by MATTHEW ANDREWS
This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.
The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.
Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.
This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).
The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).
In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”
ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Personal Big Bang: Origin Stories
Ewer: For me, it was growing up in a musical household. I never considered it a career option until I got to a musical high school in Houston and then suddenly it was really cool to be good at something. That was an intoxicating feeling, to be around a lot of creative people who enjoyed working hard and excelling at something. And that was a turning point for me.
Then Nixon in China’s world premiere happened in 1987 with Houston Grand Opera, and so I spent several months watching John Adams and Peter Sellers on a nightly basis and that involved theater and music and costumes and makeup artists, all that stuff. And it inspired me. I think we probably did 10 shows of that. By the time it was done, I was pretty hooked.
Blessinger: The first thing that turned me onto music was a recording my mom bought of Pinchas Zuckerman conducting the English Chamber Orchestra—it was Brandenburg 3 and I was like, “wow.” I listened to it for hours. Over and over again. I just couldn’t get enough of it. That is where it started for me, definitely.
My mom was a piano teacher so I had a lot of free ear training across the house. “What’s that note?” Ding! “What’s that note?” Ding! And my folks drove me hours for violin lessons to Pullman, Washington every Saturday; it’s a six-hour round trip.
We have a partnership with Bravo, the wonderful music program that Seth Truby started, and we’re rehearsing in the schools that Bravo works with and we’re having students embedded amongst us as we rehearse. That’s really awesome. It really colors and changes in a wonderful way how we rehearse, and going forward, that’s going to be a very strong partnership.
Parallel Expansion: the Evolution of 45th Parallel
Blessinger: The evolution started last year—the chamber orchestra gave a performance of Appalachian Spring and Pulcinella, and that was the spur to make us think “that was really cool, we’ve got a core group of players that are really fun to each other and play well to each other. And can we make a go of it as a serious chamber orchestra and can we do it without a conductor?” So we carry that idea of self-management and collective organization and really represent that vividly in a conductorless chamber orchestra.
So if we’re going to do that, then how would we organize a season? This is what we came up with. The idea is that each constituent group gets to do their own thing. It’s like the Gemini Twins, what do you want to do? Whatever you do is great. Mousai, whatever you want to do is great. Going forward for FOG, whatever Greg wants to do is great. The way it is set up is in terms of the universe. The universe can handle a lot of different planets and I can see us looking to expand it. When you think of the universe, you don’t think microcosmic, but I kind of like that. It’s gooey and primordial. It’s got an ooze. From the compost, tonight, we play for you stinky music from stinky waste.
Ewer: In the first ten years I’ve been interested in doing early music, new music, eclectic presentations that mash up classical music and non-classical styles, so in a way this is just an evolution of that core value. But getting bigger is not the goal. The goal would be to have musicians in the core that represent all of our different interests. A big passion of mine is early music, and at the moment there is not an early music presence in 45th Parallel—well, I guess besides me. That’s one place it could potentially grow in the future.
Blessinger: We want to conquer the world. Yes, at some the expansion will envelope everyone and just suffocate all the non-believers. 45th Parallel has always been about celebrating players of the Pacific Northwest. This just gives a bigger platform for players to create their own art.
Concert Concepts: Cells, Planets and Telling Stories
Blessinger: We’re all symphony players. We spend a lot of time daydreaming as symphony musicians. “If I was in charge, how would I do? What would I do with this piece? What would I do with this kids’ concert? How would I challenge the audience in a different way? What would it be like if I was out in the audience, or outside?” We have a lot of time to mull over and indulge our musical fantasies, and 45th Parallel is giving us all the opportunity to realize those daydreams.
Ewer: One of the most fascinating things I’ve tried out recently was a shipping crate—one of those big steel things. When we did a concert of period instruments we did echo pieces where we had people positioned throughout the church. Even before we began the concert, we had a brass quintet play from the back of the hall and it was a total surprise. It wasn’t in the program, so using the concert hall in non-traditional ways is also an option. Even if you’re in a venue that doesn’t scream experimentation, there is still a lot you can do with it.
Blessinger: The concert hall has a specific environment, a specific context. We have a lot of fun within the concert hall. We’re already looking, already talking about getting outside of the concert hall and literally using Portland as our stage.
I love how you can hear Chinese music in the Chinese garden and you just hear it differently. Your ears are dilated differently in different environments. There are a lot of great stories to tell connecting the style of architecture to the style of music.
God Bless the Old Church and the direction they’ve taken with it. I’ve been around long enough in Portland to remember when the Old Church wasn’t what it is now, and it’s really become an interesting venue. Our concerts at the Old Church are experimental in terms of presentation—the double concert nights, where we have two shows in one night with a happy half an hour in between. Those represent the opportunity for expansion of the universe. My view is that 60 minute concerts are a marketable commodity, something our audience likes. We’ll give them a chance to buy tickets to either show—7 or 8:30 or both at a discount—and we will see how it goes. Thus far, everyone who has bought tickets has bought tickets to both.
Blessinger: Morton Feldman would tell you that all music has a narrative. All music does. And honestly, as performers, we find ourselves thinking that a lot. Interpreting a piece is telling a story in that musical language. We are geared to do that. Absolute music, narrative music, music and dance, music and this, music and that, it all has a place. And that’s one of the great things about classical music. The best story we can tell is how incredibly diverse classical music is. It is definitely a core mission of ours.
Ewer: Programs that have narratives, in my experience, are always a little bit more fascinating to the audience [and] to the performers as well. That doesn’t mean it is not satisfying to take a big bite out of a Beethoven string quartet and chew on it for a month. That too. The piece can be part of a narrative. Even if the individual performers of a concert aren’t thinking about the big picture narrative during rehearsal periods, you get through a concert that has a compelling narrative and has a compelling way of bringing the pieces together or a compelling way of stringing the program along. That to me is more fun, and I’ve found in my experience that is a lot of fun to musicians and audiences.
Programming Process: Content by Consensus
Ewer: One of the most fun things for me from the first decade was experimenting with programming. Mashing things up, following some zany idea to its natural or perhaps unnatural fruition. When you have groups that are that small, each person will have ample opportunities to try out new ideas. Maybe pick bucket list pieces, but at the same time experiment with how they bring them to life, in a curatorial sense. So the small groups really have input from everybody. And when it comes to the chamber orchestra, we all sit down around a big table and throw around a lot of ideas and slowly arrive at a consensus.
Blessinger: It isn’t just us getting into a room like we are choosing a Pope. It is important to us that every voice is heard, and ideas are vetted, and everybody gets a chance to provide input. There is that old saying about a horse designed by a committee—we’re not creating camels. What we are doing is coming up with really exceptionally strong programs and sometimes that has some give-and-take between players, sometimes it represents compromise, or it may represent “hey, we really want you to come up with a program that you’ve always imagined a chamber orchestra could have, and what would that look like, and how can we support your vision?” We’re working through that process too.
Blessinger: What you’re seeing this year is an example of it. The Big Bang with a variety of things to support the story of the decade of Greg’s leadership, and then at the end of the year it’s all Richard Strauss, which is really a lot of German food. We also have within the group people that are traditionally minded, people that are progressively minded, so I think that’s a strength and the programming will represent that diversity of opinion. The process works well at rehearsals and collectively interpreting the music too. That’s an important thing to me, and thus far, rehearsals have been thrilling.
And going forward, we have a thing called FOG—Friends of Greg. Those are concerts that Greg had already been gestating with Jen [Arnold, Mousai ReMix violist] for the Black Composers concert. And then of course the concert that Greg and I will play in with our Pyxis Quartet, the commissioning project with Kenji and Texu and Nicholas and Bonnie, accompanying new poetry of Micah Fletcher. So, those are kind of FOG-ish, and then going forward we will have actual FOG concerts.
Evolutionary Tension: Cross-pollinating New and Old Music
Blessinger: I like working with the composers while they’re alive. I always imagine what it would have been like to work with Beethoven for example. I like living with working artists. My old boss— [former Oregon Symphony music director] Jimmy DePreist—used to say the symphony wanted to be a gallery and not a museum. For me, galleries are wonderful because you may like it, you may not, but you’re glad you went. And I think new music concerts always operate best that way. We’re not going to guarantee you will like everything you hear, but we promise you will be challenged and provoked and perhaps entertained and you’re going to have a reaction and that’s good. And for me, the bottom line is, classical music has to be a living art.
I have such admiration for creative artists who take a chance, and I like to be around chance takers. I like that. It keeps the music alive. It makes my classical music chops better. I mean the pieces that Greg and I have worked on over the years [in Third Angle] are really, really challenging; once you learn a John Zorn string quartet, or Lee Hyla’s Howl, then Bartok seems manageable. I know enough now to remember the times when people were really scratching their heads over Bartok, and the Bartok violin concerto now is an 8-year-old showcase for violinists that 30 years ago, 40 years ago, wasn’t.
Ewer: We embrace tradition and we challenge it. And that’s not really a marketing slogan: it comes naturally from the way we feel about this vocation of ours. I think classical musicians in general desire greatly to feel like we’re part of the larger society, and for quite a long time classical musicians have found themselves as a shrinking niche. There is something so incredibly fulfilling about spending an hour with the Bach Chaconne in the practice room, but we also love our community just as much and we desire to be a part of that. I think what you’re seeing is an expression of that duality.
Blessinger: You talk about embracing tradition—as fond as we are of new music, the fact is that all this music enriches our understanding and our chops on playing the other side. In Greg’s case, with ancient music or period instrument music, he brings a perspective to new music from there. My playing on contemporary music imbues my approach to classical music in a different way and it makes us all much more rounded musicians.
Ewer: I like the idea of specialization because it gives you an opportunity to go deeply into exploring something. Two years ago we did a concert of string quartets on period instruments, but one was a world premiere by composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch. He wrote us a piece for historical instruments. And I remember thinking just before the concert started, I never thought that I would be doing a concert on historical instruments with the composer in the audience. And that’s exactly what I found myself doing. It was certainly a first.
But for me, as much as I might like the idea of specialization—I’ll see a squirrel outside the window, or whatever. I love early music, I love working with living composers, I love folk music, I love bluegrass, I love improvising, and that’s what I always wanted to bring to 45th Parallel. Ron really gave me the opportunity to stretch my new music chops and I owe him a big bit of gratitude because of that. Working with Ron for the last 15 years—
Blessinger: It’s been that long?
Ewer: I think so! He has really given me an opportunity to delve deeply into new music that I might not have had otherwise and I’m grateful for that. In some ways we are kindred spirits because we love playing new music but Ron also has a lot of varied interests too. And I think that’s one of the nice things about 45th Parallel—it doesn’t require us to specialize. Within the Pyxis Quartet we certainly will, but 45th Parallel gives us a lot of flexibility to do whatever the hell we want. It’s not requiring anybody to specialize, but it gives everyone the opportunity to specialize.
Blessinger: This idea of tension between traditionalists and progressives has been around forever and we are just living through our version of it now. And I’ve always felt that both camps would be well served by doing a better job understanding each other.
The thing that ties it together—whether it is contemporary music or absolute music, populist music, communist music—the thing that ties it together is the humanity that is exemplified by Greg and the players that Greg has assembled and were drawn together. I had a predecessor at Third Angle who said that if it didn’t touch his heart, he wouldn’t program it. Ultimately, if it doesn’t touch us as humans, why do it? With great diversity also comes the connecting thread which is a sense of humanity and the way that it touches our hearts.
Ewer: Classical music tends to be a very territorial thing. You’ve got your early music crowd, you’ve got your new music crowd, you’ve got your indie classical crowd. We are all probably familiar with the territoriality of the business when people are really enthusiastic. But what this arrangement of 45th Parallel allows us to do is get away from that a little bit. And I think our community could use more of that.
Blessinger: One of the things we are excited about that we’ve already started talking about for future seasons is the ways we cross-pollinate musically. We are eager to see where confluences can happen. We are looking forward to the ways our fabulous colleagues in the wind quintet might be talking with one of the quartets about ways that those groups can commingle and create something cool. This year was really about establishing our identities in the universe as individual groups and next year we will see where it leads as far as cross-pollination. We will be eager collaborators within our universe. Makes for a better universe.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.