MUSIC

Music Notes: transitions & triumphs

Summer roundup of recent news in Oregon classical and jazz music

Oregon’s leading classical music public radio station All Classical Portland has launched a brand-new second radio network, for children. The International Children’s Arts Network (ICAN) is a 24-hour radio service and, the station announcement says, is the first of its kind in the US. Designed for young listeners, the network features music, poems, and literature from around the world, locally produced and curated by All Classical Portland. “ICAN provides an audio destination where kids can be inspired to listen, dance, color outside the lines, and create their own adventures,” ICAN Program Manager Sarah Zwinklis said in a press release. “Much of the content on the network will be presented by children – we believe in the power of these young voices.” Listen online at allclassical.org/ican or through an HD Radio.

The station also operates a free arts journalism mentorship program that selects three high school age (ages 15-18) students from Oregon & SW Washington to be Youth Roving Reporters each year. From September – June, they’ll learn how to use recording equipment in the field, attend two arts events, conduct interviews with artistic leaders or performers, and learn to produce their interviews for radio broadcast. As ArtsWatch has previously reported, it also operates JOY: an Artist in Residence program, which includes a young artist residency.

Laurels & Shekels

• Speaking of All Classical Portland, Metropolitan Youth Symphony presented the station its 2019 Musical Hero Award in April. The station’s On Deck with Young Musicians program has featured dozens of MYS musicians in performances and interviews with All Classical Portland host and producer Christa Wessel.

• The Oregon Symphony presented its 2019 Schnitzer Wonder Award to Mariachi Una Voz of the Hillsboro School District. Launched in 2010 and including strings, brass, and singing, the group’s mission is to promote cultural understanding and community unity through music education and performance. Participation is free and open to all Hillsboro middle- and high-school students. It has performed on more than 100 school and community events, performing in venues as diverse as the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts theaters, the Moda Center, major regional cultural festivals, and schools, libraries and hospitals.

“Every child who wishes to learn to play a musical instrument should have the opportunity,” said founder and manager Dan Bosshardt in a press release. “The students that find their way to our group have inspiring personal stories. They have very supportive families that often do not have the financial means to provide transportation, instruments, lessons, or private instruction.”

• ArtsWatch congratulates a pair of Portland choral music leaders who just scored major national awards from Chorus America. Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon won the 2019 Botto Award named after Chanticleer founder Louis Botto. She “has captained a bold organizational shift—from its original mission exploring links between music, art, poetry, and theatre, to a new focus exclusively on presenting concerts that promote meaningful social change.”

Katherine FitzGibbon leading Resonance Ensemble

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by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Opening night at the final classical concert of the Oregon Symphony season showcased two masterful works bursting with the drama and imagination that make composers Gustav Mahler and Kurt Weill especially popular today. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D  and Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins were not popular in their own times and places, however. 

Mahler’s audiences at the premiere in Budapest in 1889 were confused and overtly put off by the unconventional work. The 29-year-old, who had been engaged in his conducting career for almost a decade, went on to make numerous changes until the formal publication in 1888, with the “final” version completed in 1896 (although tweaked by Mahler for years to come). The year it premiered, Mahler, born an Austro-Bohemian, also received the conducting post he had long coveted, the Vienna Hofoper (Vienna Opera). He balanced composing and conducting for the rest of his short life. 

Storm Large joined the Oregon Symphony for Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in 2012. Photo: John Rudoff.

Two generations later, Kurt Weill was experiencing tremendous success in the German Weimar (post World War I) culture as a composer of stage works. Born in Germany in 1900, his professional career blossomed in the 1920 – 1930 period. Though he composed several traditional “classical” works, which showed influences of Mahler and Stravinsky, Weill earned popularity for his politically and socially charged stage works, one-act opera, vocal music and musical theater.  

But by the time he completed his Seven Deadly Sins, the Weimar republic had collapsed, Hitler came to power, and Weill’s music was reviled in Nazi Germany. Mahler’s earlier music was also labeled degenerate and banned. Both composers were Jewish and subjected to the anti-Semitic social/political climate in their homelands. As Jews were not allowed to hold high positions in Vienna in 1889, Mahler “converted” to Roman Catholicism. 

Weill fled the country in 1933, taking his art to Paris, where Seven Deadly Sins was commissioned and premiered that year. The rebirth of Mahler’s music would come after World War II, aided by an American conductor named Bernstein. 

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MusicWatch Monthly: Radioactive glowing disk returns to Oregon!

Summer arrives, with festivals, season closers and sun

Caution: Radioactive glowing disk has returned to Oregon’s skies! Remember your sunscreen! Remember your sunscreen! Message repeats.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1911, oil on canvas, 14.9 x 25.5 feet, University of Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons

Five weeks and one day

There’s an old zen saying: you should meditate 20 minutes every day unless you’re too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour every day.

Two festivals of contemporary classical music hit Portland this month, and if you’re too busy for one you should make time for the other. Chamber Music Northwest starts June 24 and stretches well into July, with local and international musicians performing everything from tons of Mozart to a bunch of stuff by contemporary composers. Meanwhile on June 27 Makrokosmos, now in its fifth year, crams a similar density of breadth and excellence in a one-day festival of Takemitsu, Crumb, and other modernist composers.

“Makrokosmos Project V: Black Angels”
June 27
Vestas Building

Bicoastal pianists DUO Stephanie & Saar present the best value in Portland’s contemporary music scene: Makrokosmos Project, a one-day mini-festival which has evolved into an annual feat of endurance for Portland new music nuts. This year, local pianists join Ho and Ahuvia to present the complete piano music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, spread across two of the evening’s four segments, along with other piano works by John Luther Adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Olivier Messiaen. The mini-fest ends with the Pyxis Quartet’s performance of George Crumb’s gorgeously nightmare-inducing Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land” for electric string quartet (you read that right). One ticket gets you a five-hour mini-festival with free cheese and wine. Hard to beat.

Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival: Week One
June 24 – 30
Kaul Auditorium at Reed College
Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University
Alberta Rose Theater

Clarinetist extraordinaire David Shifrin ends his nearly four-decade run as CMNW Artistic Director with an opening week full of clarinets. No fewer than 27 all-star clarinetists perform two centuries of clarinet music ranging from Mozart—the first great composer to write for the instrument—to new works by Libby Larsen and Michele Mangani.

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‘Cycles of Eternity’: In Mulieribus spins out a winner

Portland vocal ensemble's new recording features music by contemporary choral composers

by BRUCE BROWNE

A great CD needs to have at least four components: first, an excellent group of musician-singers; second, a great acoustical space; third, a gifted producer and fourth, a superb recording engineer. The latest release by In Mulieribus, Cycles of Eternity, boasts all these attributes.

  1. The nine women represented on the CD (some are on only a few tracks; there are usually seven total in concert) are first-rate singers, able to sing in the highest and lowest ranges with tonal beauty and nuance.
  2. The Proto Cathedral of St. James the Greater, in Vancouver, Washington, is one of the finest acoustical spaces in the Pacific Northwest. This recording takes full advantage of its resplendent ring time, which supports the singers’ voices throughout their ranges. 
  3. & 4. Producer Blake Applegate and recording engineer Rod Evenson are a talented duo who together help provide balance and focus throughout the recording process. Applegate is a long time director of Cantores in Ecclesia, and this year was guest director with Cappella Romana; Evenson has recorded most groups in town at live performances, and for CD.

This CD’s focus is a departure for the Portland women’s vocal ensemble, representing choral works by 21st century (and a few late 20th century) composers instead of the Medieval and Renaissance works that dominated their four previous recordings. Several have been commissioned over the past years by IM, and get their first “hearing” here. It’s a first class selection of composers, reflecting what’s been going on in the past thirty years on the choral scene, without pandering to the vox populi of, say, the Whitacre/ Lauridsen/ Gjeilo orbit. The former two are likely the most performed choral composers in the past 25 years.

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Remembering Lyndee Mah

The Portland vocalist was also a crucial community resource for artists

Every culture needs at least one Lyndee Mah—an indomitably positive source of energy, compassion and commitment to art, a connector and facilitator, an advisor and advocate, someone to console us when that is necessary. Fortunately for Portland, we had Lyndee Mah herself. A gifted artist, Mah was possibly even more gifted at the creation of community, in her case, a community that included many artists.

Mah died in her sleep on April 1 from a heart attack. She was in Spokane, Washington,  caring for her brother Marshall Mah. She was born in Idaho Falls on August 29, 1958. She studied music at Mt. Hood Community College and finished her general education studies at PSU.

Lyndee Mah during her House Concert Series with her A String Ensemble./Photo by Julie Keefe

Mah was a vocalist in Portland for more than 20 years. She was a founding member of the band Pink Martini and collaborated with a host of Portland musicians and dancers over the years, including 3 Leg Torso, the late pianist Janice Scroggins, and choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. She created  “E`-Bon E`-Bon,” an original mixed-media, musical-memoir performance piece, based on her Chinese-European-American heritage, and she performed with Imago and Liminal theater companies. She touched, literally, hundreds more at her home hair salon.

Mah is survived by her partner Elahi Bradley-Muhammad and her son, Halston Mah-Minniweather.

A celebration of Lyndee K. Mah’s life will be held 7-10 pm August 4 at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett Street. Friends, admirers and collaborators of Lyndee’s will honor her incredible artistic and cultural legacy in this community.

Editor’s Note: Choreographer Linda K. Johnson gathered remembrances of Mah from six of the people whose lives she touched. We appreciate her efforts.

Lyndee Mah performing at one of her House Concerts with guitar given to her by Kristy Edmunds/Photo by Julie Keefe

Courtney Von Drehle, musician and composer

I first got to know Lyndee when 3 Leg Torso worked with choreographer/dancer Gregg Bielemeier, and we were enlisted for the music, with Lyndee as our vocalist. Working with Lyndee, who had been Pink Martini’s first vocalist, was our first collaboration with a singer. We went over to Lyndee’s big old house, and coming into her space, with its deep purple curtains, various adornments on the walls—both stately and casual at the same time—right away I felt at home. Downstairs, in the basement, was Lyndee’s salon, where I, and many I know, would visit for Lyndee’s transformative magic. She knew how to make us look good, and chatting away while her scissors orbited our heads, with her easy going and real nature, she’d make it easy to transcend surface connection, and make us feel good in a far deeper way than just one of her glorious hair cuts alone could provide. It was natural for Lyndee to share her deep empathy and caring with all of those around her, and her home reflected the warmth that she embodied.

Arriving at Lyndee’s for rehearsal would often start with some hanging out on the porch, a fresh cup of coffee in hand, chatting with her partner, Brad, who like Lyndee has an easy ability to connect with others in a deep way. Moving inside and working on music was always relaxed and playful, qualities Lyndee would bring to her performances. I remember a particular Conduit benefit I performed where Lyndee was the MC. At one point, out of the blue, she started beating the microphone against her chest and doing a little rap, a spontaneous departure from the script that brought the room together. I’d seen her and Janice Scroggins perform as a duo at Conduit a while before that, and I was deeply moved by their music. One tune in particular, with the lyrics full of reminiscent observations from a later point of view in life, just floored me. With Janice’s always exquisite playing and Lyndee’s rich and present vocals, they were a powerful duo, two masterful musicians at play.

Lyndee was resourceful and self-reliant. From her independent hair salon, her voice lessons, teaching Body Mapping to musicians, to putting on her one-woman show, Lyndee found her own way forward.

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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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Classical music programs largely consist of endlessly recycled old classics by composers who are (a) European, (b) male, and (c) white. Florence Price is (e) none of the above. The 20th century African American composer does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s (d) — dead. 

But today, Price’s music is, against all odds, coming back to life, including Tuesday when Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs one of her symphonies. What’s more, Price’s resurrection is inspiring today’s young composers to create new music, and the concert features some of that, too — including a world premiere just composed by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays music of Florence Price, Katie Palka and more Tuesday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first symphony by an African-American woman ever to be performed by a major American orchestra. (Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about Price and other neglected African American composers.)

But Price’s music, like that of so many composers of color in her time, was ignored by most orchestras and seldom played after her death in 1953. When one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores, and ignited an ongoing rediscovery of her music.  

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