Oregon Symphony 2018: bridging divides

Orchestra’s 2018 concerts, past and future, appeal to broader audiences than the stereotype suggests

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I went and heard the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi perform live six times during the first half of this year, from January’s Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to May’s season-closing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That’s more than once a month. By comparison, I have seen my favorite living rock band—Santa Cruz ikons Secret Chiefs 3—seven times ever. This regular attendance at the concerts of a single performing group is one of the things that sets classical music apart from its eternal sibling rival, popular music. You’ve got to talk to Deadheads and Phish fans to find that level of devotion in the pop world.

Zoo-bound: Conductor Carlos Kalmar with the Oregon Symphony.

I’ve come to have a few favorite OSO players. Timpanist Jon Greeney is a damn superstar, always in tune, always in rhythm, never too loud (important) but never too soft either (even more important). The cello section is anchored by a dynamite principal and assistant principal duo: Fear No Music’s Nancy Ives and Pyxis Quartet’s Marilyn de Oliveira. The brass section never fails to delight, especially the trumpet-trombone-tuba contingent, playing proudly from their risers behind the basses. I’ve come to expect something amazing from that crew every time: by turns bold and morbid in their February performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, gorgeously operatic all through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in May (gotta keep up with that tenorhorn soloist!), and downright revelatory in January’s performance of the brass-heavy Rite of Spring.

3D Sound & Star Attractions

The Rite demonstrated another important aspect of the orchestral concert experience: that huge, 3-dimensional sound, vastly varied timbres emerging from all across the stage (in visually identifiable ways) as the band’s 100-odd instruments and occasional voices interweave their solos and duos and tuttis and come together for big polychoral reverberations around the concert hall’s acoustically ornate cathedral of sound. All that makes even a good home stereo system sound like a pair of crappy used earbuds from the Goodwill bins. In the Rite, the brass section’s heralds and hunting calls resounded across the orchestra, trumpets tossing their call over the strings towards the horn section, buried down behind the other winds, harrumphing out their primeval wails in response. Glorious!

And then there’s the guest stars, and I don’t just mean big name soloists like Joshua Bell (blissing out on Bernstein’s beautiful Symposium in May), Natasha Paremski (thunderingly catlike on Prokofiev’s weird, playful Piano Concerto No. 2—another one with some fantastic brassin February), and Elina Vähälä (whose heroic, melancholy performance of Bartok’s brasstastically  anti-fascist Violin Concerto No. 2 left me stirred and genuinely terrified in January).

Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony’s percussionists teamed up in a John Corigliano piece last spring.

In April, percussion whiz and artist in residence Colin Currie returned for an amusing and impressive take on a too-long Corigliano concerto. A parade of local choirs ran all through the season, from the various impeccable groups Portland State churns out with perplexing regularity (I could listen to them sing Daphnis and Chloe forever) to emergency shelter intake form’s Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics and Maybelle Community Singers.

There’s also the extra-musical collaborations, something the OSO has gone out of its way to cultivate the last several years, culminating in grand experiences like the superprofusion of Rose Bond’s Turangalila in 2016 and Matthew Haber’s less overwhelming but still exciting video projections for the Rite.

And, of course, there’s all the popular music.

Popularity Contest: Apollo and Dionysus in the Concert Hall

Florida Man and famed humorist Dave Barry defined classical music as “music that is not popular.” It’s hard to say he’s wrong, in the sense that raving fans don’t generally scream and holler when Kalmar gets off a plane—at least not the way they do for, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic. But Kalmar does get his cheers, as does the rest of his band, every time they play, every time they come on stage, sometimes several times in one concert.

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Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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An article in The New York Times from Sunday, Aug. 19 (sorry, I’m perpetually behind on my reading) examined two Oregon productions of Oklahoma!, the classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being allowed some 21st-century interpretive elbow room. Chris Coleman is about to christen his new tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company with his version, set amid an all-black town in the Oklahoma territory, of which there actually were a few. The approach was a hit — albeit a controversial one — for Coleman in 2011 at Portland Center Stage, producing an especially vibrant show that introduced local audiences to the marvelous Rodney Hicks, who starred as Curly (and later became Coleman’s husband).

What sparked the Times coverage, though — as the story’s “Ashland, Ore.” dateline suggests — is this season’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which director Bill Rauch has recast the show’s driving romantic relationships with same-sex couples: Curly and Laurey both women, Will Parker and the slightly renamed Ado Andy both men.

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social, in Bill Rauch’s unconventional Oklahoma! Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Writer Laura Collins-Hughes quotes Coleman about how “really, really picky” the Rodgers & Hammerstein representatives have tended to be about treatment of the shows, and suggests that both a lofty reputation in American theater and a longstanding relationship with Ted Chapin, who oversees rights to the catalog, where needed for Rauch to earn his leeway. Chapin, however, sounds more reasonable than rigid: “For anybody to think they have to be done in exactly the way they were originally done — I mean, that’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan thinking. And Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of dead.”

Well, maybe so. (Note: Not “Gilbert and Sullivan are dead,’ which is long-established fact about the persons, but “Gilbert and Sullivan is dead,’ which is opinion about the work.)

But here’s the thing: Apparently neither Chapin nor Collins-Hughes caught what Rauch did with The Pirates of Penzance.

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End of Summer: Absorbing Oregon in August

Matt Jay's August residency program brings Japanese artists to Oregon to work and connect

By BRIAN LIBBY

Yale Union’s End of Summer artist residency concluded on Sunday with open artist’s studios for the six Japanese artists who participated in the program in August. Throughout the massive old building’s three floors, each of the visiting artists seemed to stake out a different corner.

Filmmaker Shu Isaka made use of Yale Union’s cavernous basement, for example, where catwalks extend over a subterranean creek that peeks through the surface. In Isaka’s mockumentary, called “Sprout” and made during the residency, the unique circle-and-squares layout of the nearby Ladd’s Addition neighborhood and the primal geology of Mount St. Helens (which the artists visited earlier this month) combine to provide evidence of some cosmic plan—a disaster or revelation waiting to happen.

A still from Shu Osaka’s film, “Sprout,” made in Oregon during the End of Summer residency/Photo by Brian Libby

Isaka’s film felt like a way of coping with the fact that Oregon and Japan are united by their seismically active zones. The landscape in its beauty and violence always rules.

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MusicWatch Weekly: something in the water

It may be a short dry spell for Oregon music, but there’s liquid relief in sight from Bridgetown Orchestra, plus outdoor shows by Oregon Symphony, Hunter Noack and more

We Oregonians can’t wait to for summer, and then when it gets here, we kvetch — the heat! The smoke! The kids underfoot! Not enough concerts! Wait, that hasn’t been true for awhile. But school’s back, for some, the heat wave is broken, the smoke is starting to recede (digits intertwined), and both classical music and liquid refreshment is on the way!

‘On Being Water’ splashes down at The Vault Thursday through Saturday.

Not rain, mind you, but Bridgetown Orchestra’s On Being Water, which runs Friday and Saturday at the Vault Theater in Hillsboro. (Note: Thursday’s performance has been canceled due to a tech fail. Such is the price of making art on the bleeding edge.) It’s the latest multimedia project by composer/wannabe astronaut/theater artist and Bridgetown Artistic Director Tylor Neist, whom you remember from 2016’s ambitious The Overview Effect, which sent audiences on a musical/theatrical journey through inner and outer space.

Neist in ‘The Overview Effect.’

This time, Neist splashes down at Hillsboro’s new black box theater space, and takes advantage of its state of the art lighting and other tech. In exploring society’s mythic relationship to H2O,
On Being Water immerses the audience in imagery and his original music for live string quartet, which, according to his press release, “resonate[s] through 32 speakers dispersed over 4 floor-to-ceiling projection surfaces, creating a dynamic, 3-D sound spatialization [as] he manipulates the individual string lines on multiple axes in real time for total control, making possible all kinds of extraordinary ‘sound bath’ effects, such as sunrises and sunsets of music.”

As with Overview, Water features visual design by Benjamin Read, creative director at Redhaus Design. Stay tuned for Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.

Meanwhile, you can read his ArtsWatch review/preview of Friday’s Oregon Symphony reprise performance and recording of Gabriel Kahane’s Emergency Shelter Intake Form.

Part of the set for ‘On Being Water’

Speaking of the OSO, the next day, the orchestra moves the annual unofficial opening of Portland’s classical music season to the Oregon Zoo. Nevertheless, Oregon Symphony at the Zoo keeps the popular format, including Greatest Classical Hits by Richard Wagner, Bizet (Carmen) Gershwin (An American in Paris) and more, including the over-the-top finale, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — but with bass drums replacing the usual howitzers. No wants an elephant stampede. And no, Carnival of the Animals isn’t on the program.

The Oregon Symphony performs at the Oregon Zoo Saturday.

In a Landscape, Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s itinerant show that takes his classical and contemporary music performances to some of the Northwest’s most beautiful spaces, alights upon Lewis & Clark Timberlands above Cannon Beach Saturday, then Hillsboro’s Orenco Woods Nature Park Sunday, Stoller Family Estate Monday, and Smith Rock State Park next Wednesday.

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PAM’s temporary Turner

Art notes: A high-priced Turner is on short-term loan at the Portland Art Museum; Vancouver B.C. art at Leach; Carola Penn's 'Disruptions'

Hanging in a corner of the second-floor European galleries in the Belluschi Building of the Portland Art Museum is a painting that doesn’t usually live there – and not just any painting, but a masterpiece from J.M.W. Turner’s latter period, an 1835 work titled Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’. On short-term loan from an anonymous private collector, it arrived in mid-June and will be in Portland until mid-October.

J.M.W. Turner, “Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’,” 1835, oil on canvas, 48.4 x 36.6 inches.

The painting was included in an Old Masters auction at Sotheby’s London on July 5, 2017, where it was offered with an estimated sale price of $18.7 million-$31.2 million, and sold for $25 million. It had last sold in 1965 for $113,250. “Sotheby’s would have been hoping to get a bit more for the work, which was tipped to have the potential to break Turner’s auction record. But it’s still a good price for such a significant work,” Nicholas Forrest wrote for Blouin Artinfo on the day of the auction. Forrest continued: “One of the greatest works by J.M.W. Turner still held in private hands, Ehrenbreitstein is from a period that is widely considered Turner’s best. The painting depicts the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz, and according to Sotheby’s is the most important oil painting of a German subject that Turner ever painted.”

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Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit

Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, 'emergency shelter intake form' humanizes homelessness

Interview by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Since attending its premiere in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabriel Kahane’s latest pop-classical whatsit—not the album that came out last Friday, though we’ll get to that when he returns next year, but his emergency shelter intake form, which the Oregon Symphony performs for the fourth time this year at Friday’s live recording project. (Get your tickets now!) It was also performed last month at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival, which co-commissioned it with the OSO.

The oratorio, I’ve come to realize, is largely a story—told from several angles—about the experience and impact of becoming homeless, a story about how society frames (and thereby misunderstands) the homeless experience, and a story of how we as a society can understand and begin to heal the broken systems of inequality that cause America’s continuing housing and homelessness crises. It is also, incidentally, a very fine orchestral song cycle, in the BrittenBernstein tradition.

Gabriel Kahane performs in his ’emergency shelter intake form’ with the Oregon Symphony./Photo by Yi Yin

We cannot overstate the impact of the juxtaposition between the glorious Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, on Southwest Broadway where the Symphony performs, and the South Park Blocks behind it, often populated by people experiencing the sort of unsheltered homelessness which dominates our attention on the subjects Kahane’s song cycle addresses. Kahane was, of course, well aware of all this, and initially hesitated to take on the project — a co-commission from the Oregon Symphony, part of a series purporting to address pressing social issues — at all. Once he did, he worked at a Manhattan shelter for six months—SOP for Kahane, whose latest album emerged from a similarly immersive experience interviewing fellow Amtrak riders over the course of some two weeks on dining cars.

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