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‘Blessed with a bounteous lineage’: Evergreen & Oak Trio at Lady Hill Winery

Mezzo-composer Lisa Neher, flutist Rose Bishop, and pianist Abbie Brewer performed a concert of “innovative yet beautiful” chamber music in Saint Paul.

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Evergreen & Oak Trio (L to R: Abbie Brewer, Lisa Neher, Rose Bishop) at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.
Evergreen & Oak Trio (L to R: Abbie Brewer, Lisa Neher, Rose Bishop) at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.

We drove through a night under heavy autumn cloud, Kristin and I, out past the glowing towers of the city, and then the comforting, well-lit street mazes of the suburbs and exurbs were behind us. Down dark country roads, past pumpkin patches and old country stores shuttered for the night, we drove past the ghost town of Champoeg on our right in the hour just before it became pitch black. Rounding a corner on a dirt road we came upon a hall with windows both tall and broad, blazing with a warm light, the windows of a cupola shining like a light-house beacon, and from the welcoming hall, a woman’s voice lifted in song. It was a night where it felt good to come in out of the dark.

The Lady Hill Winery was a suitable–no, a perfect spot for an autumn concert. As Kristin took photos of the rehearsal before the concert, I enjoyed a fine glass of merlot, taking in the magnificent flying staircases with their gold-wooden railings and barrel-stave slats, bowed outward and sinuous, giving the impression of immense, skeletal serpents. The wheel from the old windmill hung from the ceiling, now part of a chandelier after being destroyed in the 1963 Columbus Day Storm. Though the facilities here were brand-new, sparkling and impressive, history was everywhere on this farm still owned by the same family since Oregon’s territorial days. The winery was named Lady Hill because, according to the Zorn-Owen family, they have historically been “blessed with a bounteous lineage of female family members.” It was difficult to imagine a place more suited to showcase an evening of works by women composers, performed by the Evergreen & Oak Trio: Rose Bishop, flute, Dr. Abbie Brewer, piano, and Dr. Lisa Neher, mezzo and composer.

Mezzo-composer Lisa Neher at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.
Mezzo-composer Lisa Neher at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.

The music began with Bentley Roses by Jennifer Higdon. The text, from poet James Whitcomb Riley, was very lavish, unabashedly in love with growing things and the natural world. As Neher’s voice, full and rich, rang from the surfaces of the room, the piano lay down a gentle moto perpetuo. The language was flowery, but the vocal writing was for the most part straight-forward: full of a joy and wonder, which Neher sincerely conveyed, occasionally broken by vocal flourishes the more poignant for their spare usage. “The hummingbird, like a courtier gay, Dipped down with a dalliant song, And twanged with his wings through the roundelay” she sang. The flute mostly waited for its chance to play short, vaguely mysterious codas that interposed between Neher’s verses, though occasionally they sang simultaneously, Bishop on the flute and Neher with her voice. 

Brewer performed a solo piano work Rhythms from the North Country by Gwyneth Walker, that featured extended techniques– “unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional methods of singing or of playing musical instruments, employed to obtain unusual sounds or timbres” (wiki)–which in this case, as Brewer explained, included strumming the piano strings with her hands and tapping on the piano lid. It opened with an almost bluesy sound—tripartite, as if it were for piano three hands. The extended techniques were integrated into the composition in such a way that they didn’t sound out of place—they weren’t staged and set apart from the more traditional playing. There was some radical and beautiful discordance; it was modern and sparse, but there was an undeniable pulse of harmonic movement underneath this piece that was at times downright funky, like R & B.

Neher sang her own composition American Waters next. This work, which in the composer’s words “explores bodies of water as literal and metaphorical barriers between us and the places and people we know and love,” was sung a cappella, a style of which she is a strong proponent. It also employed what might be described as extended techniques, with the performer mimicking the spray of surf and the rolling of waves, techniques that were, as in the piece before it, effective and integral—not gimmicky or showy. Neher sang this work like a dirge, bringing the full weight of her voice to bear—there was undoubted grief here, a grief born of loss and separation. The text was pieced together from fragments of folk songs from the U.S. and the U.K. “I cannot cross o’er you rolling river, down by the river, down by the sea.” It was a perfect piece for this place in which it was being sung, where the mighty Willamette rose up in 1861 and drowned the town that may have eventually become the state capital, a place where the rolling hills upon which we sat were giant water ripples that formed at the bottom of a Pleistocene flood of scarcely imaginable proportions. It seemed to give the piece an outsized power.

Bishop played a solo work for alto flute to round off this segment of the concert in which each artist performed a solo piece. Bokeh was a work that Bishop explained was written by a friend about the “discovery and exploration of gender identity.” Continuing the theme of extended techniques, Bishop blew into the flute in the lower and husky basso and on up into the heights of its soprano, wistful and register-changing. The whole work felt breathy and intimate, filled with longing and yet also with longing fulfilled.

Judith Lang Zaimont’s American City, a piano solo work written when she was just 12 years old in 1957 (and scarcely touched up by her since) included 4 movements. I met Zaimont some years ago; the choir I was singing in was engaged in a world premiere of one of her new works. I recall that work being incredibly challenging and rhythmically intense, and it appears that her penchant for that style of composition began in her early years. The first movement, “Rush Hour,” stood out especially: it was dutifully haphazard, with its rapid-fire percussiveness and chaos, but Brewer’s interpretation was playful and lively—one could imagine through the composer’s eyes that rush hour was probably much more fun for a child not yet driving!

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Neher’s composition for solo alto flute, Seal Mother, was a story about a selkie, a shape-shifting seal-woman of Celtic lore, watching sadly in seal form from the sea those children whom she bore as a woman on land. Bishop chuffed into flute, and more visions of the sea came to mind. At times hearkening back to Irish folk tunes, and at others redolent with motifs that sounded like an homage to the music of the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest, it was a moody piece of strange and ancient-feeling modes. There was a fascinating effect as Bishop tapped the keys while breathing into the flute. The cold and fog, the dark gray waves and the sad eyes of the strange creatures that live beneath them were all present.

Flutist Rose Bishop at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.
Flutist Rose Bishop at Lady Hill Winery. Photo by Kristin Sterling.

Neher’s she conjures, with text by Bea Goodwin, was in her words “a cross between a song cycle and an opera.” In it is imagined the year 1666 in North Berwick, Scotland, where the last woman to be burned as a witch in that country has just met her death. Her daughter, Grissal, conspires with her mother’s “feathered familiar” to get revenge upon the magistrate who has unjustly murdered her mother.

The first movement, “incantation,” opened with Neher hammering a beat on a bodhran like an executioner’s drum as Brewer pounded dry, stark chords on the piano. This was a song of anger: “Freeze their wheat, no bread to eat! Split a sail with hunks of hail! An incantation. Endless snow.” This is a witch’s curse upon those left behind. The piano shifted to hyperbolic drama, reminiscent of the old photoplay music written for silent films as Brewer played diminished 7th chords with a jangling tremolo as Grissall begins plotting her own revenge.

“Familiar,” the second movement, opened with her inviting in the caraid (an old Celtic word for ‘friend;’ in this case a crow.) It was an oddly sad moment as Grissall apologized to a bird: “I’m sorry—Yer Master, my Mother, ‘as been burned alive.” Neher wailed like a banshee at times, the anger and the grief mingled in song as they are so often in life. The movement employed a curiously satisfying sudden shifting between recitative and aria from one beat to the next. In “conjuring,” as the young woman begins her spell, the music shifted to driving rhythms, as Neher pounded hard accents on “Hecate, Hecate come to me!” Bishop’s flute was ethereal, perhaps symbolizing the movement of strange magicks through the air while Grissall pleads to be able to see with the eyes of the crow, and direct it to plant a poppet (a symbol of witchcraft) into the magistrate’s own pocket.

In “guilty,” the fourth and final movement, the music shifted to a grimly gay folk tune as Grissall’s plan comes to fruition, and the man who oversaw the murder of her mother comes to his own violent end at the hands of the villagers, ending the witch’s curse upon them as the bodhran beat us out as it beat us in–with a death march. Neher’s intensity, power and vocal prowess were all well showcased here. The composition was riveting—I wasn’t sure at first if the photoplay stylings of certain sections diminished the seriousness somehow, but ultimately it served its purpose well as the underpinning for a pared-down recitative and a way of heightening the drama; the tritone interval that forms part of the diminished triad, the infamous diabolus in musica, was a clever thing to use, as witches were said in those days to consort with the devil.

Non-traditional venues are becoming more of a thing lately, and this was well worth a long drive out to the country. The specific place allowed important elements to exist in context: the power of women as composers and performers, as farmers and tillers of a fecund earth, and as witches, not your Hocus Pocus Disney witches but women wise in the lore of herbs and the sky, of plants and of human nature. Neher at one point said that one of her goals was to write music and create a program that was new yet accessible, innovative yet beautiful. Mission accomplished—and in spectacular fashion.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

A lifelong musician and writer, Lorin Wilkerson has been a part of the Portland classical music scene as a performer, writer, and non-profit board member for over 15 years. He has performed with the Portland Symphonic Choir, Bach Cantata Choir, and Classical Revolution PDX, and served on the boards of the Bach Cantata Choir and Musica Maestrale. He has written for Willamette Week, Hollywood Star, Oregon Music News and other publications. An avid birder, he is the Field Notes Editor of Oregon Birds, the journal of the Oregon Birding Association.

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