Column Zero: Summer comes alive

Chamber Music Northwest blows its clarinets, Storm Large sings about craziness, Makrokosmos gets nightmarish

We here at Oregon Arts Watch tend to pay a lot of attention to Oregon composers. In a sense, our job is made easier by the problem outlined yesterday by Senior Editor Brett Campbell: we like local composers, living or recent, diverse in gender and age and race and genre. That’s exactly who is often underrepresented in the largest institutions, and—lucky us!—that means we have a journalistic obligation to write about exactly the artists we’d want to write about anyways.

Wolfie

But never mind that for a moment—I want to talk to you about Mozart. We’ll come back to Kenji Bunch and Storm Large and George Crumb and Tōru Takemitsu and all the rest, but for right now I want to take the somewhat contrary position that we should absolutely be happy about hearing Mozart’s clarinet music at Chamber Music Northwest this week.

The pair of opening concerts (Reed College June 24, PSU June 25) are a handy confluence of musical meanings. Outgoing CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin is, of course, a very fine clarinetist himself, and in past years has dazzled and transported us with gorgeous renditions of everything from Bach and Mozart to Messiaen and Akiho. This season—his second-to-last before handing the reins to Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim for the 2020/21 season—thus fittingly concludes with a whole lot of clarinet music. And, because this is CMNW, the concerts stretch all the way back to the instrument’s first great composer and all the way forward to recent and newly commissioned works by those beloved modern composers we talked about earlier.

But they’ll have to wait a little longer while I justify Mozart to the kids.

Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director David Shifrin

You probably learned in music history class or here on internet that Mozart was pals with pioneering Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler, an early virtuoso who sold Mozart on the new instrument’s charms. It’s a pretty weird instrument, essentially three instruments in one body, its lower chalumeau register stretching almost to the bottom of the cello’s range, its upper clarion and altissimo registers covering the violin’s entire range. Its tone is unlike any other woodwind instrument, a “long purply sound” in Berio’s phrase, somewhere between a human voice and a bowed string instrument.Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

Here, have a listen to some of this stuff right now:

Notturni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone and Three Basset Horns

Adagio in B-flat Major for Two Clarinets and Three Basset Horns

Clarinet Quintet in A Major

The quintet is particularly exciting—showy and charming, like all Mozart, but also emotionally rich in a way you don’t always get with the bratty Viennese wunderkind. It’s great music for a Portland summer day, and you’ll get two chances to experience this music in lovely urban settings.

On Monday, we’re at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, with a picnic in the park and a pre-show musical conversation. Show up early and take a walk around campus, a foresty wonderland of parks and streams and bridges and trails. There’s even an adult-sized swing set, but I’m not going to tell you where.

On Tuesday, the concert repeats downtown at Portland State University in Lincoln Performance Hall (that’s the ground floor one, not the basement recital hall). If you don’t mind the sight of families living on the street or the notoriously difficult parking situation, this part of town can be quite charming, with diverse food carts, terrific coffee, and donut shops galore. Remember to buy a copy of local newspaper Street Roots to sit and read in the park blocks before the concert.

Makrokosmos

Look for Brett Campbell’s preview of this mini-fest early next week; our newest Senior Editor traces the history of the event, interviews its founders Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, and previews the music. What I want to talk to you about today is the importance of intermission, given the lived experience of Makrokosmos Project as a day-long musical endurance test. What’s it like listening to five hours of modern classical music in an office building?

I didn’t get on board with this thing until its third year—but what a festival that was! They hauled six pianos and a bunch of percussion up to the third floor Vestas auditorium and proceeded to perform some of the best new and recent classical music I heard all year. Lewis & Clark professor Michael Johanson’s loud and funky percussion quartet Grooves & Diversions was one highlight; Paul Lansky’s piano-and-percussion quartet Textures was another.

Performing Steve Reich at Makrokosmos III.

The following year, it was George Crumb’s own piano-and-percussion quartet and a bunch of other cool shit. Both years featured duets between Ahuvia and Pyxis Quartet violinist Ron Blessinger, and both years closed with long-form modern music masterpieces—Steve Reich’s Six Pianos, John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes—performed by some of Portland’s finest pianists.

This year the piano music is spread throughout the day, Takemitsu’s complete oeuvre interspersed with music by Olivier Messiaen, Gabriela Lena Frank, John Luther Adams, and Jacob Druckman. The big closing number is Black Angels, George Crumb’s nightmarescape for amplified string quartet, performed by Pyxis Quartet, who performed it as the Third Angle String Quartet a decade ago.

I can’t stress enough the importance of intermissions at a Makrokosmos concert. Don’t sit there like a lump, thinking you’re fine and you’ll get up later. Get up now! Go pee, stretch your legs, give your ass and your brain a break, move your lymph and your chi around.

If you like wine, cold cuts, and human company, you’ll find plenty of each. If you’re an introvert who doesn’t care for meat or alcohol, you might pop out for a walk around the block. This part of town is still mid-gentrification and thus is rich with construction zones, dizzying cranes, fresh graffiti, a fair sampling of Portland’s street-bound population, and not too many cops or cars. It’s also a pretty nice area: trees and Thai places, beer pubs and pizza joints, and plenty of bright alleys and private enclaves for rolling up and smoking a big fat joint in with your fellow vegan introverts.

However you enjoy intermission, enjoy it you should. Modern music is not for the faint of heart, and you’ll enjoy it more if you take a moment to pause, absorb what you’ve just experienced, and brace yourself for the next round. There’s five hours of this stuff coming on Thursday, a dosage which has been known to induce psychosis if imbibed passively, thoughtlessly, carelessly.

Oh, and that radioactive glowing disk is still out there, so remember your sunscreen too!

Summer Storm

We mentioned above how we love local composers. Our beat is mostly classical music, especially the sort favored by Arts Watch darlings like Resonance Ensemble, Fear No Music, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, and so on. But there’s a segment we tend to overlook. We often like to joke that if you really want to hear live music by local composers, you ought to head down to Dante’s or Kenton Club or Bit House Saloon or Firkin Tavern or Mississippi Studios or Hawthorne Hideaway or Twilight Cafe or Lombard Pub (formerly Foggy Notion) or one of the hundreds of other local bars and clubs catering to what we can only broadly call rock and roll music.

Pop and jazz and classical and even hip hop all made their musical truces a long time ago, but the devil’s genre still doesn’t really get the credit or respect it deserves. From the proggiest of metal bands down to the crustiest of post-punk collectives, there’s a spark of creative vitality that all these other establishments could learn something from. And Portland has an especially vivid scene of basement-and-practice-room-dwelling bands that land all over the genre map.

One thing they all have in common, though: they’re modern rock bands, so most of ’em write all their own material. That’s the norm for modern rock bands from Radiohead and Tool all the way down to the psychobilly trio wailing away under the Hawthorne Bridge and the teenage girls composing metal riffs in the basement next door.

See, older generations of bands combined original material with tons of songs by other composers, also known as “covers.” Some bands would play nothing but covers, and plenty of bands still do it that way (so do 99% of symphony orchestras)—but almost every band I know hates playing covers and only wants to write its own songs. Why else would you be in a band? Meanwhile, other bands will cover entire albums by their favorite artists, the best of which I’ve ever heard was the doom metal quartet Burials performing Slayer’s Reign In Blood at Slabtown the Halloween before it closed. Covers aren’t frowned upon in toto: it’s just you’ve got to do something cool and original with it. This is your basic Portland attitude towards music.

Which brings us to Storm Large. Ten years ago, she and her longtime Balls bandmate James Beaton composed a musical based on Large’s life and called it Crazy Enough. This after years of playing Dante’s together and performing—you guessed it—clever covers interspersed with original compositions.

This week, Portland Center Stage (which originally commissioned the musical) starts a tenth-anniversary run at The Armory. In 2009, Large told The Oregonian, “maybe this show can help other people who feel like freaks and misfits.”

Sure sounds like a Portland attitude to me.

These guys blow

Meanwhile, back at Chamber Music Northwest, Week One continues with more clarinets on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday is one of the greatest living trad jazz clarinetists, Ken Peplowski with his band—another blurred genre boundary, thank you CMNW—and Thursday is all the clarinets you can stand. Peplowski, the “living Goodman” who’s performed in Oregon festivals for many years (and plays several shows on this year’s Siletz Bay Music Festival, will announce his program from the Alberta Rose Theater stage, but with stalwart local bearded bassist Dave Captein handling upright duties that’s probably all you need to know.

Thursday’s show will be a much easier experience for those who might find Makrokosmos too intense. The concert at Kaul Auditorium will feature another picnic and pre-concert conversation and no less than 16 clarinetists alongside percussionists and singers performing music by Mendelssohn, Enescu, Schumann, and Gershwin alongside newer works by Alexander Kukelka and Jeff Scott.

Kenji Bunch at the first Makrokosmos.

Friday’s concert is the one we’re most excited about. This summer’s first New@Noon concert features composer and “singing clarinetist” Ashley William Smith performing his new composition Shifrin, the Northwest premiere of Libby Larsen’s BURN (a quintet for clarinet and strings), Portland favorite Kenji Bunch’s Cookbook for Clarinet and Piano, and works by Yuan-Chen Li and VSO conductor Salvador Brotons.

You’re probably not familiar with most of those composers—that’s part of the fun! The noon shows are usually down in the basement recital hall at PSU, which is where can you go for student recitals if you want to hear really new classical music. This Friday, though, the concert will be up in Lincoln Performance Hall to accommodate all those clarinets and clarinetists. After the concert, mosey up to the third floor for a q&a with the composers. You never know who will be there for these (I expect Smith and Bunch, at least), but they are always fun, informal, and informative

Fridays at Five

So what is your fearless new music editor going to be doing after these New@Noon concerts and ensuing conversations? I’ll be holing up at the nearest bar, drinking coffee and writing about what I just heard. This week was Column Zero—my first as music editor, just in time for the solstice—and next week will be Column One, a listen back to what we listened forward to this week. We’ll see you then!

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

Campbell‘s Three Cents

Third Angle New Music’s annual walking sampler tour preview of its upcoming season switches this summer from shady suburban porches to urban rooftops: Heartline Apartments, Couch9, and three more Pearl District buildings. Listeners will divide into several groups, each hearing a different piece (about 10 minutes each) featured in the group’s forthcoming concerts, then moving on to the next venues to hear the rest, as the musicians repeat the piece for the next group. Everyone will converge together on the rooftop of Hampton Inn and Suites for the finale featuring 2019 Portland Jazz Master pianist/composer Darrell Grant. The music features both young and veteran contemporary composers include Clarice Assad, Kimmo Hakola, Wes Flinn, Portlanders Bryan Johanson and Nancy Ives, and more, for flute, clarinet, guitar, cello, sax, and voice. Shady spots will be provided, along with cool liquid refreshments and a sun-resistant surprise. Starts 1:30 p.m. Saturday June 22, with registration at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland.

New York pianist/composer Fabian Almazan’s five releases as a leader and sterling work in bands led by Terence Blanchard, Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet, Avishai Cohen and other jazz stars, reveals a multifaceted, melodic player. On his just-dropped trio album This Land Abounds With Life, Almazan summons big orchestral flourishes, weave delicate melancholy moods, unleash pulsating sounds propelled by the global rhythms —include those of his native Cuba,  which he’d just visited for the first time since moving to the US at age 7 when he composed his latest music. Also a composer for film and radio, Almazan even embraces classical touches, as on Alcanza (2017), a 9-movement suite for voice, string quartet, and his longstanding trio. That threesome, featuring his wife, the terrific bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh and drummer Henry Cole, which debuted in 2001, offers one of the summer’s most alluring jazz shows. 7:30pm Friday. The Old Church, Portland. $25-$30.

Is Idit Shner a jazzer or a classical player? Yes! A native of Israel, the longtime University of Oregon music prof is a master of the classical saxophone repertoire — the instrument was invented for classical orchestras. She’s recorded several CDs of 20th century music for sax. Shner also maintains a prolific career as a jazz performer and recording artist. On Tuesday and Wednesday June 25-26, she’ll be recording her next jazz quartet album, live at Eugene’s Jazz Station, with local lights Torrey Newhart on piano, bassist Garrett Baxter, and drummer Ken Mastrogiovanni. They’ll play original compositions written for this concert as well as jazz standards. 

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