Concert reviews: The City of Tomorrow, The Mousai, Cascadia Composers

The music is there, now for some audience regard

The Mousai performed in Portland's Celebration Works series.

The Mousai performed in Portland’s Celebration Works series. Photo: Earl Temp.

This spring has brought a bevy of performances that demonstrate why Portland has recently developed one of the country’s most fertile and promising contemporary classical music scenes, thanks largely to forward-looking composers, musicians and presenters who refuse to succumb to the simplistic old notion that music can’t be both broadly appealing and boldly adventurous.

Yet as promising and often intoxicating as much of the music was, none of the shows proved entirely satisfying, for a variety of reasons, each unrelated to the music itself. These shows also demonstrated that playing fresh, local music — and often playing it well — isn’t enough. Too many non-musical considerations (choice of venue, programming and sequencing of repertoire, inadequate rehearsal, etc.) impeded full enjoyment of the music the players were working so hard to create. Taken together, they offer urgent lessons for performers and presenters. But you’ll have to wait for those, because, Gaulingly, we’re going to break this seasonal survey in three.

 The City of Tomorrow

Early April brought the welcome return of the award-winning City of Tomorrow wind quintet, boasting a pair of now (alas) former Portlanders (husband and wife team of hornist Leander Star and flutist Elise Blatchford, who this year began a teaching position in Memphis), a new oboist, Stuart Breczinski, who replaced co-founder Andrew Nogal, and, perhaps not coincidentally, a program that placed less emphasis on the midcentury modernism that inspired the band’s creation (and moniker) and more on contemporary sounds.

The City of Tomorrow issues Abramovic's manifesto.

The City of Tomorrow issues Abramovic’s manifesto.

Although I was happy to hear again their brilliant rendition of 20th century Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio’s quintet Ricorrenze (a highlight of the band’s last Portland appearance), the 21st century repertoire seemed to reach the surprisingly young and diverse audience at northeast Portland’s Hipbone studio even more. Young Seattle composer Nat Evans’s atmospheric Music for Breathing, which asked the members to blow into conch shells and make percussive sounds with rocks, proved especially moving. The group then stood, marched to the front of the performance area, delivered a wry, intentionally non-unison reading of the famous performance artist (and one-time Time Based Arts Festival resident artist) Marina Abramovic’s An Artist’s Life Manifesto. Here’s one example.

10. An artist’s relation to symbols:

– An artist creates his own symbols.

– Symbols are an artist’s language.

– The language must then be translated.

– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key.

– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key.

– Sometimes it is difficult to find the key.

CoT also participated in Evans and John Teske’s Space Weather Listening Booth, which asks the players to improvise on pitches generated by satellite data. The quiet, spacious music didn’t work so well, not so much because of the occasional intrusion of the jazzercise music leaking from an adjacent space but because the improvisation felt hesitant. And the folding chairs, which made the audience stare ahead at a mostly empty “stage” space (to provide a sensurround experience, the players occupied the corners of the performance area) created too stiff an ambience. For an immersive piece like this one, floor cushions and maybe projected mood lighting would summon the relaxed listening state the spacy music needs to breathe. Pity, because Hipbone’s flexible space would have permitted just such an arrangement. Still, the musicians’ skill in the composed works made the rest of the concert a success, and Hipbone’s intimate informality brought us all into the music in a way that’s difficult to achieve in a traditional concert setting.

The Mousai

The next concert could have used that intimacy. Portland’s Mousai ensemble specializes in the kind of tuneful, accessible chamber music that gives the lie to the mistaken notion that contemporary sounds must necessarily be forbidding, process oriented, or appeal entirely to the intellect, and, like City of Tomorrow, the band’s tight, ingratiating performance style puts it across in the most inviting manner imaginable.

Clarinetist Christopher Cox, flutist Janet Bebb, and pianist and ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban opened their concert in the estimable Celebration Works series with Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s charming 2004 Scherzo with mischievous élan, and the latter pair made Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen’s 1982 Little Suite  dance with high spirits after its initial wistfulness. Oboist Ann van Bever joined in on the composer’s more substantial Theme and Variations, which changed moods unexpectedly and gratifyingly. I could hardly believe that the 1951 composition was one of those allegedly fearsome mid-century atonal creations; evidently, it’s not the technique or innovation that makes music (or any art form) connect with audiences, but rather what the creator does with those methods. Andriessen clearly cared about more than the process here, and perforce, so did we.

The Mousai performed at Portland's First Presbyterian Church.

The Mousai performed at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Cellist Betsy Goy joined the fun in the  Courtship Songs witten in 1981 by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (who like Svoboda is recovering from a recent stroke). The Mousai made fast, fanciful work of the first movement’s hairpin turns, brought warmth to the slow second movement, boldly charged into the galloping third, and imbued the penultimate movement with solemn commitment. The unmemorable final movement, though, left me wanting more from the composer, who’s better known for his choral music.

After a sprightly little second set opener by 20th century Swiss composer Frank Martin, the Mousai played another work by a Northwest composer, Vancouver’s Matt Doran, whose 2003 Trio ran an emotional gamut from nostalgic to playful to pastoral, its variability reminding me of an Oregon spring. The concert closed with appropriate narrative drama in Washington, D.C., composer Haskell Small’s episodic 1980 Short Story; the slashing cello and crashing piano chords interrupting the breezy winds suggested that the inspiration might have come from Stephen King.

But while the music was delightful, and the band worked hard to connect with its Sunday afternoon audience, the venue, the sanctuary of downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, conspired to create a distance that undermined its connection to the audience — not the first time I’ve felt that way about chamber music in this capacious but otherwise enchanting venue, which, like most churches, works best with choral music. And it was too big for the audience. The church would prove more inviting in the next concert in the series—see tomorrow’s report.

Cascadia Composers

Churches also provided the venues for Cascadia Composers’ April concerts. I missed the first, at Eugene’s Central Lutheran, but caught the second, which featured the same program, at southeast Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian, a frequent home for the organization’s shows. Happily, the group has posted videos of the performances here so you can decide for yourself.

Nancy Wood and Paul Safar (at piano) performed at Cascadia Composers' spring concerts.

Nancy Wood and Paul Safar (at piano) performed at Cascadia Composers’ spring concerts.

Some favorites: Paul Safar’s entertaining Spider, a sly 2013 setting of a haiku by Masaoka Shiki, enhanced by a characteristically riveting performance by singer Nancy Wood. ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow’s newly revised, neo romantic Nocturne — Eola Hills, an eventful musical hikealogue played compellingly by pianist Monica Ohuchi that might have found a sympathetic audience in me because I’d just gotten off a mountain myself an hour or so before the concert, and enjoyed a bucolic bike ride in the countryside the day before. Driven by 1980s dance rhythms, Mike Hsu’s propulsive first string quartet could easily win fans beyond the classical music in-crowd, without excluding them either; I’d love to hear more than the third movement played here. I liked the rhythmic drive of a couple of Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s Five Preludes for piano and violin, and always appreciate his gift for plaintive melodies, but it needed a less tentative performance. By contrast, pianist Harold Gray and flutist Sydney Carlson delivered a strong take on David Bernstein’s Three Summer Soundscapes, with Gray providing the dynamic range too many other pieces here lacked. And I found enjoyable moments in music by Nicholas Yandell and Tristan Bliss.

Although performance quality in recent Cascadia concerts has improved markedly, and it’s always tough to learn brand new repertoire, some of the composers’ music here would have benefited from more rehearsal and consequently surer performances. No doubt that’s why the performances in the City of Tomorrow and Mousai concerts (which the groups perform more than just once) sounded sturdier.

Still, what a treat to hear some intriguing and sometimes moving music created here and now, and what a benefit to Oregon listeners to experience this collaboration between composers from two cities with such fecund music scenes. This fruitful cross-fertilization can only benefit the composers and audiences alike; I hope it continues.
Tomorrow: Spring break continues!

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