Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Cascadia Composers’ splendid birthday bash

Fresh octogenarians David Bernstein and Greg Steinke celebrate with "Last Tango in Portland," a concert of lively music and world premieres.

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The creative juices are still flowing for David S. Bernstein and Greg A. Steinke. The two composers celebrated their 80th birth years with a concert devoted to their music, including brand-new pieces. Given the moniker of “Last Tango in Portland,” the festive event, presented by Cascadia Composers, took place October 1 at Lincoln Recital Hall, with a program that underscored the two composers’ substantial talents.

Bernstein and Steinke are former music professors with distinguished composing careers. To further the efforts of composers in Pacific Northwest, they founded Cascadia Composers, which is part of the National Association of Composers USA (NACUSA). Under their leadership, Cascadia Composers now boasts more than a hundred members, some of whom do not live in the Pacific Northwest, and CC has become the largest and most active NACUSA chapter.

The flow of the birthday concert seesawed back and forth between Bernstein’s and Steinke’s pieces. In general, the music gradually shifted from complex and denser works to lighter ones.

Steinke’s Suspended (from Image Music XXVII A) opened the concert with variegated wanderings from English horn and strings. The music, inspired by a poem of the same name by K’os Naahaabii (aka Don Jordan) expressed a cataclysmic event like a wildfire that spews ash before it subsides. Catherine Lee, English horn, Casey Bozell and Danielle Bristow violins, Dana Rokosny viola, and Diane Chaplin, cello, created the evocative soundscape.

Bernstein’s Two Preludes to Definition infused the hall with a complex collage of sound from two Steinways that were incisively played by Colleen Adent and Sequoia. Explosive outbursts by both pianists dissolved into lyrical passages and a brief section that created a mysterious atmosphere before erupting into a dense and chaotic finale. It was remarkable that the two pianists achieved a sort of hypnotic mind-meld that kept their sound in a terrific balance.

Baritone Andrew White and pianist Adent created a demonstrative Civil Wars, in which Steinke set Carol Coffee Reposa’s poem of same name. A shuddering, bombastic opening by Adent and a stentorian delivery by White nailed the imagery of the text, which linked the battle of Vicksburg during the Civil War with more current turmoil “from Ferguson to Watts.” The repetition of “shots” at the end of the piece resonated dramatically with White pushing his voice into a shout.

Propulsive dissonance filled the hall with Bernstein’s Playonthree. Played by violinist Bozell, violist Rokosny, and cellist Chaplin, the piece gave each player a chance in the spotlight. Chaplin excelled with some expressive technique that included a couple of snappy pizzicatos. The trio expertly contrasted edgy passages and relaxed ones as well as rhythmically firm sections and a spirited finale.

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Based on the Newspaper Blackout poems of Austin Kleon, Steinke’s Random Blackouts III (from Image Music XL) received its world premiere, with White accompanied by Amelia Lukas (alternating among flute, alto flute, and piccolo) and Alexander Dyer and Ian Charlton (commanding a variety of percussion instruments). The six poems conveyed a bit of humor, and “Ladies’ Man,” in particular, veered delightfully into the realm of lounge music.

The one solo piece on the program was Four Silhouettes for solo oboe, by Bernstein. Performed deftly by Lee, it expressed four distinct moods. “Impetuous” skipped around impulsively. “Pensive” had an edgy legato. “Introspective” was marked with well-placed pauses, and “Quizzical” featured a chattering, blurting quality.

Based on the paintings of Portland artist Robert Coronado, Expressions VI (from Image Music XLV) by Steinke also received its world premiere. Performed by violinist Bozell, percussionist Dyer, and pianist Adent, the piece offered an array of delicate sounds highlighted by Dyer’s expertise with a bell tree, wind chimes, bass violin bows, snare drums, and other percussive instruments. 

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Bernstein’s Suite of the Earth. Amelia Lukas (flute, alto flue, piccolo) Dyer (various percussion), and Sequoia (piano) evoked sounds of thunder, waterfalls, singing blossoms, and wind. It was an impressive musical concoction with light, rapid drumming and a bird-like piccolo flute in the second movement and a mellow flute and xylophone combination in the third movement that caught this reviewer’s attention most of all.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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