Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

A sense of place: Terror and terroir, rivers and valleys

CMNW’s New@Night series closed with location-inspired music by Eleanor Alberga, Vijay Iyer, David Schiff, and Dana Wilson.

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Soovin Kim, Francesco Lecce-Chong, and nonet performed David Schiff's "Vineyard Rhythms" at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Soovin Kim, Francesco Lecce-Chong, and nonet performed David Schiff’s “Vineyard Rhythms” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The fantastic New@Night series at the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival wrapped up a few weeks ago, along with the rest of the festival. The fifth and final of these new music concerts, fittingly titled “Terroir,” focused on music inspired by particular places within Oregon, the US, and Europe.

There were some stellar performances at this concert, not in the least the opener: Eleanor Alberga’s No-Man’s-Land Lullaby, performed by Protege Project violinist Anna Lee and pianist Yoko Greeney. The Lullaby evokes the imagery of the First World War’s destruction of the European landscape. It reminds me a bit of the Zone Rouge arcing near the French and Belgian border from Ypres to Verdun, where the land remains undeveloped due to unexploded bombs and such. These open textures become a big part of Lullaby’s soundscape.

Anna Lee and Yoko Greeney at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Anna Lee and Yoko Greeney performed Eleanor Alberga’s “No-Man’s-Land Lullaby” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

There were some difficult octaves in the violin part, which Lee played with such grace. There was a clear arc to be heard in the somewhat tonal language drifting freely between key centers. I decided to mostly close my eyes and listen rather than take notes during the performance like I usually do, which helped me become more absorbed into the music.

Up next we got to hear Vijay Iyer’s Song for Flint, dedicated to those who live in what used to be a nexus of the American auto industry. In the decades since the industry’s peak in the 1950s and ‘60s, Flint was hit hard by de-industrialization and an exodus of wealth and workers, exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis and various labor-unfriendly trade policies. Most recently they got hit by a massive problem with corroded lead pipes contaminating their water supply, which has improved but has still left a tragic impact. This became the inspiration for Iyer’s Song for Flint, portraying the city as one site of many issues with America such as gentrification, wealth inequality and racism. 

I’ve known Iyer’s work for quite a while, mostly his solo piano and trio music. He has a circuitous career path: he is mostly self-taught, and pursued degrees in mathematics and physics before switching over to music. He’s the kind of musician who will do a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” in 13/8 (phrased amazingly as 5+5+3, which grooves surprisingly well). 

In Song for Flint, violist Jessica Bodner handled the difficult and sometimes tortuous piece with grace and emotional heft. The piece abounds with unstable harmonies and the sounds of industrialization via mechanical repetitions. Long col legno notes evoked labored breathing. The opening has a veiled, obscured feeling, and I heard bits of Iyer’s pianistic style coming through, especially in the 7/8 sections. The center was much more restrained, firmly in C minor. 

Jessica Bodner performed Vijay Iyer's "Song for Flint" at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Jessica Bodner performed Vijay Iyer’s “Song for Flint” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

For Dana Wilson’s Hungarian Folksongs,Porondos Viz Martján,” cellist Deborah Pae had us sing a drone on A and E for the third statement. It’s a simple way to add a little bit of audience participation, and it was quite fun. The place being conjured here is the mighty Danube river which flows through Budapest among other central European capitals. It was nice to get a relatively short and uncomplicated piece as a palette cleanser between the immense, powerful pieces before it and the commission by Schiff to come.

A sense of place

Places have been one of the oldest and most effective sources of inspiration for musicians. Writers of course evoke this sense of place too, from environmentalist Aldo Leopold to urbanist Iain Sinclair. Anyone who’s spent time out in the wine country of the Tualatin Valley will get a sense of the expansiveness, the orange sunsets and endless fields in David Schiff’s Chamber Concerto “Vineyard Rhythms.”

Soovin Kim, Francesco Lecce-Chong, and nonet performed David Schiff's "Vineyard Rhythms" at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Soovin Kim, Francesco Lecce-Chong, and nonet performed David Schiff’s “Vineyard Rhythms” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

What I was most excited for on this final New@Night was this (partial) premiere of new work by Schiff, the retired Reed professor, writer, and composer (and a former private teacher of mine). “Vineyard Rhythms” is dedicated to the late mother of Susan Sokol of the Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee (read Angela Allen’s recent Schiff profile here).

Schiff’s ode to the late Sokol was full of utterly gorgeous harmonies, aided by the fantastic balance of the string nonet–unlike Copland’s nonet, this one was doubled string quartet plus double bass, conducted by Francesco Lecce-Chong, with CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim on solo violin. The music did remind me a lot of Copland, though more expansive than austere or rustic. The third movement was dissonant and driving, almost jig-like. 

Soovin Kim performed David Schiff's "Vineyard Rhythms" at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Soovin Kim performed David Schiff’s “Vineyard Rhythms” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Creating this sense of place purely through sound can be quite difficult through music. Sounds are by their nature as ephemeral as scents, and the connections between what we see and what we hear can be tenuous at best. With that said, all the pieces on this program achieved their ends through some great performances and effective imagery on the part of the respective composers. 

To look back on the whole New@Night series for a moment, this show wrapped up the whole series very well on a touching note. All of the shows were fantastic, and it’s hard to say that one one was better than any other. This is a testament both to the programming and to the performances. Andy Akiho’s Seven Pillars was a definite highlight, mostly due to its scale and scope of visuals and extended length. I just wish some of the shows were a bit longer. A tight hour is nice for a show at noon on a Friday, but I usually expect evening shows to go on a bit longer. This is a minor nitpick, however. 

2022-23 Season 

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Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

Plenty has happened since then with CMNW, including their announcement for the upcoming 2022-23 season. The upcoming season is full of new and new-ish works, which we are very excited for. There’s too much to name, but I’m very happy to see how many pieces have a (2022) next to them on the programs, along with plenty of commissions. Even the ones that play older works sound like fun–who doesn’t want to hear Alisa Weilerstein play the complete Bach cello suites?

The opening concert on September 29 features Anna Lee back for more, plus Soovin Kim, Adam Lamotte and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. This program includes two classics–Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and Tchiakovsky’s Serenade for Strings–alongside the rescheduled Alistair Coleman Moonshot: A Triptych for String Quartet, which got cancelled this summer. I would also look out for the premiere of a CMNW commission by violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama at their November show at the Old Church

On March 14 at the Alberta Rose Theater, we get another great program, with guests from the uber-prestigious Curtis Institute of Music alongside CMNW’s own Curtis Alumni David Shifrin and Soovin Kim. The big draw is Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, but I am just as excited to hear it alongside Poulenc, Penderecki and Viet Cuong, along with a commissioned work by Nicholas Diberardino. 

The non-summer season ends on April 16 at the Old Church with the Catalyst Quartet. The program is entirely women composers, opening with shorter pieces by contemporary composers Caroline Shaw, Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery and Angelica Negron and closing with string quartets by Germaine Taillefairre, Fanny Mendelssohn and Teresa Careño.

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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