Concert reviews: Cascadia Composers’ “Blackout” and “Crazy Jane Misbehaves”

Renee Favand-See, Gail Gillespie, Vakare Petroliunaite, and Diane Chaplin performed at Cascadia Composers' Crazy Jane Misbehaves concert.

Renee Favand-See, Gail Gillespie, Vakare Petroliunaite, and Diane Chaplin performed at Cascadia Composers’ Crazy Jane Misbehaves concert.

Hearing new music is venturing out in the darkness: a little scary, a little dangerous. When I attend contemporary classical music concerts, I’m seeking surprise and the sometimes freaky freshness of things that go bump in the night — two elements so often missing from the heard-it-all-before repertoire of most Oregon classical concerts, and from the often simplistic or formulaic sounds of much of today’s pop.

Darkness and an often outlandish craziness, the themes of the last two concerts by Cascadia Composers, kept me in suspense, and mostly enjoying the catharsis of the surprises that followed.

The hook/gimmick/theme at last Friday’s “Blackout” concert was, you guessed it, performances in minimal light, often illuminating only the performers’ music stands. But the lighting, adjusted for each piece, was only one example of the attention concert organizer Dan Brugh paid to the audience experience. The sequence of pieces seemed carefully planned, each flowing almost seamlessly into each other, with applause held to the very end. Between pieces, the names of each upcoming composition and the performers were projected in white and yellow text on black background, the better to blend into the darkness permeating northeast Portland’s Temple Baptist Church. The sound design made the music sound crystal clear. And then there were the sirens and blinking lights to signal intermission’s end, when rattles were passed out to the audience; more on that later.

It may sound odd to readers not familiar with classical music rituals, but this welcome attention to what the audience was experiencing is a rarity; where else but in classical music, as the great percussionist Evelyn Glennie once asked me rhetorically, would performers subject the audience to onstage practicing (preceding even tuning up) immediately before a performance, destroying the opportunity for a dramatic opening?

None of this would have mattered had the concerts’ actual content not matched the care devoted to the listeners’ experience, but the quality of music at Cascadia’s concerts (they range from around four to nearly a dozen per year) seems to increase with each iteration, and this one might have been the most successful I’ve seen — or rather, heard — in the organization’s six-year history. Some highlights:

Portland composer Susan Alexjander’s evocative Fluid eased us into the darkness with a gentle whooshing of watery sounds, a vocalise that sounded vaguely influenced by north Indian music, and various subtle percussion effects that faded in and out of her haunting electronic soundscape. Jan Mittelstaedt’s INTERTWINED, a poem intoned by a narrator and accompanied by flutist Janet Bebb and clarinetist Barbara Heilmair, used a backlit white curtain onstage that projected the two musicians’ shadows before both eventually moved, one at a time, to the balcony during their musical conversation, but the multimedia element in Portland composer Karen Bates Smith’s  Sea of Tranquility didn’t work as well because the blue-scarfed dancer who spun onstage while cello and piano played was so hard to see in the dimness.

Portland composer Jay Derderian’s austere [Redacted] for electric viola and tape sounded the most up to date, not least because of its birth during the recent National Security Agency privacy intrusion scandal and its consequently ominous atmosphere, produced by the viola’s raspier timbres and pitch bending. Like others on both programs, its length exceeded its ideas, but the probing music offered a piercing contrast to the surrounding pieces. One of them, Eugene composer Paul Safar’s mesmerizing Ocean, commenced with Safar playing lush Debussian piano trills, from which emerged Nancy Wood’s haunting vocalise. In my favorite performance of the evening, she undulated across the darkened stage like an ominous ocean swell as the music suddenly swerved into darker territory, making her way up into the balcony, singing all the while.

Portland State University prof Bonnie Miksch’s spooky computer piece Turtle Portal continued the haunting mood, so apt for the stygian setting, with metallic swirls and trippy stereo effects. The set-closer, Portland composer Lisa Marsh’s breezy Changeling for flute and piano, used movement and visuals effectively, but its upbeat groove sort of disrupted the dark mood. Flutist Sydney Carlson wandered up the aisle, away from pianist Marsh, and out the rear door. Marsh continued to play solo till Carlson emerged at another music stand on the balcony and rejoined the duet.

The dark, even elegiac atmosphere returned after intermission, as Portland composer David Bernstein’s Four Blossoms on a Single Stem used three different flutes (each at a different music stand onstage), quotations from Mahler’s second symphony and an Indian song, words from the Sioux Indian leader Black Elk and a dramatic performance by Carlson, who flutter-tongued, stomped, angrily declaimed the text, and ritually raised skyward to the gods the offering of her instrument and her music before playing each movement, gently laying the sacrificial flute on the ground before processing to the next offering.

The pace slackened until Brugh’s closer, The Darkness Becomes a Voice, whose electronic groans, wispy piano, dark bass voice (singer Dwight Uphaus, who wandered to different parts of the venue) and percussive electronics created a shadowy tension, heightened by a Phantom of the Opera-like organ sound, disappearing under the onslaught of electronic streaks and buzzes, then bursting forth like a whale rearing up from a previously placid evening ocean. When Uphaus proclaimed “Rejoice in the Noise,” the audience members, on cue, vigorously shook the rattles that Brugh had distributed, reveling in his piece’s nifty turn away from faux pretentiousness and ending the dark concert on a welcome light note.

Brugh then brought the composers and players down to the stage to receive their deserved applause; their good work received a strong showcase  thanks to the concern for how the audience would receive it. I wish more of the musicians had taken the stage, ready to play, as soon as each  piece was over, which would have maintained the productive tension that dissipated when we had to wait for them to get situated. (For instance,  Mittelstaedt’s clarinetist and flutist might have meandered around the trio who were about to play in the following piece rather than wandering aimlessly around the stage.)

I also craved a wider variety of voices from the organization’s 60-member roster; several of the same composers in the January concert also appeared in this one, and I’m seeing repeated names again in the just announced April Cascadia show. But otherwise, the audience-first focus of this Blackout worked so well that it made me hope it might become an annual event at Halloween, say, or winter solstice.

Bonnie Miksch performed at Crazy Jane Misbehaves.

Bonnie Miksch performed at Crazy Jane Misbehaves.

Crazy Jane

Themes like Blackout and that of Cascadia’s previous concert, November’s “Crazy Jane Misbehaves,” are often the last refuge of timid and/or unimaginative classical music presenters desperate to entice listeners to pony up again for the umpteenth performance of the same old fare by the same old few dead European composers. “Brilliance and Beauty!” goes one from this season, which translated to “Bruch and Brahms.” We’ve played this Brahms concerto or Beethoven quartet a half dozen times in as many years, the thinking goes, but maybe it’ll seem different enough to get you to buy a ticket if cast (often stretched) to fit part of bigger picture. Purists question why anything but the music itself is needed, but both for listeners to whom the music is unfamiliar and those to whom it’s too familiar, themes can provide a different way into the sounds they’re about to hear.

The theme of craziness seemed to give some of the composers in Cascadia’s Crazy Jane concert license to push their music in unconventional directions. To break the rules, to make art that’s genuinely risky, and not a mere imitation or update of romanticism or modernism or minimalism or whatever, requires misbehaving, going a little crazy.

Contrasting the operatic vocals of Vakare Petroliunaite with Renee Favand-See’s more “natural” singing, Mittelstaedt’s Soulmates opened this year’s Crazy Jane concert with theatrical and visual elements that told a heartening story.

The title of Favand-See’s own electronic tape work, Suffer Silently, which really got the concert going, made me worry that we were in for a sniffle-fest, but its sampled sighs, throat-clearing, squeaks, rattles, clock tick tocks, coughing, footsteps, snores, frog ribbits, groans, snores, buzzes, creaks, slams, moans, thwacks, jangles and the rest instead happily added up to a cheeky commentary on how we really can’t do what the title cliche suggests. Petroliunaite and pianist Jennifer Wright brought out the beauty of Alexjander’s brief, melancholy settings of Hafiz poems, Two Songs, the first non-electronic music I’ve heard from this impressive recent addition to Portland’s music scene.

Although the music in Emilyi Poltorak’s spiky Alpha Beta — woven through a melange of interspersed vocal phrases, whispered, shouted, wailed and sung — was probably the farthest out of the whole evening, the performers’ (vocalist Jeffrey Evans, clarinetist Lisa Lipton, cellist Julian Kosanovich) deliriously pop-artsy outfits threatened to eclipse it. Poltorak’s colorful collage, which played with various fraught words but also stretched on about twice as long as it needed to, earned its Portland State University student composition award.

Cynthia Stillman Gerdes accompanied her own Nellie Bly: Daring, Intrepid Reporter, which fit the concert theme perfectly by recounting anecdotes from the early part of the pioneering career one of the first and most valuable muckraking female journalists. Like Mittelstaedt’s, Gerdes’s incidental music (interpolated between segments narrated by storyteller Susan Strauss) was subservient to this promising piece’s theatrical needs, but it still felt more like a dramatic reading of a history lesson than a fully realized piece of musical theater, which made its 15-minute length seem longer. Or it could have felt that way because the show started at 7:30, the piece (and first half of the concert) didn’t end till nearly 9 — and we still had half the show to go. Part of respecting the audience is respecting their time: these (and most other concerts) would win more and happier listeners if they pared down to the strongest compositions, and if those pieces were tighter.

In the second half, clad in what looked like an animal pelt, Miksch delivered the most riveting performance of the evening: the unforgettable solo Solstice for didgeridoo, voice and electronics. An artistic risk that paid rich dividends, the searingly sexy setting of her own text wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bjork album, but resounded with a depth unmatched in most pop. Her feral howls, wails and squeals summoned a fever dream of ancient rituals, prehistoric passions.

Singer Martha Bryan, clarinetist Andy Sharma and pianist Jeongmi Yoon followed with three of Stacey Philipps’s charming settings of Brothers Grimm texts, Tale of Wonders. I’d love to hear the entire set, especially if Bryan’s involved; her stage presence and interpretive chops announced the soprano as a potential rising star in Oregon’s vibrant new music scene.

The concert concluded on a high note with another powerhouse premiere. Marsh’s driving Distillation, fueled by Dustin Silva’s electric guitar artistry, stretched Favand-See’s vocal variety to the limit, but its willingness to veer beyond the composer’s comfort zone demonstrated a touch of the craziness that made the best works on this adventurous concert so striking.

Whenever we venture out to hear new music, we’re taking a shot in the dark, whether the lights are on or not, so it’s a special thrill when it pays off as it did in these shows. I once criticized an early CC concert for presenting too many pieces that seemed half-baked, dated and/or derivative. But these two shows transcended some of their predecessors’ feeling of being vanity projects by composers, for composers. Even with a few slow spots, thanks to an infusion of new voices, a reinvigoration of older ones, an emphasis on emotional expression and not just intellectual  innovation, and an audience-friendly sensibility, Cascadia Composers’s recent concerts have evinced the freshness and surprise so often missing in both standard classical and predictable pop music concerts. They’re now one of Oregon’s most valuable sources of new sounds.

Martha Bryan, Jeongmi Yoon, and Andy Sharma performed in Crazy Jane Misbehaves.

Martha Bryan, Jeongmi Yoon, and Andy Sharma performed in Crazy Jane Misbehaves.

Word must be getting out, too, because the audiences for these shows were the biggest and most diverse I’ve seen at Cascadia, which may also stem from the shift from a high admission price to a low suggested donation. CC’s Jeff Winslow reports that the lower prices didn’t hurt the bottom line; other presenters, take note. As the great New York Times critic John Rockwell once told the Oregon Bach Festival, “there’s nothing wrong with new music that lower ticket prices won’t solve.” Especially when the music is as exciting as many of the performances at these concerts. As long as they feel fresh, audience-friendly, even a little crazy, I’ll keep coming back, eager to learn what surprises might spring from the darkness.

***

“You’re about to hear some of the most beautiful tunes ever written,” announced (seemingly immodestly) one of Oregon’s most eminent composers, David Schiff, just before the world premiere of his new clarinet quintet Sunday at Lincoln Hall. “Unfortunately,” he added, “I can’t take credit for any of them.”  Commissioned by his long time colleague and Chamber Music Northwest artistic director, David Shifrin (whose shoulder surgery forced him to miss playing it at CMNW’s winter festival),  Borrowed Time actually constitutes arrangements of and variations on four classic “seasonal” tunes: “The Snow is Dancing” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner, Richard Rodgers’ “It Might as Well be Spring,” Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves,” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” At the festival’s closing concert, the Reed College professor’s fifteenth CMNW work, a sweetly nostalgic and smartly constructed suite that never loses sight of its four classic tunes and deserves a comparably long life, received an affectionate performance by the Amphion Quartet and Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao. Each movement could make a nice encore in a concert involving clarinet and strings. Schiff’s premiere made a satisfying coda to a weekend of original Oregon music, and left me looking forward to hearing his music at Third Angle New Music concerts next week.

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One Response.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “…a wider variety of voices from the organization’s 60-member roster…”

    Cascadia Composers – http://www.cascadiacomposers.org/ – currently have 6 different sponsored or cosponsored events scheduled between now and July 10 – only about half are open juried calls, made to members for scores that fit a particular program – submitted scores that fit are vetted in blind juries – if the same composers are programmed (what may seem too frequently) it’s either because they submit scores more frequently or they’re blind-selected more frequently

    CC’s Board decided some years ago that for juried concerts composers must not submit to the principal Spring and Fall juried concert programs immediately following one on which their work was just programmed – we thought this adequate to keep programing fresh – but that was when CC was producing 2 concerts a year – now CC is producing or cosponsoring at least 10 concerts annually – since CC programing expanded I’ve left the Board – the current Board may have to revisit the programming policy if they find discomforting this line of critique – at any rate, it’s a tough guideline to perfectly tune – broad inclusion is always welcome – but not at the expense of quality

    PS: comments on production execution well taken – anyone interested please note – Theatre 101: always run a tech. rehearsal, preferably a general, at least a cue-to-cue

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