MUSIC

A Tempest in the Schnitz

With a vivid storm of Shakespeare's words and Sibelius's music, The Oregon Symphony pairs two artists in their twilights for a last hurrah


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


It was a storm for the ages Saturday night in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as the musicians of the Oregon Symphony swept into the swirling seas of The Tempest, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s vivid 1925/26 score for William Shakespeare’s great late romance about an island, a magician, a belly full of betrayals, an awakening of young love, and a resolution of forgiveness. Ah, but first, the storm: blowing, whistling, reeling, slipping and sliding in a chaotic cascade of rhythms and notes – an unsettling of sound that whirls and clatters and destroys and yet also somehow sets the scene for fresh wonders and reawakened hope.

As the orchestra urges the action forward, Caliban (Tobias Greenhalgh), seeing freedom if he switches allegiance from Prospero, cavorts with his new hopes, the drunken butler Stephano (Benjamin Taylor, middle) and jester Trinculo (Andrew Stenson). It’s not Caliban’s wisest decision.

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Composing on this side of complexity

Third Angle “Homecomings” program showcases Oregon-connected composers--but takes too few risks

By DANIEL HEILA

Contemporary classical music composers–whom we might define as “those who look to the classical canon as root”–are frequently self-conscious about the historical and perennial shortcomings of modern art music (“that which seeks to transcend the history of western music”–again, my definition). Hyper abstract structures, gratuitous dissonance, obfuscated rhythmicality, and self-indulgent conceptualism can all alienate the audience and performers–although minus the adjectives these approaches are all fertile ground when used objectively. So it is understandable that a goodly portion of the genre’s repertoire is in opposition to a perceived aesthetic toxicity.

Many composers seek to traverse the morass of complexity to access an elegant simplicity on the far side (tip of the hat to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). This journey is deceptively arduous and involves coming to terms with the very complexity to be transcended. Third Angle New Music’s concert Homecomings of October 17th and 18th, held in Studio 2 of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), evidenced varying degrees of success in this endeavor, with a program of work by composers who have come up in Oregon and then gone out into the world (or stayed local in two cases) to establish themselves in professional careers.

Percussion and audience at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Percussion and audience await Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Over the lengthy, single act evening I became aware of two prominent features of the music. One was a tendency toward reliable structures on which hung thin forms (the shape of the music that fills out the structure) which were in some cases almost anemic. The other feature was, for lack of a deeper analysis, the presence of the above-mentioned self-consciousness, perhaps what could be called risk aversion.

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MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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An intersection of people, ideas, and music

Nexus Vocal Ensemble premiere concert brings impressive technique, emotional and spiritual power to Shaw, Buxtehude, and Barnwell

By MARK POWELL

The Nexus Vocal Ensemble, founded and directed by singer-conductor Lennie Cottrell, presented its debut concert To the Hands on Saturday, November 16 at St. Mark’s Parish in Northwest Portland. This is an ensemble to watch. In a day when new groups come and go, I hope this one will stick. Its young singers (“no one is over 35,” said one of them to me at the reception) primarily make their livings as choral leaders, directing choral activities in schools, singing professionally, or both.

It shows. Singing of the highest caliber was on full display, with only a few intonation lapses that the fairly dry acoustics of St. Mark’s Parish might have heightened. Ensemble Esprit, a string group featuring some of the region’s best players, joined forces with Nexus in the two primary works of this no-intermission program. Nexus helpfully provided a beautifully presented program book with all the original texts and translations.

Rather than performing choral music of every style and every era and every tradition at the highest standard—an all-too-common and frankly boring approach—this ensemble clearly has a “why” for their work. They state in their biography: “This is what Nexus is: a meeting point; a connection between things; an intersection of people, ideas, and music.”

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A century of Leonard Bernstein

An exhibition of mementos, film clips, and other artifacts from the cultural giant's long career at the Oregon Jewish Museum

by EVAN LEWIS

Leonard Bernstein is a complicated artist to reckon with.  Composer, conductor, teacher, activist, father, cultural figure– the word “polymath” seems designed specifically to try and find a small word to wrap all of his roles into one. 

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s exhibit Leonard Bernstein at 100 runs through January 26, 2020.  Curated by the GRAMMY Museum in LA, The New York Public Library, and members of the Bernstein family, the exhibit chronologically illustrates the conductor’s life through photos, documents, mementos, and, most successfully, film clips of his performances. It’s a great exhibit for those who already know a lot about the Maestro (as LB is often referred to, in honor of his amazing conducting career), or those who are learning about him for the first time.  

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

In the interest of full disclosure: when I lived in NYC 15 years ago, fresh out of college, the first job I got was as the administrative assistant at The Leonard Bernstein Office, the organization that manages his estate; and after that I became the personal assistant to the man who had been LB’s personal assistant, Jack Gottlieb.  So to say that I feel like I have heard a lot of his music, thought a lot about his life, and generally been in a musical world with Bernstein always as a presence over my shoulder is a bit of an understatement. I ended up being asked to write this review without any of this being known; just one of those happy, musical accidents. Portland’s a small town, you always have to be on your best behavior because you never know who you’ll run into!

The exhibit starts with an overview of his early years– letters, photos, childhood in Boston– and then you enter a room where each display focuses on a different part of his music and career. Musically, it’s hard to mentally wrap your mind around the boundaries of his creative output and varied styles. Somehow it seems almost comical to remember one composer was responsible for On The Town, Candide, West Side Story, MASS, Symphony 2: The Age of Anxiety, Clarinet Sonata, etc. etc. etc. Bernstein by all accounts was someone hungry to experience all facets of life– read Jamie Bernstein’s excellent memoir Famous Father Girl for more anecdotes about that– and his catalogue of works shows that character trait in action.  Musicals, operas, film scores, “serious” concert works, rock-inflected works, musical lectures– there is no genre he didn’t dabble in. 

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

Last weekend, his daughter Jamie Bernstein was in town to speak about her memoir at the museum, and later that afternoon to introduce Portland’s own Bravo Youth Orchestra in a concert at the museum. Bravo is a proud part of El Sistema, and is dedicated to musical education with the mission to “transform the lives of underserved youth through intensive orchestral music instruction emphasizing collaboration, promoting self-confidence, and creating a community where children thrive.” Ms. Bernstein now, in a surprise to herself, does a lot of music education work in the vein of her father’s Young Peoples’ Concerts, so this musical meeting was a perfect fit. One item in the exhibit is a baton of Bernstein’s that he conducted Mahler with; it was loaned to Gustavo Dudamel, the most famous graduate of El Sistema, for a Mahler performance of his own. Long story short, he ended up snapping the baton at the end of the work, to his great distress. The snapped baton is on display.

In wandering through the exhibit with Ms. Bernstein, I asked her what her favorite item in the exhibit was.  Without pausing, she marched into the first room, planted her feet, and pointed decisively at what looked to be a torture device. “This, this is my favorite,” she said.  

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE with Frederics Permanent Wave machine at the left. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

From a distance, it’s hard to discern what this medusa tangle of wires even is, but it is, of course, a Frederics Permanent Wave machine.  Bernstein’s father Samuel had emigrated to the US from Ukraine and got into the beauty product business in Massachusetts, eventually becoming the exclusive seller of this machine of beauty/torture to salons in the Northeast.  The sales of this machine made Sam’s hair and beauty supply business a big success, and Sam always wanted his son to join him and, eventually, to take it over. Sam wouldn’t pay for music lessons for his son, believing that music wasn’t a stable career (I mean…he’s not exactly wrong) and that he should continue on his father’s legacy of providing perms to the women of Boston. After his son had become a worldwide phenomenon, Sam was asked by a reporter why he had refused to pay for piano lessons. The elder Bernstein replied, “Well, how was I supposed to know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”

I asked her at the end of the exhibit if she had a favorite piece of music by him.  She said MASS held a special place in her heart since it seemed to have so much of Bernstein himself in the music and staging, but her real answer would have to be “whatever piece I listened to last.”  It is certainly true that he is hard to pigeonhole, and that one moment your favorite could be the Overture to Candide, and then you hear “America” from West Side Story and think that could be your favorite, and then a snippet of Serenade and you think, well….

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

Because the Maestro’s biography is so wide-ranging and star-studded, it’s hard for one exhibit to delve too deeply into any one aspect of his life– there really quite literally is not enough space. As a result, some of the sections feel like the CliffsNotes version of his biography– his activism is mentioned in one display, with a printout of his (lengthy) FBI file, and while that facet of him and his wife’s life could have its own exhibit, it does leave you wanting more depth, more detail about that part of his life. It’s a tricky balance to find, considering how much time could be spent on, for example, West Side Story alone, that the exhibit tries to speak to both people who know nothing at all about Bernstein as well as those familiar with his career. For the most part, the exhibit is successful in touching on all the major points of his life, and makes you want to go home and listen to everything.

Installation view of Leonard Bernstein at 100 at OJMCHE. Photo by Mario Gallucci.

In the end, when the exhibit is taken as a whole, all the items and photos and personal effects and printed anecdotes are fun to see and read and have novelty value, but only give you the outlines of the man.  It is the film at the end, showing him in action as a conductor, as a performer (and, most memorably as a composer/performer at the piano playing Rhapsody in Blue) that the hairs on your arm stand up.  It is then he feels most alive and vibrant and in reach–  his whole body making music, coaxing sounds out of an orchestra of old men with sideburns, music that was written hundreds of years ago and performed 40 plus years ago– that draws a crowd in the museum. Everytime I walked past the screen, there were people standing in silence, watching, taking in the Maestro in action.  That’s his true legacy: his ability to make music speak to everyone.

Evan Lewis, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, received his Masters in Music in composition from Mannes College, The New School (NYC) in 2008, where he was a winner of the Jean Schneider Goberman/Alaria Competition and had his orchestral work Alecto premiered at the 2008 Contemporary Music Festival by the Mannes Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Michael Adelson. He is on the board of Cascadia Composers, and has had his writings featured in the LA Chamber Orchestra newsletter, KUSC’s member guide, and social media and blog posts for other musical groups.

Finding hope through music

Southern Oregon’s Anima Mundi Productions continues to challenge audiences about cultural and social issues through music

By GARY FERRINGTON

A new concert series dedicated to bringing world-class musicians and composers to southern Oregon with the purpose of musicially addressing challenging social issues was inaugurated this October when Anima Mundi Productions co-founders, composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana DellaRovere, launched The Heart of Humanity program. This annual series of three concerts per year (fall, winter, and spring), often programed with “extra-musical” and “beyond the concert hall” elements that proactively engage the wider community, is focused on giving a compassionate voice to marginalized people and turning the concert hall into a venue for renewed hope, mutual understanding, and communal healing.

Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.
Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.

The Heart of Humanity is the fourth Anima Mundi project in which Gans-Morse and DellaRovere have focused on the mission of creating musical performances that inspire the soul, inform the mind, and foster community.

Their first production, The Canticle of the Black Madonna (2014), was a fully staged, Portland-premiered event about combat PTSD and the environment. A chamber opera,Tango of the White Gardenia (2018), addressed issues of bullying and body perception and went on tour around the state.The Rogue Valley Symphony commissioned Anima Mundi’s third and most recent collaborative effort, How Can You Own The Sky? (2018), a symphonic poem exploring the Native American legacy of Southern Oregon through poetry and orchestral music with indigenous musical influences.

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MusicWatch Weekly: The magic is in the middle

Prog, Shaw, Wolfe, African funk, Indian classical, and an Austro-Bohemian tribute band

There are a handful of things that make a city’s musical culture feel complete. You need several symphony orchestras and large choirs, and they all have to be pretty damn good. You also need several smaller choral and instrumental ensembles overlapping with and supplementing the larger bands; ideally, these smaller units will be a little more adventurous, and probably a lot more stylish.

You need an ecosystem of local and touring bands across the various spectra of genre and heft, not just the big names and your friend’s solo noise-pop project but a solid middle-register balance of lesser-known but high-quality musical acts. This middle ground principle applies equally to rock, jazz, classical, and all the rest: the magic is in the middle.

Finally, you need a diverse assortment of music from a variety of cultures. After arriving here from the sprawling metropolis of [redacted] in 2001, I knew Portland was a Serious Musical City when I saw just how easy it is to hear Indian classical music here–to say nothing of the broad assortment of groups playing music rooted in traditions from Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Latin America, Russia, and so on. Touring acts come from all over, which is nice, but it’s the abundance of local-international musicians that’s really impressive.

We’ll talk about all of that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the Big Fish and its Favorite Bohemian.

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