MUSIC

‘Bodies’ review: Pride is a verb

Resonance Ensemble's Pride Week concert commemorates LGBTQIA community's struggles and celebrates its creativity

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

“One of the most common questions I get is ‘what is pride?’,” said Pride Northwest Executive Director Debra Porta at the Q&A following Resonance Ensemble’s June concert, Bodies. “It’s difficult to put into words.” This echoed Porta’s words from the beginning of the concert (an official Pride Week event), when she praised the pride and perseverance of those who “broke the universe into pieces” to be who they are and concluded that “Pride is a verb.”

The Cerimon House stage was lit with splashes of color, a rainbow of lights arrayed along the wall, a doubled Roy G. Bv coruscating out from central violets to perimeter reds. The concert commenced with Dominick DiOrio’s The Visible World, a sort of modern madrigal treating the struggle for marriage equality with a quilt of texts ranging from Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” and a love poem by Catullus to quotes from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and civil rights activist Paul Barwick. The title comes from Théophile Gautier’s quote “I am a man for whom the visible world exists,” but the piece was dominated by a line taken from a poster spotted outside Seattle City Hall in 2012: “Sorry it took so long.”

PRIDE Executive Director Debra Porta with Resonance Ensemble’s Katherine FitzGibbon at ‘Bodies.’ Photo: Kenton Waltz.

That phrase spooled out through the ensemble in a Proverb-type canon that immediately put me in mind of Renaissance counterpoint, Meredith Monk, Caroline Shaw, David Lang. The harmony often veered into very chromatic realms, not dissonant (if the word even means anything anymore) but those dense, jazzy, Manhattan Transfer jazz chords that Resonance knows how to sing better than anyone else in Portland. Wolfe-style post-minimalist pulsations and flashes of Gabriel Kahane’s populist lyrical sensibility elevated quotidian lines like “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives” while two millennia of queer poetry intermingled over drones and semitone shimmers and cascades of “sorry it took so long.”

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Oregon Bach Festival review: vision vacuum

Lacking a coherent artistic vision, venerable festival flounders

By TOM MANOFF

You can’t really assess what was at this season’s Oregon Bach Festival without acknowledging what wasn’t: erstwhile artistic director Matthew Halls, the multi-talented conductor whose questionable dismissal last year was widely covered throughout the arts world. Would this new season put an end to the shocking (for many) episode? Would this year’s music reassure audiences and musicians that OBF will continue at the highest levels of artistry? Most crucial, could the festival of founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling and Matthew Halls remain world class — without a music director?

Baroque on Steroids

OBF 2018 started June 29 at Silva Hall with audience favorite Monica Huggett leading the Festival’s 30-member Baroque Orchestra in four of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In first half lineup of Brandenburgs 2, 4, and 5, No.4 was best performed, with Huggett’s virtuosic violin passages shimmering through Bach’s delightfully dense harmony and counterpoint.

The other two Brandenburgs fared less well with poor ensemble playing. The tempos were quite brisk and not all sections kept up with the pace.

Monica Huggett conducted Bach’s music at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

The OBF Berwick Academy — the festival’s workshop orchestra of 30 young period instrumentalists — joined the OBF pros to make an unusually large orchestra for Bach, but suitable for Silva’s large space. Perhaps in keeping with this “Baroque-on-steroids” ensemble, Huggett led an irreverent (but somewhat charming) interpretation of Brandenburg One. The longtime Portland Baroque Orchestra leader and renowned Baroque violinist asked the audience to imagine that the two horn players in the ensemble were drunk, low-born musicians who had crashed a royal musical occasion. Whenever they played, Huggett pointed her bow to them, exhorting a loud, over the top effect. At other times Huggett stomped her feet with the music. Not your standard Bach, but the audience loved it. I remain on the fence. Since the concert I’ve listened to the work several times on CD with the score to restore the music to a more pristine version in my mind.

The concert ended with a tidy performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, led from the keyboard by visiting conductor Alexander Weimann, but, following the “Bach Bacchanale” that was the Brandenburg One, the Suite came off as too straight-laced.

Silva’s acoustic was problematic. The sound was unfocused and without warmth. But last year, in the same hall, a splendid OBF performance of Handel’s Hercules proved that some Baroque fare sounds fine in Silva space. But Handel’s textures are generally less dense than Bach’s, especially the Brandenburgs. How to use Silva (and its electronic enhancement system) is an ongoing issue for OBF, ideally addressed by a future artistic director.

Berwick Academy

My favorite performance of the festival was by the Berwick Academy, OBF’s workshop program for emerging period instrumentalists. The first half of their July 3 concert featured Telemann’s Overture in E minor, Händel’s Concerto Grosso in A major Op.6, No.11, and the suite from his 1706 opera Rodrigo in B flat.

This performance featured what every good Baroque outing must have: a decisive, forward moving bass line from the continuo instruments. In too many performances, the bass line plods along with no regard for the melodic richness. But here, the energized and nuanced phrasing by the cello and double bass Berwick players enlivened the lower part of the musical structure.

Phrasing from the entire ensemble was wonderful. Renowned Dutch harpsichordist Jacques Ogg directed from the keyboard. Concertmaster Chloe Fedor was particularly elegant leading the string section, and moving with the phrasing almost like a dancer.

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Joan Tower: ‘The voice is in the risks’

The esteemed American composer, in Oregon for Willamette Valley Chamber Music festival, talks about music, teaching, risk-taking, and the future of classical music (not)

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

I love Joan Tower’s music. It’s right there in the Goldilocks zone: serious but not stodgy, zealous but not brash, subtle but not understated, big and bold but also immediate and intimate, fun and exciting and weird but also somber, emotive, complex, heartfelt. It’s expansive, stimulating stuff, neither overly planned nor chaotically aleatoric but organically developed from simple generative ideas, grown from seed to plant to harvest with a minimum of fuss and fluff.

It’s rich music that fills your soul like a hearty meal. When I’m done with a typical 13-to-15-minute Tower composition (say, 1976’s Black Topaz, or the Grammy-winning Made in America), I don’t want more, at least not right away; I want to savor. No obsessive munching on hours of Glass opera, no blissing out in Oliveros trances, no Kahane singalongs.

Tower is, above all, a narrative composer. Not in the sense that there is a poem or story dictating each detail like in a tone-poem by Strauss or Berlioz, but in the more abstract isomorphic sense that led Debussy to affix descriptive titles to the ends—not the beginnings—of his preludes. The music comes first, and has its own peculiar narrative language; titles and subheadings come later, as a description of music that has already been written.

American composer Joan Tower.

Tower will be in Oregon for the opening weekend of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, whose founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi are among what seems like an endless river of Tower friends (David Ludwig is another name in that river, and when I mentioned him she said she had just been texting him). As this year’s composer-in-residence, Tower will attend open forums to discuss her work, and the first weekend’s concerts feature her fifth string quartet (“White Water”, which I remember quite fondly from Calidore’s performance at last year’s CMNW) and Rising for string quartet and flute, sandwiched between Haydn’s Joke and Beethoven’s second Rasumovsky quartet. Portland area superstars Amelia Lukas, Marilyn de Oliveira, Greg Ewer, Charles Noble, and Megumi Stohs Lewis join Callahan, Eguchi, and former composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, whose String Circle for String Quartet features in the second weekend.

I spoke with Tower by phone while she waited to board a plane to Oregon and drink wine in the country with classical musicians.

On composing

“It’s totally organic. It’s like writing a novel. You start with a character and an environment with a particular profile and then you try and figure what that character is going to do.”

“What is technique? I don’t know. You see, I’m not a pitch person. The world’s all pitch pitch pitch, and that’s not what my music is about. It’s about everything else. The register, the texture, the rhythm, the action, is it going up, is it going down, all that other stuff is what I’m concerned about. Pitches are not that important to me. I can say that now. Pitches to me are like, okay, I’m going to use bricks, I’m going to use marble, but they mean nothing to me until I start shaping. They don’t drive the music, the music drives them. It took me a long time to figure that out, after all the schooling.”

“If you look at Beethoven, who is one of my biggest influences, he is very much about the texture, the rhythm, where is it going, where is it coming back to; those kinds of issues are very significant to Beethoven. If you just did just a pitch analysis of Beethoven, it’s not that interesting.”

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Carrington-Coltrane-Spalding: Celebrating Geri Allen

PDXJazz concert summons the generous spirit of the late pianist

by PATRICK McCULLEY

The February 22 PDX Jazz Festival concert at Portland’s Newmark Theatre was originally intended to showcase the music of the ACS Trio. But because of the untimely death of pianist Geri Allen (the “A” in ACS, Allen-Carrington-Spalding) the previous summer, the concert turned from showcase to musical memorial. The result was a worthy celebration of the life and music of an inspiring human being.

The night opened quietly and subtly with improvisations on jazz standards and popular songs by Portland pianist Darrell Grant, who collaborated with Allen during a performance at Reed College in 2009. Before playing, Grant took time to praise Allen’s bold voice, openness, and encouragement of “finding my own voice” in his playing. Before each song, Grant gently read lyrics to songs he was about to play, to provide the audience with a verbal connection to an otherwise instrumental medium, and then turned to the piano and began. The first song, Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose,” set a nostalgic and beautiful tone for much of the rest of Grant’s set. Particularly poignant was his improvisation on James Taylor’s (by way of John Denver) “Fire and Rain” with particular stress on the melody of “but I always thought I’d see you again.”

Pianist, professor and composer Darrell Grant.

There was something particularly enchanting about Darrell Grant’s playing that night. His improvisations, even during their wilder moments, seemed to have a hypnotically calming effect on the audience. Perhaps too calming, because it was at about this point in the set I could hear an audience member close to me snoring. The only thing surprising about that was how long it took for his friends to wake him up.

Audience etiquette, guys. It goes a long way.

The highlight of the set was an original composition, “The Compass,” that Grant said reminded him of the way Allen’s music “danced.” Opening with a deep, grooving, insatiable bass line played in the left hand, and a bluesy, spiritual accompaniment in the right, as the song continued, the bassline became a frame for an increasingly complex spiral of colorful, and chromatic improvisations that built and intensified until the melody’s eventual return.

When the trio of Ravi Coltrane (soprano and tenor saxophones), Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), and Esperanza Spalding (bass), began their set it was without grief, without a sense of mourning or hesitation, but with celebration. Their first song was rhythmically complex and fast, with a playful and punchy melody sung by soprano sax. The saxophone melody transitioned to a solo and afterwards an energetic interplay of bass and drums, and then a spitfire drum solo.

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Violin virtuoso Charles Castleman pays Linfield a kingly visit

The 77-year-old performer and teacher leads free chamber concerts this week at the McMinnville college

If you haven’t heard of the Castleman Quartet, don’t feel bad. This summer violin-development program has been going nearly half a century, but until recently, it was confined to the East Coast, where violinist Charles Castleman first presided over it as a graduate student in Philadelphia. Given that Castleman has been making connections in the classical music world for seven decades, it’s not surprising that he knew a piano teacher at Linfield College. A couple of years ago, they brought the program to McMinnville, and it returns for its third season this week, featuring several days of recitals on campus with violin students from around the country.

Charles Castleman works with a student during the Castleman Quartet Program at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

The 77-year-old Castleman is something of a rock star in the violin world. His parents were not musicians, but played classical recordings at home, and Castleman’s introduction to the violin came when he was little more than 2. His mother took him backstage at the Boston Pops, where he met conductor Arthur Fiedler, who would lead the orchestra for half a century. Fiedler was impressed with the young Castleman’s musical knowledge, but observed that he didn’t yet have the size or coordination to play an instrument.

“He suggested that when I was 3 or 4, I should start,” Castleman recalled when I sat down with him last week. “He said, ‘You should play the violin, and you should play the piano at the same time so you don’t just hear horizontally.’ So he was a mentor for quite some time. I played a solo for him, when I was 5 or 6, with the Pops.”

His first teacher was Emanuel Ondricek, and he later studied with Ivan Galamian, David Oistrakh (who had “an enormous impact on my bow arm,” he told an interviewer in 2005) and Henryk Szeryng (who had significant “impact on my choice of fingerings and choice of bowings in performance,” Castleman said in that same interview). Castleman is, according to his website, “perhaps the world’s most active performer and pedagogue on the violin.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: August catch-up

A new month brings more music festivals to Oregon

Keeping up with even the segment of Oregon’s increasingly busy music scene ArtsWatch can afford to cover (and we’d love to do more, if our readers and Oregon music institutions will help us pay for it) is nearly impossible when the season’s in full swing. It’s all we can do to tell you what’s about to happen, so you don’t miss the stuff you want to hear. That’s why we prioritize previews and reviews of continuing productions, like multi-performance operas. Readers have complained about us piling too many music stories at once, so we try to keep it to a maximum of one per day, which is about all we can handle with our current resources anyway.

That often means that reviews of non-recurring shows get pushed to the end of the line, or rather the end of the season. Which is where we find ourselves this month. With a few notable exceptions, most classical and jazz music institutions pretty much shut it down beginning in June, when western Oregonians at last joyously receive parole from our rain-huddled winter and spring imprisonment and head outside. Most of the rest, like the Astoria and Oregon Coast and Oregon Bach Festivals and Chamber Music Northwest, also call it a season when the smoke begins to descend. Which gives our writers (many of whom are working musicians and/or have day jobs) a chance to catch our breaths (figuratively at least) and finally catch up on those reviews they hadn’t time and/or we hadn’t room to deliver earlier.

That’s why you’ve been seeing reviews of events stretching back to early 2018 lately, and will be seeing more in coming weeks as our writers, once again stuck inside avoiding wildfire smoke, continue working through their backlogs. We hope you enjoy the memories until the new shows commence.

English conductor Jeremy Summerly (center) led a vocal ensemble at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

Which actually is, er, now! Yes, while a couple of major festivals close this weekend, no fewer than four more music festivals begin this week, including the annual William Byrd Festival, which runs August 10-26 at several Portland venues. Now embarking on its third decade of bringing Renaissance choral music to Portland, the annual festival includes public lectures, open-to-the-public choral performances at church services, an organ recital, and a pair of public concerts. Friday’s opening concert at Portland’s Old Church, directed by renowned English choral conductor Jeremy Summerly, features masterpieces from 1610-11 — the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Friday also marks the opening of the annual Sunriver Music Festival, with a concert celebrating the centenary of one of America’s mightiest men of music, Leonard Bernstein. Along with his ballet score Fancy Free and joyously jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, the concert includes Rhapsody in Blue by one of Bernstein’s great inspirations, George Gershwin, and a brief, brash, bustling 1992 work by the American composer whose new Passion was premiered last month at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Composer Richard Danielpour works with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus in preparation for the premiere of his ‘Yeshua Passion.’

“While Toward the Splendid City was composed as a portrait of New York, the city in which I live,” Richard Danielpour has written, he actually began it during his year-long residency with the  Seattle Symphony, a Northwest sojourn which not surprisingly gave him “serious second thoughts about returning to New York. Life was always complicated in the city and easier, it seemed, everywhere else. I was, however, not without a certain pang of nostalgia for my hometown, and as a result Toward the Splendid City was driven by my love-hate relationship with New York. The work’s title comes from the heading of Pablo Neruda’s 1974 Nobel Prize address.” He wound up going back anyway.

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Aallotar review: collaboration, commitment, courage

Finnish-American chamber folk duo blends classical influences and traditional dance music to create original compositions

By DANIEL HEILA

At Aallotar’s July 29 concert at the beautifully austere Nordia House, the Finland/Minnesota duo played with an intensely graceful stage presence against a lovely backdrop, through plate glass windows, of the Nordic culture center’s patio garden. There and at the band’s next show at Cottage Grove’s Axe and Fiddle, the reception was positive and enthusiastic, the performances quite relaxed, with atmospheric arrangements and earthbound tempos.

Aallotar

Yet even though many in the Nordia House audience appeared to be veteran Scandinavian dance music fans, Aallotar didn’t really play traditional dance music. Granted, the roots of Aallotar’s music lie with pelimanni, the Finnish version of traditional Nordic dance music. Think of the music your Lutheran grand-relatives danced schottisches, polkas, mazurkas, and hambos to.

But with Aallotar, the dance forms are transformed, expanded, and updated (although, on both nights, they indulged their audiences by slipping into a straight-up polska or two). More familiar with the up-tempo, rollicking dance tunes of popular Finnish pelimanni folk bands such as Frigg, JPP, and the more obscure Pinnin Pojat, I was challenged by the pair’s interpretations. Throughout the concerts, enchanted by clear, precise vocal technique and intelligent arrangements, I wondered, “How did these women arrive at this music?”

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