement takes the audience on an absolute thrill ride, and whose other two are pretty exciting as well. The Sunday afternoon program (which returns the orchestra to its original and acoustically much superior home, the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, after years in the deadening Soreng Theater) also includes Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” and one of the great works of the early 20th century, Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which manages to poignantly though never sentimentally celebrate French Baroque music and pay tribute to the composer’s friends killed in what was then naively called the Great War. It’s a beautifully odd combination of sweetness and sadness that’s rarely heard outside New Orleans style jazz funerals.
Immediately thereafter a few blocks away, Eugene’s First Methodist Church hosts Risonanti, a Baroque ensemble featuring period instrument specialists from Portland Baroque Orchestra and other historically informed early music veterans, all performing music by Telemann, Locatelli and lesser known 18th century masters. They’ll play the same program at Portland’s Reed College on Saturday night.

Still another of Mozart’s greatest hits — perhaps his greatest, and my own favorite — topped the bill at last week’s Oregon Symphony performances. Mozart’s proto-Romantic “Piano Concerto #20” rides the tension between classical order and the emerging drama of Romanticism; it was the Romantics’ favorite classical work. In its finest performances, the first movement takes listeners on a wild ride around a blind curve, where unknown danger lurks around every bend and the tires might even skid a few times. But affable pianist John Kimura Parker, one of the most engaging soloists in the biz and a frequent and successful guest performer with the OSO, kept jamming on the brakes, killing the momentum with mannered, sculpted phrases that pulled back instead of leaning into the turns. His Romanticized, smoothly caressing approach also undermined the tension of the slow second movement, whose solo part can be almost unbearably poignant when its conscious starkness is allowed to stand, unprettified. Parker was positively brilliant in quick tempos in the third movement but even here, a masterpiece that can at its best express the deepest of yearnings instead wound up merely pretty. It was a brilliant performance, as amiable as its soloist, but for me, not a moving one. (The Schnitzer Concert Hall’s stifling acoustics didn’t help, despite the small orchestra’s bold and expert playing.) Parker bade farewell with Mozart’s perennial Turkish rondo.

In one of his cadenzas, I thought I heard Parker cleverly quote the earworm theme that opened the first piece on the OSO program (after the obligatory national anthem), Hugo Alfven’s “Swedish Rhapsody.” Or maybe it’s just so catchy it seemed to pop up again and again. The older patrons around me seemed to gobble up the OSO’s scrupulously detailed scene painting, but I don’t think any orchestra could make this slice of Scandinavian cheese any less tedious for much of the post-Lawrence Welk set. On the other hand, younger audiences would have loved the second set opener, promising young California composer Andrew Norman’s brief new “Drip,” which unleashed a series of orchestral jokes and fun effects that had more life in it than Alfven’s ten times longer work, and sounded like it had something to do with the 21st century. Music director Carlos Kalmar gave the audience permission to chuckle — a wise move in today’s constipated classical music climate in which audiences are somehow made to fear actually expressing a genuine emotional response to the art happening onstage. If classical music organizations want to draw those desperately craved young audiences, they need to devote more than token minutes to accessible new music like Norman’s.
The orchestra closed with a smooth and, like the rest of the program, carefully played performance of Rachmaninoff’s last work, his colorful “Symphonic Dances,” which punctuate stretches of ennui with really exciting, sometimes ominous, sometimes exuberant moments of orchestral glory. Never has Hollywood’s debt to the composer, who spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles, sounded clearer. This concert revealed that the Oregon Symphony has picked up at the high quality performance level where it left off at the end of last season.

Erick Lichte

Finally, OAW congratulates Erick Lichte, a triple threat Portland choral leader who directs the Chancel Choir at First United Methodist Church, serves as associate Conductor of the Oregon Repertory Singers and conducts the Portland State University Man Choir and University Choir. He’s just been named artistic director designate of the acclaimed Vancouver, B.C.-based male choir, Chor Leoni, which he’s now serving as associate conductor, succeeding current AD Diane Loomer a year from now.
Lichte, who co-founded and led the great Minnesota male chorus Cantus to national renown from 2000-9 and won one of choral music’s top honors, the Margaret Hillis Award, has been a not so secret weapon for Ethan Sperry, helping the PSU and ORS director transform the choral programs there while studying for his graduate degree. He championed new music at Cantus and is also a composer, arranger, and contributing editor at Stereophile magazine. He’s been an important part of Portland’s recent choral revival, and we wish him good luck in Vancouver. Here’s an interview with Lichte and Loomer that aired on the CBC last week. Maybe we’ll be able to hear Chor Leoni in Oregon under his leadership soon.

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