After Dan Brugh came back from music school, whenever he’d be back on Mount Tabor, near where he grew up, “I always wanted to play music there and bring in other composers,” the Portland composer remembers. But back then, there was no organized way for composers to make events like that happen, and showcases of original music by Northwest contemporary classical composers were rare. Then, a decade ago, a new organization arrived. And thanks to Cascadia Composers, Brugh is making that old wish a reality.
Brugh and Jennifer Wright are the main curators for this Saturday’s Caldera, the first of ten concerts in the regional composers’ organization’s 10th anniversary season — the most programs they’ve ever produced in a single year. In that decade, says founder David Bernstein, Cascadia has grown by a factor of ten — from the original eight members to 80 today — into the largest of the ten chapters in the National Association of Composers USA.
Over the last decade, “we have given 66 different concerts with over 500 works,” primarily by Northwest composers, Bernstein says. “None of the other chapters can compare with what we’ve done.”
Saturday’s season opening concert is an overture to the group’s most ambitious season ever, and a culmination of a steady rise in quality and scope.
“I never expected it to get anything like this big,” Bernstein recalls. Recently retired to Portland, drawn by its natural beauty, after a long career in academia, Bernstein had participated in a similar, long-standing composers group in Cleveland. Seeing nothing like it here, he resolved to create one.
With a list of names supplied by local lights like composer and Portland State professor Tomas Svoboda, Bernstein assembled a core group of veteran Oregon composers. They soon recruited more, but not without encountering some resistance from a few established composers who resented a newcomer’s intrusion onto “their turf,” Bernstein says.
“From the beginning we have been inclusive rather than exclusive, and we have been enablers rather than gatekeepers,” says original member and ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow. “That is because that’s what David wanted, and he gathered generally like-minded people around him.”
Expanding Horizons, Improving Quality
But neither territorialism nor the nascent organization’s tiny budget (a fraction of the $16,000 annual endowment that helped fund his old Cleveland group) could stop Cascadia’s determined expansion. Thanks to extensive volunteer efforts, the number of programs gradually grew from a few per year, at first mostly at area churches, to this season’s record ten. (The actual number of concerts, if you include repeat performances, private shows etc. reached a high of 19 two years ago, and this year numbers 14.) From its original Portland base, the group attracted composers from around Oregon, Washington, even a few from as far away as Southern California and Chicago.
As the membership grew too large to accommodate performances by all members, Cascadia instituted a curation system and an anonymous score submission process that strives to both assure quality (for the paying audiences) and to minimize the effect of extra-musical biases.
Another lesson learned over the decade: figuring out which local classical performers could be counted on to truly to commit to practicing and rehearsing the music enough to deliver accurate and compelling performances.
“We don’t have a house band,” current Cascadia president Ted Clifford explains. “That presents a challenge but it’s also exciting because we get more variety. On one hand, whether we’re collaborating with somebody or hiring freelancers, we want musicians who are committed to our music. Somebody might be a high-level performer, but they might be gigging too much to give full commitment. So we’re identifying and building relationships with those committed performers.”
Partners have included The Ensemble, Resonance Ensemble and Choral Arts Ensemble, Delgani String Quartet, Portland Vocal Consort, Big Horn Brass, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra. This year, Cascadia is working with BRAVO Youth Orchestra, continuing their efforts to get new music in the hands of young musicians, as in its annual In Good Hands concerts with young Portland-area piano students.
Teaming up with groups that bring their own audiences helps widen the concerts’ appeal, as does the group’s increasing tendency to organize concerts around themes, such as last year’s Our Waters performance with Native American artists and a Columbia River theme.
Alas, I missed that one, but Cascadia’s first two 2018 concerts demonstrated the rise in quality of performance and production. In February’s show at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, experienced, accomplished performers like Amelia Lukas, Susan McDaniel, Tom Bergeron, Tatiana Kolchanova set a high standard that most of the other musicians matched. My personal first half favorites included Linda Woody’s sweet appetizer Fernando (not the Abba tune) for flute trio, Paul Safar’s jazzy/Baroque-sounding Soaring for saxophone and piano, Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s playful string trio Glimpses (maybe my favorite of all her Cascadia pieces) and Winslow’s tumbling, pouncing Cat Tale — alas, missing singer Nancy Wood, who enlivened previous shows but still a treat in the composer’s solo piano performance. (Click the composition titles to see videos of these and the other February performances.)
Some of my second half highlights included a recorded performance of Jack Gabel’s latest Oregon bird piece that perfectly complemented the fluttery imagery of its companion film by Takafumi Uehara, Sheli Nan’s flamboyant piano performance of her fun Bach Boogie Blues and ¡Fandango Ardiente! and Dawn Sonntag’s Middle Eastern flavored Fantasy for viola and piano, before the fabulous closer, Daniel Vega’s sassy Spank It! In this homage to the visionary American composer Pauline Oliveros, who died last year, Vega “imagined how protests would sound if they were conducted like one of her sonic meditations.”
A small squadron of singers intoned politically charged lyrics while sax and percussion goosed the action along until the performers dashed out through audience. I half expected police tear gas. It felt like a Fluxus-style happening updated for the 21st century that even 20 somethings would have enjoyed.
In Cascadia’s concert at March Music Moderne,I was smitten by Gulua playing Texu Kim’s spectacular 300+ Microvariations on a Bach Theme, of which at least 278 sparkled brilliantly; Hannah Penn’s rich, dusky singing on Theresa Koon’s wistful Sonnet to Orpheus; ArtsWatch contributor Matthew Andrews’s lovely, Satie-in-a-cabaret ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers, with a suitably fragile performance by student soprano Corrin Coffey and a memorably hooky riff I was humming for days afterward; and Bernstein’s rugged, emotionally eruptive Flux et Reflux, reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s tougher side.
Any of these and several others would have won applause at any chamber concert in Portland. I wish our presenting organizations would start honoring local creativity by sending representatives to some of these shows and booking the best music as opening acts for the international performers they bring. It would be a dandy way for them to stay in touch with the creative community they purport to serve, and to expose their audiences to some terrific music being made right here and now.
Creativity and Community
Cascadia concerts like these demonstrate some of the benefits the organization offers its community. Composers get their works staged and the feedback that only live performance can give, plus recordings they can use to spread their music wider. Locavore audiences get to hear how their own artists interpret our shared time and place in original music. (Not surprisingly, many compositions are inspired by the Northwest’s natural beauty, like those in Cascadia’s October 7 Landscape Music concert.) The organization’s role in concert productions varies from funneling repertory to other presenters’ concerts, to providing basic financial, publicity and production assistance to members who want to put on their own concerts, to full-on all-expenses-paid (in return for a fee from the selected composers, typically $100) showcase concerts with that anonymous selection process, and many variations in between.
Cascadia’s mere existence has sparked creativity. “I think a lot of them would not have been written” without the organization, Bernstein says. “Like a lot of composers, I can’t write music in the abstract. I need a stimulus, and the stimulus is performance.”
Cascadia also offers members workshops, bringing in Oregon Symphony musicians and others to show composers how best to write for various instruments, as well as monthly presentations at Portland State for composers to share some of their music and ideas with fellow composers. A concert or post-presentation discussion often segues into a group trip to a cafe or club and conversation, a valuable social opportunity in a profession that’s inherently isolating.
“We tend to be introverts,” spending hours alone with a manuscript or computer, Clifford says. “The most valuable part of Cascadia is the great community of people in it who are so helpful to each other and supportive of each other.”
“When I compare the sense of camaraderie and friendship here with years I spent in Cleveland,” Bernstein says, “I’ve found people here to be far more friendly, open-minded, willing to do stuff together.” He and Brugh both cite as a first-decade highlight the organization’s Cuba exchange. “It was a week I’ll never forget,” Bernstein said of the five-member delegation’s Havana sojourn. “Being in a different culture, so warm and welcoming, having performances of our music at such a high level — we learned so much.” They also brought Cuban composers to Portland, and all enjoyed both experiences so much that they’ve invited the Cascadians back next year.
In Cascadia’s second decade, Clifford and the others hope to work with composers from other regions, states and even nations, and stage more Cascadia concerts beyond Portland, as in last summer’s show at the Astoria Music Festival and earlier (and likely more) performances in Eugene. Clifford cites other goals: achieving funding stability (like an endowment fund), better marketing and coordination, and continuing to improve the artistic quality of concerts.
The group also plans to continue forging relationships with Oregon performing institutions. This season includes more collaborations than ever: Landscape Music Composers Network, Polish Hall, Choral Arts Ensemble, and March Music Moderne.
Personally, I’d love to see Cascadia collaborate with other Oregon artists — animators, graphic novelists/comic artists, poets, writers, choreographers. Maybe that’s a challenge for the organization’s second decade. The first has already achieved more than anyone — including its founders — could have expected.
Cascadia leaders also want to continue making concerts more appealing beyond the classical chamber music crowd by using themes and involving other art forms. Brugh has played a large role in curating these concept-oriented shows and in expanding the instrumental ambit to include electronic as well as acoustic instruments. Saturday afternoon’s family-friendly Caldera concert features his own electroacoustic music as well as works by Susan Alexjander, Mei-ling Lee, Alexander Schwarzkopf and Jennifer Wright. Multimedia elements including dance, visuals, and pet rocks (!) blend with viola, toy piano, synthesizers, spray paint, prepared piano and more. Kids and other audience members will get to paint their own pet rocks.
“It’s a concert that raises the bar for Cascadia to start our ten-year anniversary season,” Brugh says. “I’ve got a feeling this one will be fun.”
Cascadia Composers’ Caldera Fiery Festival of New Music happens 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm September 15, Mt. Tabor Amphitheater, SE Salmon Way. Free. The group’s 2018-19 season is available on its website. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.