Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.


Music Notes

New music series, awards and honors, death and resurrection and other transitions in Oregon music news

As a new year begins, here’s one of our periodic roundups of recent news in Oregon music. This is only a smattering, of course. Got more news about Oregon music? Let us know, or leave it in the comments section below.

High Notes

On Sunday at its 40th Anniversary National Conference, Chamber Music America (CMA), the national network for ensemble music professionals, awarded longtime Chamber Music Northwest artistic director clarinetist David Shifrin its 2018 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which annually  recognizes an individual or entity that has provided historic service to the small ensemble music field.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

Congrats to Oregon music stalwarts Randy Porter and Nancy King. The superb pianist and Lewis & Clark College faculty member and legendary singer received a Grammy Award nomination for their new album Randy Porter Plays Cole Porter, special guest Nancy King (Heavywood).  “If Randy Porter played more widely outside the US Pacific Northwest, he would likely be lauded as one of the leading contemporary jazz pianists,” wrote eminent jazz journalist Doug Ramsey. “This new album of songs composed by his namesake Cole Porter could go a long way toward bringing about wide recognition of an artist with a record of achievement going back more than three decades. Porter has toured extensively in Europe and Asia [and] is known on the west coast well beyond his home base in the Portland, Oregon, area. Six of the nine tracks find Nancy King, at 77, as musicianly as ever—individualistic and expressive, one of the few vocalists capable of improvising with harmonic wisdom equal to that of experienced instrumentalists.”

Eugene-based production company AO Films and Eugene Concert Choir won “Best Documentary” from the Oregon Independent Film Festival for their collaborative film, ”The Story of Shadow and Light: Giving Voice to an Alzheimer’s Journey”’

As we reported before the original performance, Eugene Concert Choir was awarded a $125,000 Creative Heights Initiative grant from the Fred W. Fields Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to help fund the commission of a new composition for chamber choir and orchestra by Portland composer Joan Szymko of Oregon, as well as the world premiere performance in the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, professional concert video and audio recordings, and the film documentary of the artistic journey.


‘Brahms vs. Radiohead’: classical mashup

Oregon Symphony plays a program that pairs the composer's first symphony with the band's 'OK Computer'

Many American orchestras, desperate to attract younger and more diverse audiences, now have special programs aimed at pre-retirement age music lovers. Several — in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Colorado — have hired young conductor Steve Hackman to run them. Hackman noticed that when highly trained orchestra musicians would play the typical mix of a few tuneful classics and simplified symphonic treatments of rock songs, “In the very beginning I was juxtaposing classical and pop selections, and they often took that as a bait and switch,” the 30-something Midwest native remembers. “You’re using a popular artist to bait the audience in — and then playing our requisite Brahms. I found that the orchestra players would switch off and wouldn’t give concert their best Beethoven or Debussy. So I thought, ‘Let’s craft this in such a manner that they can’t tell when we’ve turned the corner.’”

So a few years ago, he came up with a solution: Brahms vs. Radiohead, which Hackman brings to the Oregon Symphony this Thursday, January 4, asks OSO musicians to do far more than saw away on simple background pop chords while an aging rock frontman (or worse, a pale imitation of the original) belts out the melody. Instead, he created a program that includes Brahms’s glorious first symphony, and interpolates songs from Radiohead’s classic 1997 album OK Computer performed by three guest vocalists  — with accompaniment arranged in Brahmsian style.

Conductor Steve Hackman. Photo: Tom Russo.

Hackman made an ideal instigator of such a mashup. He grew up in a Chicago suburb as a pop music fan who gravitated toward classical music relatively late, but quickly developed enough facility to win admission to Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute. There he met the musicians who’d go on to form Time for Three, one of the most impressive and entertaining young ensembles who are bringing classical music into the 21st century by infusing memorized performances with rock/pop energy, enthusiastic audience engagement, and repertoire that goes beyond hoary 19th century standards.

Hackman reunited with the trio a few years later after quitting his first-step-on the ladder assistant conducting gig, disillusioned by the fact that audiences were two or three times as old as he, and that the music he was conducting offered little to listeners of his generation who’d grown up on pop. The classical world seemed disconnected from his other passion. Hackman played in rock bands, wrote and recorded his own songs, and soon began arranging songs for Time for Three. (An accomplished a cappella singer, he even made it pretty far in an American Idol competition.) Soon he was working with everyone from classical choirs like Chanticleer and the Tallis Scholars to pop musicians like My Brightest Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, Aoife O’Donovan and more.


Hackman’s choice of OK Computer to pair with Brahms’s symphony wasn’t random. The British band’s members boast classical training (guitarist Jonny Greenwood has scored films and written for orchestras) and its relatively complex music has long been a favorite of classical musicians like pianist Christopher O’Riley and critics including the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. In both, Hackman discerned a dark, brooding density, contrapuntal passages, harmonic similarities and other musical and emotional commonalities. His arrangements don’t mess with Brahms; instead they tailor the eight songs to the symphony’s sound world.

“The craftsmanship and technique with which a symphony orchestra approaches this music is special, miraculous,” Hackman says. “Fans of Radiohead are going to hear this music they love through a different lens. And they’re gonna see it played by one of the best bands they’ve ever seen.”


MusicWatch Weekly: classics meet currents

Oregon Symphony, Project Trio and others mix modern sounds with venerated classics

Oregon music gradually awakens from its holiday hangover, er, hibernation this week, serving up a few appetizers to whet your appetite for the ample main courses to follow in coming weeks. Feel free to recommend other music performances in the comments section below.

A couple of major Portland symphonic spectaculars kick off 2018, starting with the Oregon Symphony’s Brahms v. Radiohead show Thursday, January 4 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Composer/conductor Steve Hackman has recently contrived a series of fascinating fusions pairing a classical masterpiece with a contemporary pop music classic. He weaves orchestral arrangements of contemporary songs into full performances of symphonic works so that both inhabit the classical masterpiece’s sound world. In this performance, the Oregon Symphony plays Brahms’s complete 1876 first symphony and orchestral versions (plus a trio of singers) of songs from Radiohead’s classic 1997 album OK Computer. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch preview. Note: neither Brahms nor Radiohead actually appear.

Project Trio, the charismatic Brooklyn based cello, bass and beatbox flute threesome, has electrified audiences in past Portland performances (not to mention 80 million YouTube viewers) with their energetic blend of audience friendly European classics, covers of rock, hip hop and jazz, and compositions by all three members. Thursday’s show at Astoria’s Liberty Theatre features music by Bach (the famous flute arrangement by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson), Charlie Parker, Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf, Brahms and more, including their own compositions. On Sunday’s Friends of Chamber Music concert at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, they join members of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony for orchestral and chamber music, including most of the above music plus works by Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and their own originals.

Friends of Chamber Music brought PROJECT Trio to Portland’s Old Church in 2014. They’re performing this week with Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: John Green.

Speaking of contemporary sounds, Monday’s Fear No Music concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Avenue, features “Locally Sourced Sounds IV,” the Portland new music ensemble’s annual showcase of contemporary music by Oregon composers. Instead of focusing exclusively on veteran Portland composers, this edition includes new contemporary classical music by a Portland State student, a Grant High student (and participant in FNM’s valuable Young Composers Project), a Portland composer better known as a radio announcer (All Classical’s Robert McBride), and a Corvallis composer/violinist, Jayanthi Joseph. The show does boast a new work by one of the city’s most vital experienced composers, Lewis & Clark College’s Michael Johanson.


‘Dracula’ and Third Angle reviews: two faces of Philip Glass

A pair of Portland concerts celebrating the composer's 80th birthday display his dramatic and classical styles

My first encounter with the music of Philip Glass was, appropriately, in the theater. The community college I attended after high school put on a selection of one-act plays from David Ives’ recently published All In The Timing. Between acts there would be music, and before “Philip Glass Buys A Loaf of Bread” the sound guy would play a minute or two of “Act III” from The Photographer. I’ll never forget the way that glorious, electrifying music filled the wings of the small theater like the angels going up and down Jacob’s Ladder. Shortly thereafter I acquired a copy of Glassworks and was hooked for life.

Every new recording from the library or used record store was like discovering a new world. A cassette of the 1995 Kronos Quartet recording of four Glass quartets kept me company in my first year away at college. Satyagraha, plucked more or less at random off a shelf in the Costa Mesa public library, became my constant companion on more than one choir tour, shaping my musical imagination in ways that are still unfolding. And I recall one memorable winter break driving around Northern California listening obsessively to a single cassette’s worth of Einstein with my brother, who had just discovered Glass in college.

Philip Glass

Glass repeatedly calls himself a theater composer. That’s certainly where he’s spent most of his energy, and a concern for narrative drive paired with a strong dramatic voice is the defining feature of his best work. Even his more abstract concert pieces—the seven string quartets, the eleven symphonies, the various concerti, and so on—carry this theatrical stamp. It was American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a longtime Glass advocate, who persuaded the composer to make the jump from opera to symphony, commissioning ten symphonies to date. It was just Portland‘s good luck to hear these two sides, dramatic and abstract, in concerts only a few weeks apart this fall.


Angelo Xiang Yu & Andrew Hsu review: Instant chemistry

Chamber Music Northwest duo's intuitive aesthetic accord produces memorable music

It was really about the best that could be hoped for when musicians meet to rehearse together for the first time only a few days before a performance. That’s typical for Chamber Music Northwest concerts, in which top musicians from New York and beyond converge on Portland for five weeks, usually with time for only a few rehearsals. Luckily, as violinist Angelo Xiang Yu assured the audience during his July 27 two-man show at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre with pianist and composer Andrew Hsu, the two intuitively agreed on their interpretations.

Their simpatico styles may explain why the tightest works were a Mozart sonata (K 378) and CMNW Protege Project composer Hsu’s own piece, Sea Meadows. The Mozart is relatively easy to put together, and that enabled them to pump real life and personality into it despite the whirlwind rehearsal schedule. Sea Meadows was deliciously atmospheric, pulseless with an easy-sounding piano part. It really just needed a top-notch violinist, and Yu was all of that, executing lots of harmonics and double-stops, all seemingly flawlessly and with feeling.

Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and composer/pianist Andrew Hsu performed at the The Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Lange.
Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and composer/pianist Andrew Hsu performed at the The Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

The other performances were a mixed bag. Claude Debussy’s violin sonata had plenty of spirit but didn’t really jell, in some elusive way. Cesar Franck’s famous sonata was full of passion as it should be, with lots of dynamic and tempo contrasts, but the short rehearsal told in details, such as the piano covering up the violin here and there, and a few phrases that would have gained needed intensity from lingering over them or adding even more energy. On the other hand, the end of the stormy second movement was way exciting. It’s a bit tricky because Franck didn’t give the last piano run a lot of oomph, but the duo made it careen right into Hsu’s last big thunderous chord.

For some reason the crowd took it into their heads to applaud in between each movement of everything, even tepidly after slow and soft movements. They were about ready to burst after this dramatic conclusion, but the pianist immediately hit the chord opening the slow movement, cutting them off. It was an understandable move, but it had an anticlimactic side effect. Applause there would have been good for scene setting, and was also richly deserved.

The very end was more elegant than explosive, but the crowd just went crazy; you’d hardly know the hall was less than half full. People didn’t just hoot and holler, there were calls of “more!” “more!” Hsu and Yu wound up doing two potboiler encores: Vittorio Monti’s gypsy fluff Csárdás and Edward Elgar’s Romantic fluff Salut d’Amour. The audience would have stayed for at least one more. Finally, during the curtain call after the second encore Yu smiled and mouthed at people “go home,” which slightly diminished what had been a total class act. People just laughed, though.

Hsu & Yu at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.
Hsu & Yu at CMNW. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

Yu seems quite a character. He talked to the crowd a little, just after intermission, and had them almost eating out of his hand. At one point he said he was envious of Hsu because he looked so hot. That got a big (seemingly appreciative) laugh. He didn’t always have the sweetest tone, or invariably play precisely in tune, but somehow his “lapses” seemed like part of his intended expression. He achieved quite a bit of expressive variation in tone quality by bowing in different places along the string, without ever getting right on the bridge or over the fingerboard. In another performer, it might have seemed like lack of control, but the force of his personality made me believe in him. What matters is that it worked for me and the audience.

Lack of rehearsal time seems to be an unavoidable evil of the festival format, when the practicalities of busy top-notch artists’ schedules are considered. The result, too often, is a good, smooth, but lackluster performance, which CMNW patrons admittedly happily tolerate in return for the concentrated variety of festival repertory. Sometimes though, when interpersonal chemistry, skill, and attitude are right as they were here, magic can still happen.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. 

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