MUSIC

MusicWatch Weekly: Hello from Bali!

Music editor in Bali, women in wine country, classical jamming in NoPo

It seemed appropriate that practically the first thing we did in Bali—after stopping for bottled water and kretek—was stop into a beautiful restaurant featuring a thirty foot statue of Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Ganesha is traditionally invoked at the beginnings of difficult endeavors, and although none of us post-Christian U.S. Americans were religiously savvy enough to know any traditional prayers and blessings, we still took His presence at our first dinner as a good omen.

Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.
Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.

Gods and goddesses are everywhere here, along with a wild profusion of temples, statues, offerings of fruit and rice and incense, street dogs, motorbikes, delicious “warung” food carts, and music music music. I’m here with Portland’s only Balinese gamelan, Wahyu Dari Langit (“Revelation from the Skies”), and we’re here to study the traditional percussion-centric music of Indonesia. It’s been almost embarrassing to encounter groups of kids on the street playing drums and gongs with skill and grace we all agree we’ll never achieve.

But we’re still learning, and I’ll tell you all about that as we go along. I’m also still going to tell you about all the stuff I’m missing in Oregon this week and beyond. But first, I have to tell you about the mini-opera we watched shortly after arrival—a deeply entertaining, spiritually fulfilling two-hour spectacle of music and dance centered around a mythical beast known as Barong.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second Summer

Out-of-town festivals, funk at the zoo, opera ‘bout Guthrie, we’re all Kulululu

Oregon, as everyone knows, has two summers every year. The first lasts from the first hot weekend in May until the end of Chamber Music Northwest. The second summer—the one you’re in right now—occupies all of August and lasts until Oregon Symphony gets rolling for real at the end of September (their annual Zoo show on the 7th doesn’t count).

If you want to hear live classical music during Second Oregon Summer, you’ll have to head down to Jacksonville for the Britt Music & Arts Festival, happening right now through the 11th, or else head out to wine country for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, happening right now through the 18th. You can read Alice Hardesty’s previw of Britt right here, and Angela Allen’s preview of the WVCMF right here.

Other than that, you’re out of luck. There’s no music happening in Portland during Second Summer, so you might as well stay home, stay hydrated, catch up on your reading, and dig into that 10-disc Lutosławski boxed set.

Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

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Music in the wineries: a fine pairing

Old world and new meet and match in a rare and heady balance as the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival uncorks its fourth vintage

Good wine is a natural companion to great music, perhaps better than strawberries and cream in Oregon’s midsummer. In pairing the two, the old world meets the new, and each enhances the other, says Leo Eguchi, co-founder of August’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. 

A cellist and wine collector, Eguchi explains how the alchemy works: “In the summer of 1890, an aging Johannes Brahms felt that he had one last mountain to summit, and it was a big one. He sat down to write one final piece before retirement, and he poured in everything left to say. The resulting work, the String Quintet in G Major, opus 111, demonstrates a perspective that only an aging master can provide: exuberant joy, mournful tragedy, love lost and won … in short, a life complete and well-lived.”  

(As it turned out, the piece wasn’t Brahms’ swansong.)

Festival founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg. Photo: Kelly Stewart

The vintage that partners with Brahms’ piece during the first festival weekend, Eguchi explains, is “restrained or extravagant. Archery Summit’s 2016 Red Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir has a depth and balance to accompany the string quintet. Ripe cherry and roasted tea flavors mirror the music’s surprise turns from major to minor, and the wine strikingly shows the same warm richness that can only be the voice of Brahms, deepened even further in the mid-range by this quintet’s additional (extra) viola.”

Give it a whirl!

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Philip Glass’s music makes a perfect match to Kafka’s provocative story in Portland Opera’s potent production 

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Why on earth do we go to an opera? Great singing? Check. Realistic, affecting acting? Check. Innovative sets and staging ? Check. Uplifting and hopeful story leaving you with peace, happiness, and lightness of spirit.? Hmmm…uh, not so much, when the story is Philip Glass’s 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

From the get-go, the plot is studded with emotional downers, with no end in sight. It features, in a nutshell, a sentry who failed to salute an superior and is condemned – without his knowledge or ability to defend himself – to death on a contrived (and thankfully non-existent) mechanical apparatus that imprints the letters of a man’s crime on his flesh. Meanwhile, an Officer oversees the torture and a Visitor drops in to observe. Soooo… it’s a grand night for singing, eh? 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Yes, indeed, because it’s the Portland Opera and its production of In the Penal Colony, which runs through August 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s intimate studio theater, is a stunner.

But c’mon, this is not the only or last opera to get a bit grim. See Verdi: young Princess sealed in a tomb; father murders daughter in a sack. See Puccini: heroine dies of consumption, and so on. You see? Kafka’s grim, absurdist tale, void of heroes or redemption plot can exist comfortably in the opera genre – thanks to Philip Glass.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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Through a Glass, Darkly

Philip Glass’s setting of Franz Kafka’s allegorical tale remains as relevant as ever

Philip Glass never expected In the Penal Colony to be a success. “When I wrote it, I thought, it’ll get done once and then no one will ever do it again,” Glass said. “Why would you want to watch a suicide? Basically that’s what you’re doing. And it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I would say it’s the most performed opera that I’ve written.”

Glass’s misgivings are understandable. Even for the world’s most famous living composer, In the Penal Colony doesn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” Written at the outset of World War I and published in 1919, Franz Kafka’s brief, bleak tale is set in a penal colony, where The Visitor has been invited to witness an execution. The Officer in charge wants him to endorse to the colony’s new commander the continuation of the peculiar — and horrific — execution method devised by the now deceased Old Commander. The killing machine, called The Apparatus, tortures condemned prisoners to death by excruciatingly inscribing, over up to 12 hours, a description of their crimes directly on their flesh. The prisoners are never told the nature of their crimes, but readers discover that this one was condemned for failing to salute his superior’s door each hour. The Officer believes the tormented prisoners achieve ecstatic enlightenment at the moment of death.

A scene from Portland Opera's new production of Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.
A scene from Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The apparently more enlightened new regime recoils at the Apparatus’s barbarity, and so does The Visitor. And yet, “it’s always risky interfering in other peoples’ business,” he sings in Glass’s opera. “I oppose this procedure, but I will not intervene.” 

Allegorical Apparatus

Kafka’s grim allegory sent shudders through an Industrial Revolution society besotted with emergent technology’s promise. When science was sundered from morality, modern inventions could have a dark side, distancing humans from the consequences of their actions, numbing us to the dangers of our ingenuity. 

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Musical Fire in the Rogue Valley

Southern Oregon music festival features three weeks of classical music new and old

by ALICE HARDESTY

The Rogue Valley is home to the Britt Music and Arts Festival, which takes place in July and August every summer. The Britt Festival Orchestra’s music director, Teddy Abrams, is hugely popular among music lovers here and in his home city of Louisville, where he directs the Louisville Orchestra. That affection is reciprocated, he assures us. “I immediately fell in love with Jacksonville, with the region, and with the orchestra from the first time I came here to conduct. That was seven years ago, the year before I started my first season as music director. I’ve been associated now with this festival for a good solid percentage of my life if you think about it.” Fortunately for Southern Oregon, Abrams has renewed his contract for four more years.

Young Teddy

While some of us might say that seven years is only an eye-blink, when you’re just 32 that’s a good percentage of your life. Abrams started his musical career early. He was improvising on the piano at age three, beginning lessons at five, and got interested in conducting after attending a San Francisco Symphony concert at age nine. He began studying conducting and musicianship with Michael Tilson Thomas at the age of twelve. At sixteen he started a bachelor of arts program at the San Francisco Conservatory for Music and went on to the Curtis Institute of Music and later to the Aspen Music Festival and School. At both of the latter institutions he was the youngest conducting student ever accepted, and he is currently the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the U.S. By now he has conducted orchestras around the world, and he also performs frequently as a pianist and clarinetist. And, in his spare time, he composes!

Mission and challenges

I’m sure Teddy Abrams has been labeled “wunderkind” sometime along the way. But unlike many prodigies, his flame continues to burn brightly, and his creative energies are unstoppable, proof of which lies in the successful rejuvenation of the Louisville Orchestra and in the number and quality of the programs he has created for the Britt Festival Orchestra.

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