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2023 in Review: What we heard this year

A longitudinal study of everything we loved (and a few things we didn’t) in Oregon music this year, and last year, world without end, amen.

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Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier, Brussels, 'Expo 58.
Philips Pavilion by Le Corbusier, Brussels, ‘Expo 58.

Tell someone you write about music and at least half the time they’ll trot out that old line, “hahaha that’s like dancing about architecture.” This joke was, as everyone knows, concocted jointly by Martin Mull, Frank Zappa, and Elvis Costello during a camping trip in Yosemite National Park–the same trip when the trio sang their famous round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and Mull had to put on his hover boots and rescue Zappa from falling while attempting to free climb El Capitan. Later they all went and found God, pursued by Klingons, barely escaping with their lives. The eighties were a strange time, dear reader.

Anyways, the present author’s favorite riposte to this wee jape is to insist that “we don’t write about music, we write about musicians.” Looking back over the year in music–a year which was strangely stable, for all its usual crop of weirdness–we notice a definite trend to follow certain musicians and musical organizations across their various endeavors. This is apparent from the first story of the year (Charles Rose’s Resolving from overexposure to relaxation) to the last (Tom Manoff’s Out of Focus: The Oregon Bach Festival wanders far from its original inspiration, with no clear destination in sight).


2023: A Year In Review


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We like writing about Resonance Ensemble and Cappella Romana, Portland Opera and Renegade Opera, Fear No Music and Third Angle New Music, Portland Baroque Orchestra and Portland Chamber Orchestra, Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic, PDX Jazz Festival and Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, Pickathon and New Music Gathering, OBF and YOB, Nadine Records and Roselit Bone, Cascadia Composers and the Oregon School of Composition. We like it all, and we like writing about it all, and we especially like meeting musicians again and again and telling their stories over time.

We are thus deliberately engaged in a particular method of research, the longitudinal study. This long-term approach to arts journalism is baked into the mission of our organization as a whole, and it’s even in the name: Oregon ArtsWatch is devoted to music made in Oregon, by and for Oregonians, with that specific Oregon flavor that is hard to define but impossible to ignore. It’s not old in the same way the cultures of New York City or Florence or Mumbai are old. But, from the Oregon Trail to the Oregon Bach Festival to the impossible pluralities of the present, Oregon music has always had a special something-or-other, a spirit of the place, a shaggy grey-and-green thing hybridized from equal parts college professor, gold prospector, exiled revolutionary, secret weed farmer, and Sasquatch. The best way to know what Oregon music (or art, or theater, or, yes, architecture) is really like is to take in a lot of it.

We’ve taken in a lot of Oregon music this year, and while we generally don’t like making generalizations, there’s one thing we feel good saying about 2023. Despite all the ongoing pandemic drama, and the leadership transitions, and the rescheduled concerts, and the venue closures, and All That Jazz–despite all that–what seemed to define this year was a sense of normalcy. Not a return to normalcy, exactly, but not quite a new normal, either. No “great reset” here. Instead, we heard what we’ve always heard from Oregon musicians: a love of music, and spontaneity, and resilience, and that special blend of convention and novelty which is the central ingredient in making any tradition a living tradition.

So, taking these little worlds one at a time, here is what we at Oregon ArtsWatch heard this year.

Nothing to fear

Let’s begin with Fear No Music, about whom we published our first feature of the year: James Bash’s review of their eighth Locally Sourced Sounds concert. This one says a lot about why we ran more stories about FNM than any other group this year (not counting Chamber Music Northwest, and you can revisit That Whole Thing right here). The sweet thing about FNM is that they combine locavore vibes with a broader historical gaze focused on that “modern” sound–you know the one, you surely know it when you hear it, it’s that modernist-plus-contemporary-plus-classics thing, early 20th-century and late 20th-century and early 21st-century plus a smattering of precursor stuff; the same sort of sound you also tend to hear from Third Angle New Music and 45th Parallel Universe and Delgani String Quartet.

FNM’s Locally Sourced Sounds Series is the beating heart of that sweet spot, the anahata of Oregon chamber music, a whole concert of composers with roots in the Pacific Northwest, many of them alumni of FNM’s Young Composers Project (read more about YCP in Brett Campbell’s most recent profile right here). FNM’s Legacies concert this past March put one of their YCP alums, Ian Guthrie, center stage and surrounded by Angelica Negrón and (gasp) Beethoven. You can read about that one in Mr. Bash’s review right here.

The importance of all this can’t be overstated: They train young composers, give them workshops and performance opportunities, then later bring them back from wherever they’ve run off to and put their music on concerts alongside other Oregon composers. Literally nobody else in Oregon does that. Tell me I’m wrong.

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

There’s another of these FNM:LSS concerts coming right up, number 9 (number 9, number 9)–that’s at The Old Church on January 22, and you’ll hear more about it in a couple of weeks.

FNM is also great at contextualizing (and educating) composers and audiences with works from the broader modern tradition, sometimes going as far back as Shostakovich and Schnittke. This year, their De-Mystifying New Music series featured a rather wide variety of music by composers in various contemporary traditions, electro-acoustic and aleatoric and whatever you call that whole late-/post-Soviet thing that’s more or less centered on the difficult and strangely beautiful music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Incidentally (though surely not coincidentally) the majority of these composers have been women: Gubaidulina herself, Galina Grigorjeva, Galina Ustvolskaya, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Annie Gosfield, Eve Beglarian, Kaija Saariaho, Hannah Ishizaki, Adina Izarra, Kamala Sankaram. You can read about these concerts in reviews by James and by Lorin Wilkerson here and here.

And way back in February, FNM hosted an entirely different kind of concert, starring comedian-violist Isabel Hagen. FNM’s artistic director Kenji Bunch, who joined Hagen for a few pieces, is well-known both as a tremendous violist-composer and for his deeply wacky superdad sense of humor. This one was rescheduled from the preceding November, and on some level it felt like that “not exactly a return to normalcy” we mentioned earlier. You can read all about that concert in Angela Allen’s review right here.

Kenji Bunch as "Mr. Serious."
Kenji Bunch as “Mr. Serious.”

Life as we new it

There are several other modern-ish composer-centric groups around Oregon, and we keep tabs on them, too. Our favorites are probably Cascadia Composers, which produces about a dozen concerts every year, and the Makrokosmos Project, which produces one.

Oh man, but that one, though! It’s hilarious how these two New York pianists come to Oregon every July to hike and produce a one-day mini-festival that almost always features music by–dun dun dun–Oregon composers! Sure, there’s always a few Big Names From Elsewhere: Meredith Monk (New York), Tōru Takemitsu (Tokyo), the inevitable George Crumb (Pennsylvania). But they usually have at least a few locals, sometimes several, and this year’s Ghosts of Cascadia was the best yet, with music by Bunch (him again), Kirsten Volness, Bonnie Miksch, Michael Johanson, and the Godfather of the Oregon School of Composition himself, Tomáš Svoboda. You can read all about it in Charles Rose’s report right here.

As for Cascadia, we have to confess that we haven’t covered their comings-and-goings as much as we would have liked to, but we’re very pleased with the ones we did hit. In June, Cascadia did one of those themed concert programs, their bread-and-butter, in this case a celebration of the much-loved Hungarian modernist György Ligeti alongside new music he inspired in Cascadia members. You can read all about it in James’ report right here, and you can watch the whole thing (and plenty more besides) on Cascadia’s terrific YouTube channel:

Later in the summer, we received the heartbreaking news that Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein had passed away. The ever-intrepid Mr. Campbell, who has been following the Cascadians since their inception, spent over a month gathering up tributes from Bernstein’s colleagues, peers, friends, and former students, and the result was one of the finest tributes this editor has ever had the somber pleasure of editing. You can read the whole thing right here.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

In October one of Cascadia’s weird rogue members, the radical pianist-composer Jennifer Wright, produced another of her gonzo gatherings. Wright is all over the place, in the best possible way, a very Oregonian sort of way, an overflowing imagination that’s always dreaming up some new and wild thingamajig. Sometimes it’s a tower of toy pianos, sometimes it’s a drag show, sometimes it’s a light-show with harpsichord and illuminated costuming, sometimes it’s a skeleton piano, sometimes it’s kids building instruments out of trash. You really never know what you’re going to get. This year it was an environmentally conscious arts and culture festival, and you can read all about it in Charles’ report right here.

Jennifer Wright and her "deconstructed piano" at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.
Jennifer Wright and her “deconstructed piano” at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.

There’s a lot more new and newish music we could talk about here, things we wrote about and things we didn’t (sorry 45||, we’ll get you next year).

There’s Third Angle New Music doing 1000 Airplanes on the Roof under the Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, or hosting author/violinist Ling Ling Huang and moxie mezzo Hannah Penn and Branic Howard and Methods Body and Yawa. Or New Music Gathering 2023, featuring Caroline Shaw and Bora Yoon and Lisa Neher and what seemed like an even thousand “experimental” musicians (read two totally different takes on NMG here and here).

Neher and her trio Evergreen & Oak performed in wine country this October (read Lorin’s report here), and this summer’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival also had its usual share of new music (read Angela’s interview with this year’s featured composer, Kareem Roustom, right here; read her report on the festival here; and read James’ take on the festival’s final weekend here). And at Leach Botanical Gardens in July, another of those Oregon School composers: read about Deena T. Grossman’s music for flutes in Charles’ report here. Also in July, Emily Lau and Big Mouth Society said “farewell” to “Covid”–read about their Common Opus here. One of the flutists on that Grossman garden party, Amelia Lukas, spent her April performing a Ukraine-themed concert called Natural Homeland: Honoring Ukraine, which we wrote about twice (here and here). We talked to Lukas again in August, when she was preparing a program of new music for Siletz Bay Music Festival.

And then there’s the other sort of “new” music, the pop kind that doesn’t bother calling itself “new” because of course it’s “new,” silly. Max Tapogna’s full-throated report on Pickathon 2023 covers this territory amply. Two of the stories I was personally most proud of this year were interviews with Nadine Records founder Mandy Morgan and Roselit Bone singer-songwriter-guitarist-bandleader Charlotte McCaslin.

Struck by sound

Another of the stories I’m super proud of lands us back in “classical” land: in October I had the privilege of speaking once again with composer Andy Akiho (read that here). We lured Akiho here from New York a few years back, using CMNW as bait, and he represents the most recent addition to the Oregon School. This time around we discussed his tremendous new composition for orchestra and sculptures–titled, naturally, Sculptures. Your Oregon Symphony performed the West Coast premiere in November, and you can read James’ report on that right here.

Akiho also had a hand in inaugurating Oregon’s latest mobile venue, a sort of food truck of new music that got rolling this summer. You can read about the first appearance of Jon and Yoko Greeney’s SoundsTruck NW in James’ report right here. It seemed like they were all over the place this year: at CMNW (Kenari Quartet), at NMG (Akiho), at the Portland Japanese Gardens (Akiho again), up on Mt. Tabor (Joe Kye and Denzel Mendoza), at Lewis & Clark College (Palatine Piano Trio playing Svoboda). We half expect to look out the door and see them outside right now, setting out to slay with their rain gear on.

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Jon Greeney, Andy Akiho, and Sergio Carreno performed at the SoundsTruck NW launch party in Portland. Photo by Sam Slater.
Jon Greeney, Andy Akiho, and Sergio Carreno performed at the SoundsTruck NW launch party in Portland. Photo by Sam Slater.

Opera means work

There sure is a lot of opera happening in Oregon! We covered a ton of it this year and still missed plenty. One highlight was Portland Opera’s spring production of Kamala Sankaram’s harrowing Thumbprint, which merited three ArtsWatch features: Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage & Studio episode featuring PO artistic director Priti Gandhi (who left PO at the end of the season); Brett’s detailed preview, outlining the opera’s background; and Angela’s gripping review of the production itself.

One new opera was so new that only one scene from it has been performed live: read about Opera Theater Oregon’s Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story at Hampton Opera Center in James’ report right here. Another “new” opera came all the way from New York: Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, staged this summer by OrpheusPDX. Read about that one here and here. Another new opera got its staged premiere just this month, courtesy of Portland State University’s terrific opera program. Read all about their production of Evan Maier and E.M. Lewis’ Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant in Angela’s review right here.

One local opera company makes a point of queering the distinction between old and new: Renegade Opera. They made the most of a glorious May with their Bird Songs of Opera show at Leach Botanical Gardens; Lorin and photographer Kristin Sterling captured that nicely right here.

Left to right: Madeline Ross, Erica Jaturaporn, Abigail Krawson, Maeve Stier, Mahsheed Massarat, Joannah Ball, and Nick Toto in Renegade Opera's "Bird Songs of Opera" at Leach Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristin Sterling.
Left to right: Madeline Ross, Erica Jaturaporn, Abigail Krawson, Maeve Stier, Mahsheed Massarat, Joannah Ball, and Nick Toto in Renegade Opera’s “Bird Songs of Opera” at Leach Botanical Garden. Photo by Kristin Sterling.

They followed that up with three very different shows. You can learn all about September’s production of the apocalyptic Adam’s Run in Jenna Yokoyama’s Stage & Studio episode featuring Renegade co-founder Danielle Jagelski and in Lorin’s review of the performance itself. And you can read about November’s double feature–American Patriots and She Loves You Back–in Charles’ review right here.

Ah, but all this new opera aside, it really wouldn’t be an opera season without Mozart, would it? Read about Aquilon Festival’s Don Giovanni here and here; read about OrpheusPDX’s The Royal Shephard here; and read about PO’s surprisingly fresh Marriage of Figaro right here.

Jesús Vincente Murillo as Figaro and Leela Subramaniam as Susanna in Portland Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro." Photo by Philip Newton.
Jesús Vincente Murillo as Figaro and Leela Subramaniam as Susanna in Portland Opera’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Photo by Philip Newton.

Sing choirs of angels

Three different sopranos caught ArtsWatch writers’ ears this year (four if you count Penn and that saucy 3A concert). In May, James caught up with Arwen Myers to discuss Ēriks Ešenvalds and “Bach, Bach, Bach!” In June, Angela spoke with Karen Vuong about two very different operas, Huang Ruo’s Bound and Dvořák’s Rusalka. Also in June, Alice Hardesty spoke with Fleur Barron about her performances on various CMNW concerts.

Speaking of “Bach, Bach, Bach”–the first and best of the Great Men of Music appeared in several of our stories this year, most of them by choral columnist Daryl Browne (plus Angela’s review of Alisa Weilerstein performing the six cello suites). The year started with one such feature, Daryl’s examination of the B Minor Mass, and ended with another (Tom Manoff’s assessment of OBF, mentioned earlier). In between, Old Sebastian’s Ghost haunted three more OBF stories, two by Daryl (“Germany’s Got Talent, Leipzig 1723 Edition” and her excellent history of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy) and one by Gary Ferrington (his profile of the return of the OBF Composers Symposium). And the Other Baroque Guy, Handel, made Portland Baroque and Cappella Romana audiences very happy this year with their performance of the complete Messiah, which you can read about in Angela’s review (with photos by Joe Cantrell) right here.

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Rushing Bach to the future (sorrynotsorry), choirs in Oregon sang a ton of new music this year. In May, In Mulieribus performed music by Roustom and the premiere of a new work by Jessica Meyer, Because I will not despair (read all about that concert here). In June, the always amazing Resonance Ensemble performed Sarah Kirkland Snider’s haunting Mass for the Endangered at an indoor arts & culture festival that also featured storyteller Ed Edmo and the Oregon School’s favorite singing cellist, Nancy Ives. Read about that one here. And the big event for Resonance this year–every concert they produce is a big event, true, but this one was especially special–was the October release concert of their long-awaited first album, LISTEN. You can order the CD itself here, and read Daryl’s review of the concert here.

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

Your Oregon symphonies

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra casts a massive shadow, and rightly so–they’re an excellent orchestra known for commissioning works by Gabriel Kahane and Andy Akiho and Vijay Iyer; they hire excellent conductors like Deanna Tham and David Danzmayr and even Leonard Slatkin; they sound great all the time while carrying the massive and generally thankless task of supporting musicians from nearly every other classical music organization in town. These guys are Nancy Ives’ day job. So, yeah, sure, we like to write about them.

But it’s the other Oregon orchestras who interest us more. In January, the Newport Symphony Orchestra premiered Sara Graef’s Yakona, commissioned by NSO in honor of the Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center. In September, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra performed with pianist Sarah Buechner Davis, and next month they’ve got a concert planned with superstar singer Jimmie Herrod. PCSO is aaaaalways doing something interesting, and they don’t get enough love.

In August, at the Siletz Bay Music Festival, the Rogue Valley Symphony performed a piece they commissioned in 2018 from the powerhouse duo of composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaRovere (these two have been holding down the southern end of the Oregon School of Composition for years). ArtsWatch’s coast correspondent Lori Tobias wrote about the piece’s history and its performance this summer, and you can read that here.

Following the 2018 performance of “How Can You Own the Sky?” in Grants Pass, tribal elder Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim (center, in white dress) asked to be taken onstage, where she blessed the audience. She was joined by (from left) composer Ethan Gans-Morse, lyricist Tiziana DellaRovere, Native drummer and singer Brent Florendo, and conductor Martin Majkut of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Photo courtesy: Ethan Gans-Morse
Following the 2018 performance of “How Can You Own the Sky?” in Grants Pass, tribal elder Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim (center, in white dress) asked to be taken onstage, where she blessed the audience. She was joined by (from left) composer Ethan Gans-Morse, lyricist Tiziana DellaRovere, Native drummer and singer Brent Florendo, and conductor Martin Majkut of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Photo courtesy: Ethan Gans-Morse

Another of our favorite orchestras, the Portland Chamber Orchestra, received a massive blow this year when its guiding light–conductor Yaacov Bergman–passed away in September. ArtsWatch writers and readers all loved “Yaki”–his work over the years with PCO (and with the Siletz Bay Music Festival, and plenty more) was always fresh, original, heartfelt, awe-inspiring. Reading Angela’s deeply felt remembrance was another of those moments that takes an editor’s breath away.

This February, Bergman brought together singer Naomi LaViolette and OHSU neuroscientist Larry Sherman for a Valentine’s Day concert about–no kidding–the neuroscience of music and love, and you can read about that in Angela’s review right here. As for what’s next for PCO: Read about their November concert with bassist Maggie Carter and Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director Raúl Gómez-Rojas in Angela’s review here, and get your tickets to their New Years In Old Vienna concert at The Reser right here.

Portland Chamber Orchestra and Yaacov Bergman performing 'My Words Are My Sword' in 2022. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Portland Chamber Orchestra and Yaacov Bergman performing ‘My Words Are My Sword’ in 2022. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Edumacation

Carter appeared in another ArtsWatch story earlier this year, when she performed Frank Proto’s Carmen Fantasy with Portland Youth Philharmonic (James has the report right here). It’s a startling and utterly characteristic feature of Portland’s musical ecosystem that it supports two very different and totally complementary youth orchestras. You can get a sense of their overlapping missions with a series of profiles and concert reports James wrote for ArtsWatch this fall:

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Four other education stories stood out this year (five, really, counting Daryl’s Stangeland piece). In March, Daryl celebrated Music In Our Schools Month with an overview of Oregon’s various choral education programs, from Portland Symphonic Girlchoir to Bravo Youth Orchestra Choir and beyond. In November, James caught up with the youth studios of My Voice Music, fifteen years after their founding and two years after the untimely passing of their founder, Ian Mouser. And two from Mr. Campbell: in August, PHAME Academy’s audacious recreation of the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense, and this month’s profile of Salem violist Caitlyn Lynch and her Project Chamber Music: Willamette Valley.

Founder and artistic director Caitlin Lynch (center) with members of the Project Chamber Music: Willamette Valley. Photo courtesy of the Project Chamber Music: Willamette Valley.
Founder and artistic director Caitlin Lynch (center) with members of the Project Chamber Music: Willamette Valley. Photo courtesy of the Project Chamber Music: Willamette Valley.

And auld lang jazz

We leave you with a survey of Jazz in 2023. You can read about this year’s genre-diverse PDX Jazz Fest in Brett’s preview and Angela’s review. Next year’s festival is coming right up, and you’ll hear more about it from us soon enough.

Brett and Angela were all over the jazz scene this year, “trading fours” as usual. Check out Brett’s feature on the big fall jazz shindig, Montavilla Jazz Festival, and their education program (led by saxophonist, composer, and Quadraphonnes bandleader Mary-Sue Tobin). Angela wrote about plenty of specific jazz concerts (Emilie-Claire Barlow, Billy Childs, Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz) and one spectacular new album (Dan Balmer’s When the Night), but it was her profile of the fractious closure of the 1905 that really caught everybody’s attention this year. This piece inspired me so much I had to follow it up with a jazz-themed feature of my own.

And with that, O Dearest Readership, we bid you adieu, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night, and a Happy New Year!

Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, and Virginia Dale in "Holiday Inn" (1942).
Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, and Virginia Dale in “Holiday Inn” (1942).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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