MUSIC

MusicWatch Weekly: The fanfare zone

Gongs and songs, traditional guitars and uncommon fanfares, and a lecture on women in jazz

Tonight, tonight, tonight!

Your busy music editor has to miss a bunch of cool stuff tonight, dear reader: I’ll be schlepping gongs and playing reyong with Gamelan Wahyu Dari Langit, opening for Wet Fruit at Mississippi Studios. If you followed our adventures in Bali last summer and want to hear what all the fuss was about, here’s your chance.

We’ve been hearing the name Mary-Sue Tobin for years: her saxophone quartet Quadraphonnes is a real riot, and the composer/saxophonist herself gets involved in all sorts of Portland jazz shenanigans. Tonight at Literary Arts in Southwest, Tobin presents her free Women in Jazz lecture.

Across the river at Holocene on Southeast Belmont, local musicians Night Heron, Korgy & Bass, and Colin Jenkins join hands with local puppeteers for Pop + Puppetry. Meanwhile, down in Eugene, the symphony’s got a show tonight that Senior Editor Brett Campbell wants to tell you about:

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A cello, a violin, a final grace note

At a North Portland school, a lifelong music lover and students in the BRAVO music program meet and learn in the circle of life


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


On a busy musical afternoon at Sitton Elementary School in Portland’s St. Johns district earlier this month, a woman arrived at after-school music rehearsals bearing gifts: a cello in a hard case, and a half-size violin.

As it turns out, the cello and violin – as welcome as they were for the BRAVO Youth Orchestras program, in a school where the price of instruments is often beyond the means of the young musicians’ families – were emblematic of a larger gift: a gift of love and legacy; a passing-on, from generation to generation, of joy and encouragement. A going-away gift; a final grace note.

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch.

The students are part of BRAVO, a program fashioned after the El Sistema movement that began in 1975 on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, to bring the love and challenge of music to children in the barrios. Portland’s program began in 2013, and also concentrates on areas with higher than average poverty rates.

The woman is Sara Waddell, a 52-year-old mother of two teens from Beaverton who set aside her own musical studies and teaching career years ago to raise her sons. “I had sold my wonderful cello with its rich, beautiful tone from my younger years of trying to learn in college when my kids were very small and my little family needed the money,” she said. “Then I did without and believed I had given up learning to play forever.”

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Raúl Gómez: Living in a world of optimism

The Metropolitan Youth Symphony director talks full STEAM ahead about the vital positive links among science, education, and the arts

[Editor’s note: Gómez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, delivered a version of this essay as a speech to Intel employees in November 2019. It has been updated, and edited for length. See also Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez, Brett Campbell’s interview with Gómez in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series.]

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By RAÚL GÓMEZ

I live in a world filled with optimism. The reason is that I work with young people in the arts. Every Saturday, more than 500 students come to Metropolitan Youth Symphony rehearsals in Portland and Hillsboro. I get to conduct two out of fifteen ensembles at MYS. One of these ensembles is our most advanced full orchestra: MYS Symphony Orchestra. These are highly gifted young musicians, playing near or at professional levels, many of whom have made their ways up the ranks at MYS,  from our youngest entry-level orchestra to our top group, which recently came back from touring Italy and Austria.

These young musicians fill me with optimism every Saturday, because they walk in the door, they say “hi” to their friends from different schools, chat a little bit, then they sit down, we tune, and then, for three hours, they’re laser-focused on slaying some of the most challenging and rewarding orchestral repertoire there is. This include masterworks like Beethoven Symphony No. 7 or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and brand-new music by their peers: local, young composers from Oregon. 



THE ART OF LEARNING: an occasional series



My world is filled with optimism because after rehearsal, these kids go back home, hopefully rest and get some sleep, and then proceed to make it through their weeks at home, school, and their communities with the same focus, leadership, team spirit, and excellence that they exhibit in the orchestra. I go back home –exhausted and depleted of physical energy after rehearsing two ensembles for six hours – but on such a high. Five hundred-plus kids in Portland and Hillsboro just spent hours, under the leadership of an amazing team of conductors and coaches, doing what neuroscientists are calling “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” 

MUSIC & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

As somebody who is a professional musician and as somebody who works in music education, I am very aware of the many benefits that music brings to anybody who engages in some kind of music-making on a regular basis. Music performance, music education, and the arts in general are good for the brain, and they are a booster for creativity and discipline. 

There are many studies, articles, scientific and scholarly publications about the correlation between music education and academic achievement. Students who participate in music score substantially higher on many standardized tests of math, reading, and writing, and in other measures of academic achievement and skill development.  

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made great breakthroughs in understanding what music does to the human brain. A video publication by Dr. Anita Collins, a music educator in Australia, addresses this beautifully.

She explains that neuroscientists are able to monitor how our brains work with instruments like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scanners. They monitor the brains of people who are doing activities like reading or solving math problems, and different areas of the brain are activated. However, when they monitor people listening to music (not even playing, just listening) multiple areas of the brain light up at once. The scientists compare it to fireworks.

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Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez

Engaging the big issues: In a troubled world, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony leader says, schools need to teach the empathy of the arts

“One of my priorities has always been to promote and empower young musicians, to give voice to living composers,” Raúl Gómez-Rojas told ArtsWatch in 2018. Now in his fourth season as music director of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Gómez has firmly placed MYS in the forefront of classical music’s development by connecting tomorrow’s classical musicians with today’s music — including music composed by MYS members themselves. Last year, MYS partnered with Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project in a commissioning program, The Authentic Voice, which gives local, student composers an opportunity to write for and hear their work publicly performed by full symphony orchestra, while giving ensemble musicians a chance to play never performed music by their peers. This year, the program includes three symphonic commissions, each receiving a world premiere at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, eight YCP student arrangements of film scores for full orchestra, and other opportunities for readings and performances of works by younger composers with other MYS ensembles.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At MYS, the Costa Rican native  works with conductors, coaches, staff, families and more than 500 students in 15 orchestra, band and jazz ensembles. Last year, the League of American Orchestra’s 2018 Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview chose Gomez as one of six conductors honored for their “experience, talent, leadership, and commitment to a career in service to American orchestras.”

Raúl Gómez conducting the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: R. Kobell

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45th Parallel’s real-time music video

An interview with Ron Blessinger

It’s such a weird thrill going to Oregon Symphony concerts, looking down into the string section with its fifty-odd neatly seated performers, and seeing 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Ron Blessinger, buried in the violins, attentively warming up his bow with the rest of the office. That’s how it goes with this orchestra: scan the rest of that string section and you’ll see local composers Nancy Ives, James Shields, and usually Kenji Bunch. Up in the back, Niel DePonte tightens cymbal stands and organizes mallets. Supergroup!

In 2018, when Blessinger took the reins of local music organization 45th Parallel (founded ten years earlier by his fellow symphony violinist Greg Ewer), he immediately expanded the relatively loose-knit group into a Universe of ensembles drawn mostly from the ranks of Oregon Symphony principal players. The Parallel Universe has exploded all Marvel crossover-like in the last season and a half, with a wide range of classical music concerts all across the Old Versus New abyss. Our personal favorite highlight (so far) was 45||’s double concert last year pairing Mousai Remix’s beautifully economical black composer history lesson with a Pyxis Quartet concert featuring new work by local composers created in collaboration with local poet Micah Fletcher.

Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Seth Nehill.
Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2019. Photo by Seth Nehill.

Tonight, 45th Parallel presents the latest result of their restless creativity: Les Boréades, an evening of French music performed on a square stage inside the PICA building, two sides open to the audience and a pair of projection screens on the others. We’ve just learned that the concert is down to standing room only, which suits this eternally peripatetic music journalist just fine. Come early for a discussion of The Frame with the concert’s visual/psychological collaborators, and wear comfy shoes for your circumambulatory musical adventure.

We spoke with Blessinger by phone; his answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On collaboration and performance space

I go way back with Brad Johnson, the lead artist. He used to be the principal of Second Story Interactive, and I did a project with him where we used existing technology to create what you could call a virtual venue. We did something similar just about 15 years ago. This time around we came up with a musical program–a survey of French music–and then we were thinking of where to perform it.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Farewell to the king

In which we bid adieu to Neil Peart and comfort ourselves with winey classical marimba, saturnalian psalms, and an operatic sistah

Before we get into this week’s concerts, we’d like to spend a moment talking about Neil Peart, may he rest in well-deserved peace. Peart was always the present author’s favorite drummer to talk shit about. That’s true of all drummers, if they’re honest: spend more than an hour in any given drum shop and talk will eventually turn to discussions of most overrated drummer and so on, and Peart always tops everyone’s list. It’s a curious variant on sour grapes–we all begrudgingly admit the man’s skill, but we decry what often seems like metronomic bad taste. If I had chops like that (we all boast, twirling our Vic Firths), I would play more tastefully.

It’s a bad faith criticism, although it holds an element of truth. Peart was famous for his huge drumset and occasionally overblown playing, but the “human drum machine” jab doesn’t quite stick–not least because he used that oversized kit to bring a beautiful melodicism to his drumming, a musicality which is, in our estimation, the real reason so many drummers get touchy about him. There’s some sick drummerly impulse to talk shit on drummers who seem to get above themselves (consider Phil Collins), and lyricist Peart with his giant triplikit certainly fits the bill.

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Vision 2020: Martin Majkut

Rogue Valley Symphony's energetic conductor: music education in the schools is the key to getting people into concert halls

Conductor Martin Majkut divides his time between the East and West Coasts. He’s in his third season as musical director for the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York. Fortunately for Oregonians, his West Coast life is rooted in Southern Oregon, where he has spent nearly a decade as conductor for the Rogue Valley Symphony.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), Majkut graduated from the State Conservatory and served as assistant conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic while earning his Ph.D. in conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in 2003 and earned a DMA, his second doctorate, in 2008, at the University of Arizona.

He’s been with the Rogue Valley Symphony since 2010, during which time the symphony marked its 50th anniversary.

Martin Majkut conducts symphony orchestras on both coasts. For its size and location, he says, Southern Oregon has a surprisingly vibrant art scene. Photo by: Christopher Briscoe

I know you split your time between two symphonies on two coasts, but I’m wondering if you could briefly characterize the general state of artistic and cultural life in the Medford area. What’s going on there? What should the rest of Oregon know?

I jokingly maintain that Rogue Valley has “more arts than it deserves.” What I mean is that for its size and its location, the arts scene is surprisingly vibrant, with a number of organizations producing good quality work. Lots of it, however, is driven by the retirees, who come by and large from the Bay Area. They move to Rogue Valley for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and discover other local institutions, which they are happy to support, as arts have been part of their lifestyle in their previous life. The local arts boards consist mainly of people who were not born in the area. As much as we strive to enrich everyone’s life, deep down it is still a rural area and arts are an import.

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