Matthew Neil Andrews

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, writer, and magician specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. He regularly performs with (and occasionally composes for) Indonesian gamelan, plays cathartically raucous drums in various gonzo bands around Portland, and is currently a graduate student in Portland State University’s School of Music. Matthew is an incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, and can often be found taking nightly dérive walks all over the city. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com. Complaints and requests should be directed to music@orartswatch.org.

 

Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Phillipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Phillipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

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 Phillipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

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‘As One’: e pluribus unum

Portland Opera production dramatizes inner journey to self-knowledge

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland Opera’s As One is, on one hand, about one type of transgender experience (there are many); on the other hand, it’s not really about being transgender, any more than the Barber of Seville is about being a barber. The story—yet another hero’s quest—traces a journey to self awareness; it’s a story about how we integrate the disparate elements of our fragmented selves into a unified personal identity.

The idea has deep roots in esoteric philosophy. Alchemical traditions around the world speak of uniting the various parts of the initiate’s fragmented soul, and we hear echoes of the same idea in Whitman‘s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Lilly’s “Responsibility starts with a satisfactory coalition between one’s self and the demanding 10 trillion cells of one’s own body,” and in headier science fiction such as Gene Wolfe’s sci-fi puzzle box Book of the New Sun, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Jungians call it individuation.

Hannah Penn and Lee Gregory star in Portland Opera’s production of ‘As One.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The libretto by Pulitzer-winner Mark Campbell and documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed (who also contributed filmed backgrounds in lieu of backdrops, a practical and entertaining staging strategy that should become the norm in these pocket operas) presents a raw and honest and refreshingly subtle series of vignettes exploring one modern woman’s journey (fictional, but inspired by Reed’s life). As One is fundamentally a coming-of-age and coming-out story, so the hero’s journey encompases not only youth-to-maturity and closet-to-pride but also male-to-female: Hannah is transgender, and the two singers portray her before and after her transition. Local mezzo Hannah Penn (whom we last heard as The Fox in Opera Theater Oregon’s production of The Little Prince) plays Hannah After; bass-baritone Lee Gregory plays Hannah Before.

Composer Laura Kaminsky writes in a vivid, plain-spoken American idiom that reminds me of Caroline Shaw and Lou Harrison: the music flows and surges and is generally quite tonal and beautiful. When it gets scary, it gets really scary; when it gets funny, it doesn’t get too funny. Her score for As One is theater music as much as it is opera, and as much a song-cycle as either: a dense 75-minute coming-of-age story scored for two singers and string quartet and an occasionally singing conductor.

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FearNoMusic: Musical Terroirists

New music ensemble’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert provides tasty sampler of locavore sounds

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Kenji Bunch is either an oenophile or he’s been reading Jeff VanderMeer. The Fear No Music artistic director introduced the ensemble’s fifth annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert post-concert Q&A with a discussion of the somewhat esoteric term terroir, used to describe the interlinked ways in which wines, cheeses, cannabis, and other such creations are influenced by the myriad regional factors that help condition their development. Bunch defined terroir (actually it seems likely he got the term from Darrell Grant) as “the taste of a place” and asked the gathered composers, “is there a sound to composers living in the Northwest?”

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Locally Sourced Sounds

The January 21 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall gave us a chance to find out, with a tasting menu of six Pacific Northwest composers.

Kids these days

FNM’s artistic and executive leadership team of Bunch and Monica Ohuchi opened the concert with the world premiere of recent Reed College graduate Yiyang Wang’s Converse, a sparse and cloudy mood piece, awash with open strings and rhythmic tappings on Bunch’s viola over tinkly jazz arpeggios and Liszty swirls on Ohuchi’s piano. At one point Bunch carefully set down the viola to sneak around to the piano’s low end, hiding behind Ohuchi’s arched shoulders, where he pounded out a few bass tones. FNM usually likes a slow start, and although Converse didn’t command my rapt attention the way Wang’s piano trio Color Studies did in 2017, her atmospheric little duet opened the show on a pleasantly conversational note.

Next up was another duet, Music for Four Hands by Ryan Francis, a youngish Juilliard-trained composer whom we have seen around the halls at Portland State University, where he’s been teaching theory. Ohuchi and Jeff Payne provided the titular hands, spinning out polyrhythms in wistfully melancholy GlassGuaraldi harmonic language similar to Portland composer Jay Derderian’s The People They Think We Are (performed on this same piano a few months back by Kathleen Supové). And because this was Ohuchi and Payne—one of the finest piano duos in Portland — the polymeters and the wistful melancholy were uncommonly graceful, immersing the audience in elegant waves of auditory bliss the way John Luther Adams is supposed to.

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Oregon Symphony Orchestra: Nightmares before Christmas

OSO film series presents two simultaneous dramas: one on screen, one hidden in the orchestra 

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

In my comfy balcony seat in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I realized with a start that I was about to hear, for the first time ever, a real live orchestra performing the music of my favorite composer.

It was nine shopping days before Christmas, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was getting ready to perform Nightmare Before Christmas, synchronizing Danny Elfman’s score to the film, projected on a screen above the orchestra, same as OSO has been doing for years.

Oregon Symphony performed the live score to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in December.

I looked around: just like at last fall’s Star Wars concert —pure bliss— the audience was a little younger than the OSO’s usual Mahler-loving crowd. A whole lot of folks my age and younger, some with parents or friends or kids, most wearing some kind of Nightmare bling.

And, as with Star Wars, the place was packed. They’d had to add a fourth show to accommodate the demand for this weird animated hybrid holiday show, this bizarre 25-year-old stop-motion musical (directed by Portlander Henry Selick, who animated Coraline) with Weillisch songs and score by a guy who used to breathe fire in a gonzo horror pop band.

But while this Nightmare was a dream come true for me and the rest of the audience, it was a lot scarier for the orchestra and its conductor. As we enjoyed the antics of Jack, Sally and the rest, the Oregon Symphony faced a test as tough as any of the movie’s characters.

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Oregon & Vancouver Symphony Orchestras: reanimating the exquisite corpse

Enjoyable but uneven fall concerts spotlight orchestras but suggest untapped potential for traditional concert format

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Two Northwest orchestras—one in Portland, one in Vancouver—recently put on a couple of concerts epitomizing the Perfectly Ordinary Symphonic Concert. In November, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed music by Hector Berlioz, Aram Khachaturian, and Felix Mendelssohn; in December, Oregon Symphony Orchestra performed Anders Hillborg, William Walton, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Each concert offered one take on the standard three-beat symphonic concert formula: Overture—Concerto—Symphony. It’s a little like a good date: Dinner—Show—Bed. The concerts followed that routine pretty closely, showing off each orchestra’s strengths, giving the spotlight in turn to guest soloists, individual orchestral soloists, and “the four sections” (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). And, aside from the invariable maleness of the compositional pool, each concert featured a good balance of musical voices—classical through modern to contemporary—and a variety of musical moods.

Salvator Brotons led the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The result was entertaining, and although it didn’t make me question the usefulness of a concert formula many find tired (I’m conservative in this regard, I guess), it did raise questions about how we modernize and humanize it.

VSO: barbarous overdrive

VSO’s November 4 concert opened with a Gallic bit of fun from Hector Berlioz, his Roman Carnival Overture. It’s not a very interesting piece of music, and not as appropriate for a blustery northwest November evening as, say, a Shostakovich overture (or maybe a little Britten). But Berlioz knew how to write for orchestra and the VSO—especially English horn soloist Kyle Mustain—sounded good warming up on his music. Bassoons and trombones built to a big showy finish, whereupon music director Salvador Brotons, with his big corny smile, hand in the air, held out the last chord Bugs Bunny style, and then with a quick twist of his wrist snatched it out of the air. Silence, applause, a skip to the microphone.

Brotons introduced the evening’s soloist: Tbilisi-born, Vancouver-based pianist Dimitri Zhgenti, whom the Skyview Hall Auditorium audience welcomed with enthusiastic familiarity (after the concert, we caught him hanging around Skyview’s banal high school lobby, chatting with some local friends and thanking them for coming out). Zhgenti’s playing on Khachaturian’s hoary Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was balanced and careful. His sense of melody—oh so important in this score, driven as it is by folk song—was bold, attentive, and dynamic, but his overall approach was a matter of restraint and clarity, giving the composer’s vital voice the space to carry through on its own strength. Zhgenti didn’t need to oversell it, and so he didn’t, even during the long solo in the first movement, and the tasteful bombast made his performance that much more compellingly nuanced.

The orchestra, warmed up after the Berlioz overture, kicked into barbarous overdrive on the Khachaturian concerto. The strings played with a big fat sound all throughout, a rich, full tone, one of the band’s signature features. Principal oboist Alan Juza shone in the first movement’s playful secondary theme; bass clarinetist Barbara Heilmair gloomed it up all gorgeously throughout the second movement; and percussionist Dianna Hnatiw played the second movement’s keening Caucasian melody in unison with the high strings using a flexatone of all damned things — an impressive feat, I assure you; usually that part is played on a saw or omitted altogether, and it’s crazy difficult to nail individual pitches on either instrument.

High, sweet horns and low, booming brass ranged from grim pastorales to creepy circus chorales, that whole conflicted Soviet sound, song-like and nasty, twisted and heroic, modernism hiding under conservatism hiding under populism. The only problem with this concerto is that there’s really too much of it—this was Khachaturian’s first mature composition, after all, and probably could have benefitted from about a 10% reduction. But Zhgenti, Brotons, and the band sounded way too good for me to complain.

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Fear No Music: music of migration and more

New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.

FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.

FearNoMusic

This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.

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‘The Little Prince’: flight of imagination

Artistic director Justin Ralls, who conducts this weekend’s Opera Theater Oregon’s production, sees Saint-Exupery’s story as “a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity”

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

This weekend at downtown Portland’s lovely Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon premieres its new production of The Little Prince. That’s the whole run, so if you’re going you’d better get a move on. The opera—with libretto by British playwright Nicholas Wright and music by British composer Rachel Portman (best known for her award-winning film scores and the music Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series)—is sung in English and based on the popular novel by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

This is the second season with OTO for artistic co-directors Justin Ralls and Nicholas Meyer, the composer-singer team who brought us Ralls’s Two Yosemites for their inaugural season with the independent opera company last year. Joining them in this year’s production are some of the area’s finest singers. Superstar mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn plays The Fox (a raisonneur sort of character who gets most of the best lines); composer, Resonance Ensemble bass-baritone, and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter sings The King (and one of the baobab trees). In the starring roles, we’ve got baritone and Aquilon Music Festival founder and festival coordinator Anton Belov as The Pilot, and tiny soprano Catherine Olson as the titular prince. It’s worth going to just for the vocal cast.

Belov and Olson in OTO’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

Portman’s score is, well, Portmany—melodic, bright and a little moody, heavily indebted to normal classical music—and I look forward to hearing how Ralls handles another composer’s music, having only heard him conduct his own. He is a fine composer in his own right, student of UO-based composer Robert Kyr and one of many younger voices who are finally beginning to bloom (Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andy Akiho also come to mind). OTO will premiere his new opera, Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, next season.

Ralls is also a passionate advocate for creativity as a form of resistance, as evidenced in his brilliant and prescient 2015 essay “The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction,” an impassioned and well-reasoned manifesto that you should take a moment to read—after you’ve finished the following interview, that is. Ralls’s answers have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

The Little Prince, Verdi style

In redefining the mission of Opera Theater Oregon we [artistic directors Ralls and Meyer and executive director Lisa Lipton] wanted to focus on contemporary works, work that is in English specifically to reach our audience, works from diverse composers, and works that aren’t necessarily represented.

The Little Prince was on our radar, and we all reviewed it and thought it would be a great fit for us in our second production. Two Yosemites was a big work, and pretty heavy in its content and its musical language. We wanted to not repeat that, but have something that opens it up to an even larger audience and attract people that had never been to an opera before, and younger audiences.

Catherine Olson plays the title role in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

The Little Prince was ideal for us because of the accessibility of the music and the variety of roles. There’s ten-plus characters, but those characters don’t sing an entire opera—they have cameo appearances. So we’re able to feature a lot of different singers with a very practical economy of means. We’ve been talking about it as “The Little Prince, Verdi style.”

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