MUSIC

Bridgetown Orchestra over troubled water

Multimedia production of ‘On Being Water’ doesn’t run deep

Story and photos by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The spare music starts up, scales and single notes slowly traversing the speaker array around the room. A vast drone-hum like an industrial air-conditioning unit rises up almost subliminally and suddenly shuts off, weighty in its absence, leaving silence in its wake, like the passing of a whale.

Bridgetown Orchestra Artistic Director Tylor Neist is nothing if not ambitious. Two years ago, the composer took us to outer space with his multimedia spectacle The Overview Effect. Previous years have seen scores for Lear and Kabuki Titus (both for Bag & Baggage), a string-quartet-plus-electronics piece for Fear No Music, and the formation of piano trio ThreePlay.

This year’s grand, complicated endeavor: On Being Water, an ersatz-immersive experience on aquatic themes, hosted at Hillsboro’s Vault Theater over Labor Day weekend, performed by Neist alone on a small ensemble of machines.

“You might suspect there’s not a 50-piece [Bridgetown] orchestra behind me,” Neist said with an ironic smile when introducing his show. He explained the absence of the planned, expected, promoted string quartet: “We found that using a live string quartet didn’t work so well.” So Neist recorded them separately and loaded them into his machines. “They’re in my orchestra right there,” he said, gesturing to the bank of MIDI keyboards and desktop computers. It wasn’t the production’s only technical difficulty: at some point designer Benjamin Read pulled out of the production, and Thursday’s opening night performance had to be cancelled when the sound system refused to properly send those pre-recorded string sounds through its 32 speakers.

After a few minutes it becomes evident that this music isn’t going to go anywhere: there will be no harmony, no melodies, just a swirl of vaguely tonal, vaguely minor, vaguely classical soundscapery. I jot in my notes, “terrible pun—watered down JLA.”

The Vault—formerly a bank, naturally—is a small space, a black-box theater sort of room comparable to CoHo. A central square of folding chairs; four bare walls, extending to bare rafters and ducts above; a raised stage up front, nothing on it but an inexplicable glass bowl. (Perhaps it’s for tips? Or maybe it’s for leaving your business card and winning a free lunch).

Neist had decorated the space with an array of projectors and a scattering of white surfaces for his oceanic imagery to be projected upon: big white boxes, five stacks, four high; a busy perimeter of dangling strings, festooned with blank white paper squares; white cloth drapes suspended hauntedhousely from those rafters.

Over those white planes, some kind of geissian digital video collage, rivulets of sound and images cutting across physical and acoustic planes more or less at random, generating cross-currents in the audio-visual stream. The visual themes come in a series of discrete, very long sections. In one, it’s bubbles going up and down like Tomorrowland’s submarine trompe-l’œil. In another it’s all random debris and eggy translucence, then rippling luminescence, all of a sudden dense lines falling like sleet, jagged ice on hard edges, angular folds of hanging fabric, frozen deco ridges, curvilinear light paths and gossamer pearline strings of ghostly effervescence.

The lack of boundaries between audience and stage and set, the immersive nature of the multimedia presentation, the intimacy of the little theater with its chairs and wires, bespectacled composer bent over glowing-apple-backed Macintosh—all washed together the liminal space between creator, performer, stage, and audience. In Neist’s words, On Being Water is about “bridging inner and outer worlds, old and new traditions.”

Before beginning the performance, he left us with: “Water has an unbelievable ability to carry metaphors. Find that deep place and enjoy the sounds.”

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‘Contralto’ and ‘Queer Opera Experience’: queer is a verb

Third Angle New Music and Portland State University productions transcend rigid gender boundaries

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Queer, like pride, is a verb. As a verb, it can have two opposing meanings: to problematize, and to normalize. In a single September weekend, Portlanders heard both, in very different approaches to queering art music.

Third Angle’s September 14 season opener Contralto, created by percussionist and experimental composer Sarah Hennies, derived strength and meaning from an Artaudesque confrontation with the challenges faced by transitioning women learning to retrain their voices. Part of this year’s TBA Festival, the hour-long film-and-music piece normalized the voice of the outsider, to be seen and understood, reminding us that people whose gender identities and sexual orientations lie outside traditional boundaries are still normal people, human beings with beautiful aspirations no different from those accustomed to passing in straight society.

Third Angle New Music presented ‘Contralto’ at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:18 Festival. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

The next night, two concerts of traditional classical vocal music performed by students in Portland State University’s Queer Opera Experience aimed for the opposite type of queering: by flipping the genders of famous opera characters, and leaving everything else the same, these singers demonstrated their right to a seat at the operatic table, loving whom they will, insisting on freedom of representation and authentic self-expression within the context of a conservative musical tradition.

Contralto

Seven women face the camera and deliver snippets of the speech therapy texts, beginning with body meditation affirmations—“your body is soft, your body is smooth”—reminiscent of hypnotic self-awareness techniques. The women move on to isolated syllables, gradually building up to words and phrases, “her voice is so soothing,” “when is your next appointment?” It’s a diverse assortment of women, young and old, and when they start singing musical notes their voices come together in moments of shyly emerging beauty. Composer and filmmaker Hennies earlier explained that “all of the text of this piece was constructed by speech therapists who assist trans women during their transitions.”

‘Contralto’ creator Sarah Hennies with Third Angle artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

Throughout, three percussionists crumple papers, drop keys, and create a creaking starfield of random sounds. The four string players get right into the extended bowing techniques, scratchy whispering harmonics, maximally sparse, minimally vibrant. Gliding tones never quite line up, never really go anywhere, certainly not towards any coherent harmony or melody. In one clever bit, the strings play a single note which one or the other of the prerecorded women then sing, a counterpoint of alternating tones, a composite scale emerging from the interplay of live performance and video, totally T:BA appropriate. But the music never really becomes very musical, remaining in this inchoate John Luther Adams territory for the whole very long hour. The only relief comes when the video soundtrack emits lovely sung chords, presumably constructed from samples of the women’s sung tones; the effect is a little like Imogen Heap on the vocoder.

I have to admit that this sort of experimental music wears thin fast, at least for me. Like its popular counterpart, noise rock, it seems all too easy to create a lot of sounds and call it good: no harmony, no melody, no groove, no take home pay. The infinite world of experimental music unleashed by Cage and Co. in the 1950s will probably never run its course: it’s a deep well, after all, and it most definitely scratches a musical itch. I suppose I was hoping (perhaps in part due to the show’s title, contralto being the lowest of the female singing ranges) for something along the lines of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices. That work, which Quince Ensemble performed for Third Angle last year, is certainly avant-garde and experimental in every sense, but it nevertheless features compelling melodies and harmonies.


Sarah Hennies – “Contralto” (preview) from Sarah Hennies on Vimeo.

Hennies describes her aesthetic as “concerned with an immersive, psychoacoustic presentation of sound brought about by an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice.” She’s no stranger to the music of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, et al, and she does have more harmonically driven music in her catalog (Live Fleas and Gather & Release are particularly good, although of course none of it is Mozart). All of which suggests that Contralto’s arrhythmic, aharmoic, amelodic scoring of the strings and percussion was a completely deliberate choice, an aesthetic layering meant to be experienced in counterpoint to the audio-visual presentation, a troubling sonic evocation of the difficult undercurrent running through the life-affirming experience of transition. It’s a bold move, a film composer sort of decision, a way of queering the narrative.

Queer Opera Experience

It was with great relief that I got to go hear several hours of sheer uninterrupted melody at two concerts produced by PSU’s Queer Opera Experience that weekend. Seven women (again seven!) performed two concerts of classical repertoire—an evening of opera scenes on September 15 and an afternoon of art songs on the 16th—flipping genders and singing what they wanted, without regard to traditional voice type.

PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard, who accompanied the performers in Lincoln Hall’s little black box studio theater, came out before the show to discuss the project. “I want to start by saying that I love my mother,” he said from the stage, relating a phone call on the subject of queer opera. “She said, ‘Charles, you might be a lot of things, but you are not queer.’ And I understood what she meant, sadly. But it made me reflect on what the word means, has meant, and can mean.” He discussed the word’s history as a means of torment and ridicule, and its reclamation as a positive expression and “an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as L, G, B, or T.”

“Tonight,” Dillard concluded, “queer is a verb.”

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Hispanic Heritage Month, Russian theater and music, and more

Upcoming Yamhill County events range from Aztec dancers and Day of the Dead celebrations to Gogol and the Hermitage Piano Trio

Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is designated as a time to celebrate the contributions — not just in arts and culture, but in all human endeavors — of Hispanic and Latino Americans. It started as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Johnson and, thanks to legislation by U.S. Rep. Esteban Edward Torres, a California Democrat, was expanded by President Reagan to a month-long observance in 1988.

Perhaps due to the proximity of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations as October turns into November, public events fill out the calendar during this month. That, at least, is true in Yamhill County, where — no surprise here — the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg has packed October full of Hispanic theater, music, and dance. Linfield College in McMinnville and George Fox University in Newberg are also getting into the act, so let’s take them in chronological order.

Curtis Acosta speaks Oct. 15 in Newberg on defending the rights and education of Chicanx/Latinx youth.

Oct. 15: PROFESSOR CURTIS ACOSTA is a teacher with a story to tell, one that has made the pages of Yes! magazine and was the subject of the documentary Precious Knowledge. He was among those who developed a Mexican Studies program serving 1,500 high school students in Tucson, Arizona, in 1998. Although it was successful by a number of measures, it generated a politically motivated backlash in 2010, culminating in a law that banned the class. Long story short: Teachers, parents, and students got mad, got organized, and filed a legal challenge that was ultimately successful, with the curriculum being reinstated three years later.

Acosta, who is on the University of Arizona faculty, will speak Oct. 15 in the Canyon Commons of George Fox University in a presentation titled Victory in Arizona: Defending the Rights and Education of Chicanx/Latinx Youth in an Era of Hate and Anti-Intellectualism. Seems like a timely topic. The talk is scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

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MusicWatch Weekly: human voices

Choral and vocal concerts take center stage this week in Oregon music

Portland’s big choirs once again present fans of choral music with some difficult choices. As happens too often — there’s a choral calendar that you’d think might help prevent this — several have scheduled shows on the same weekend, making it impossible to see more than a couple of shows, assuming your weekly music budget will stretch even that far. They’re all recommendable, and all feature contemporary as well as classic sounds. I just wish we didn’t have to choose.

Cappella Romana performed at St. Mary’s Cathedral in April.

• Best known for performances of ancient Byzantine music, Cappella Romana goes ultra-modern in Heaven and Earth: A Song of Creation Saturday at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, and Sunday at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, 1112 S.E. 41st Ave. The concert features the premiere of a new setting of an ancient Orthodox psalm by six Orthodox composers — including Portland’s own John Boyer, the choir’s new associate music director, who’ll lead the performances. Read more about the new Psalm 103 project, and how the new piece connects to the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, here. I wish more groups originally devoted to being exclusively museums of old music by dead composers would open contemporary wings like this one and apply their historically informed insights to new music.

• That’s exactly what one of Portland’s most promising new musical additions, Big Mouth Society, does in Saturday and Sunday’s Portland premiere of The Gonzales Cantata at Mercy Corps Action Center, 28 SW 1st Ave. When Australian-America composer Melissa Dunphy cooked up her neo-baroque cantata (scored for choir with soloists, string orchestra and harpsichord) back in 2009, she couldn’t have imagined the even more operatic, scandalous senatorial outrage we’ve all just endured. It’s based on the 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which disclosed improprieties that ultimately forced his resignation in disgrace (though somehow didn’t disqualify him from becoming an NPR commentator and law school dean). The senators (including Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Orrin Hatch et al) are portrayed by reverse-gendered singers from Curious Voices, and performers include students from Willamette University and Reed College. During performances, Big Mouth Society will host Oregonians United Against Profiling, a coalition opposing Measure 105, which would repeal Oregon’s anti-racial profiling law and allow local law enforcement resources to be diverted to federal action against immigrants.

David DeLyser leads Choral Arts Ensemble.

• In Everlasting Voices, Saturday and Sunday at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 NE Alameda St., Choral Arts Ensemble celebrates its 50th anniversary season with a retrospective that looks both backward (classical composers like Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Copland) and forward, with some of the 21st century’s hottest young choral composers, including Ēriks Ešenvalds and Jake Runestad.

Gil Seeley at Oregon Repertory Singers concert

• Oregon Repertory Singers opens its 45th season with a new CD and a concert. Shadows on the Stars features one of America’s most-performed composers, Beaverton-born Morten Lauridsen, who splits his time between his teaching duties at the University of Southern California and Waldron Island. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St. He returns to accompany the 100-voice choir’s performances of his compositions Sure on this Shining Night and Ya Eres Mía. Accompanist Naomi LaViolette takes the keyboard in Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs, which sets poems by Robert Graves. The second half features another venerated choral master, this one from Estonia. Oregon Repertory Singers was the first American choir to bring Veljo Tormis, who died last year at age 86, to the United States. ORS emeritus conductor Gilbert Seeley returns to lead Tormis’s moving music.

• Portland Symphonic Choir also opens its season this weekend with exciting news: the world premiere of a new spiritual by Portland composer Judy Rose, I’ve Found Me a River. Saturday’s well-rounded concert at Portland’s Tiffany Center also includes Brahms’s Love Song Waltzes and Eric Whitacre’s popular 2001 composition Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.

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Accessible Arts part 2: maze rollers

Adventures in wheelchair access to Portland music events

by DAVID MACLAINE

Have you have ever been to one of those restaurants with paper placemats designed to keep children occupied for a few precious minutes? Remember those mazes where the young ones try to trace a pencil line from opening to goal? Or perhaps you know teens, or even twenty-somethings who pay visits each autumn to a corn maze.

The challenge of the labyrinth, the quaint pleasure of braving corridors that twist and turn and double back, which offers only the dubious pleasure of emerging unscathed at the other end, may seem like one of those childhood delights that we can abandon with few regrets when we decide to embrace the “grown-up” role. But if you intend to maintain the most active life you can, despite whatever tribulations may befall along the way, that practice threading through mazes may be more handy than you expect.

Loedewijck Toepet, aka Lodovico Pozzoserrato, “Pleasure Garden with a Maze,” ca. 1579-84, oil on canvas, 147.4 x 200 cm, Hampton Court Palace, London

That, at least has been my experience the last five years attending concerts with my partner who now needs a wheelchair to get around. Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, your concert venue will almost certainly provide a decent place for chair-using fans to enjoy the show. But getting there may require you to dust off your maze-running skills.

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Oregon Symphony: reaching for the stars

Orchestra's season-opening concerts range from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek' to a classical music superstar

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra started its season in September with two of the more unusual, less typically classical types of concerts it regularly produces. The first was part of the film-with-live-score series, always among the OSO’s most popular concerts; the second was an evening of overtures and songs and a favorite recurring guest star. The movie was Star Wars, the first and original (retitled A New Hope when the Empire Struck Back). The special guest was superstar soprano Renée Fleming, premiering a new song cycle by Kevin Puts and singing hits from her classical, cinematic, and Broadway catalogs (told you she’s a superstar).

The Oregon Symphony performed the score to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ while the film played.

In both concerts at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the OSO came out swinging for the fences, sounding sharper than I’ve ever heard it. And this weekend, the orchestra continues its live film score performances with that other long-running science fiction film franchise. More on that below.

Star Wars

It’s fitting that symphony orchestras have been saving themselves from oblivion by performing film scores by composers like John Williams, who is generally credited with reviving and saving the orchestral tradition in film music. Watching any movie, in a concert hall instead of a movie theater (or living room), with living and breathing musicians performing the score in person like any other symphony, is always multiple different experiences: concert performance as much as movie screening. When it’s Star Wars, you’re bumping elbows with a couple thousand other Star Wars fans, listening to supremely iconic music which is possibly more important than the film itself; these fans love this movie and its soundtrack as much as your average concert-goer loves Brahms and Beethoven, and the excitement in the Schnitz that night was, ahem, a palpable Force.

A film is a smorgasbord of varied art forms. To watch a movie is a plurality of experiences, driven by narrative and character like theater and literature, photographed and edited into an illusory farrago of moving pictures, decorated with an assortment of audio and visual effects, and given life with some sort of musical score. When opera first became a thing back in the 1600s, it got its name—which simply means “works”—from the way it combined music with other existing arts like poetry, dance, acting, and stagecrafty stuff like set design and costuming (not to mention the mechanical dragons, flying stages, and now the various multidisciplinary effects the 21st century has birthed). Now that film has supplanted opera as the most perfect art form (#sorrynotsorry), it’s only appropriate that one of the greatest would turn out to be the space opera Star Wars.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Star Wars itself is a plurality of experiences: it’s a fairy tale and a hero’s quest (several of them, in fact); it’s a gritty 1970s-style “used future” sci-fi picture, part of a lineage that stretches from 2001 to Moon; it’s a miracle of independent filmmaking, simultaneously a myth-making blockbuster and the work of an idiosyncratic auteur in love with documentaries and samurai movies; it was the first movie a lot of us fell in love with, and after 40 years and however many sequels/ prequels/ books/ games/ cartoons the first one remains the best (second best if you count Empire, but that’s an argument for beers and joints; fight me later).

Williams’s score adds to this all this rich profusion, and not just because it’s so damn good or because it marries that gritty realism to all the lofty, heroic, transcendent, mythological, Romantic ideals which are the film’s heart.

Huynh’s conductor’s score for ‘Star Wars.’

Williams is one of the Great Composers, with every right to steal from Stravinsky, Holst, and Bartók (as those composers in turn stole from Debussy, Wagner, et alia), and that makes him part of the same time-honored tradition as the rest of OSO’s normal repertoire (any ass can hear that). Raise the screen and I could believe this was just another symphonic poem, an evening-length concerto for orchestra by one of America’s most successful living composers. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that Williams generally doesn’t show up on “greatest American composer” lists like this one

All of this made it a distinct thrill to hear Star Wars performed on September 9 by the same orchestra we last heard playing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Although Williams’s score is customarily connected to the classical world with the formula “Wagner via Holst and Korngold,” the composers I hear the most in this music all showed up on OSO concerts last season.

• The tribal-mechanical percussion, the menacingly heraldic brass, the creeping weirdness of the low woodwinds: all are features of OSO’s old friend The Rite of Spring, and performed with the same sense of familiar immediacy.

• The mythological, melancholy strains of that immortal Force theme, the rebellious sentimentality of Princess Leia’s theme, the grand sweeping gestures and the heroic fanfares and the quiet intimate moments: all played with the deep spiritual sincerity the orchestra invariably brings to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.

• And when Williams’s score gets sciencefictional, it does so by operating in the complex 20th-century sound world the OSO already knows so well from Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Messiaen.

Renée Fleming

In its September 23rd opening concert, the OSO came out in fine form, starting the show with a bit of Richard Strauss (the tone poem Don Juan), the horns sounding especially wonderful, Teutonic trombones muscular and rotund, principal oboist Martin Hébert dazzling on his solo.

Renée Fleming came out in a glorious fuchsia Vera Wang gown and talked a bit about Letters from Georgia, a song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Fleming recounted the work’s inception in the letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz which Puts used as a libretto, calling them “very steamy, very powerful.”

Puts won his Pulitzer for his first opera, and operatic sensibilities shine all through Letters from Georgia. Right out the gate the orchestra plays a series of huge post-tonal sonorities, a big full modern symphonic sound, the world of Adès, Britten, Davies, Henze, Higdon; by contrast, most of the vocal passages were supported by clear instrumental textures, leaving space for the all-important melodies, giving Fleming’s voice and O’Keeffe’s words room to breathe. Huge moments would give way suddenly to very small passages: a tender duet between clarinetists James Shields and Todd Kuhns (the fourth song, “Friends”); a 4-mallet vibraphone solo from Niel DePonte (the closing song, “Canyon,” which was certainly the best of the five); a series of solo violin passages for concertmaster Sarah Kwak (including a comically gnarly bit of devilish fiddling during the second song, “Violin”). Throughout it all Fleming played the superstar, one voice against a hundred instruments, her performance alternately vulnerable and assertive, always beautiful and evocative, bold and individualistic but subservient to the text, the story, the music.

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Kenari Quartet: sax in the spotlight

Chamber Music Northwest concerts put a neglected classical music instrument in the forefront

by PATRICK McCULLEY

A unique and rare thing happened this year at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival: a saxophone quartet. Rare because, let’s face it, if not for the Quadraphonnes, Portland would probably never hear saxophone quartet music in any genre. Unique because the quartet in question, the Kenari Quartet, is an exemplary group of ensemble musicians the likes of which Portland rarely gets to see in classical chamber music. But what made this particular circumstance truly special is that a classical music institution like CMNW demonstrated the guts to break with outdated norms as to what constitutes classical music instrumentation/ensemble and put together a program that heavily featured the saxophone.

The CMNW audience was first introduced to the Kenari Quartet (Bob Eason on soprano sax, Kyle Baldwin on alto sax, Corey Dundee on tenor sax, and Steven Banks on baritone sax) in a flurry of metalic squawks, clicks, squeals, growls, and dissonant harmonies. It was from this veritable nightmare of sound that our hero, Adolphe Sax, played by Harold Dixon, awoke. The play, Sax Degrees of Separation by Harry Clark, is a series of exchanges between actor and saxophone quartet performed at Kenari Quartet’s June 27 showcase at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The dialogue draws from the colorful personal history of the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, from his accident-prone childhood in Dinant, Belgium to his frustrated attempts at recognition as a first-class instrument maker in Brussels and his subsequent move to Paris to make a name for himself.

Kenari Quartet and Harold Dixon at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Photo: Jonathan Lange.

In Paris, Sax met with equal parts success and frustration. Success because of the reception the saxophone received among composers such as Hector Berlioz, the Paris marching bands, and his later appointment to the Paris Conservatory. But until the very end, Sax was pursued by various lawsuits claiming that his instruments, notably the saxophone, infringed on someone else’s copyright. Although there was never any credibility to these claims, Sax nonetheless had to declare bankruptcy on three separate occasions, owing to the expense of his legal fees, and died in poverty in 1894.

At each turn of success, Dixon acted with wide-eyed enthusiasm and glee, giving the character of Sax a self-aggrandizing air, a concept reinforced when Sax reads quotes about himself to the audience. With each dip in his fortunes, Sax came across as an altogether incredulous and possibly insane person, a device that played well with the audience, eliciting more than a few guffaws. Sax’s eccentricities took a sharp turn toward the megalomaniacal in the third act, as the inventor described in excessive detail a personal fantasy of building giant instruments on the outskirts of Paris that could be heard for miles around.

Punctuating every act was a performance by the Kenari Quartet. Their playing was immediately striking for their ability to blend timbrally and their excellent balance of articulation and dynamic. Whereas many saxophone quartets play as a group of individuals acting in concert, the Kenari Quartet’s playing lives and breathes as a single organism, as alive as any world-class chamber ensemble could hope to be.

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