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Deena T. Grossman’s ‘Wildfires and Waterways’

Fluid music evokes nature in a new recording and benefit concert.


Deena T. Grossman, composer-in-residence for Columbia Riverkeeper.
Deena T. Grossman, composer-in-residence for Columbia Riverkeeper.

The imagery of fire and water takes center stage in Wildfires and Waterways, a new recording of music by Portland-based composer Deena T. Grossman. Released this year on the Moonbridge label, the album received a celebratory party on May 25th at The Old Church as part of a benefit concert for Columbia Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the water quality of the Columbia River. Grossman’s environmental music poignantly expresses the mission and values of Columbia Riverkeeper, where she is composer-in-residence.

In addition to her studies with Lou Harrison, Thea Musgrave and Paul Cooper, Grossman has a Master of Music degree from Rice University, Shepherd School of Music. Her music melds a passion for the environment with knowledge of the folk traditions of America, Bali, and Japan to form a unique voice from the Pacific Northwest. 

As a response to the devastating fire that wreaked havoc in 2018 on the town of Paradise in Northern California, Grossman wrote Wildfires for solo piano. This three-movement work was evocatively played by Rory Cowell at the benefit concert and on the album, where it is the first piece. Spiky notes leap from the keyboard–depicting the flames that devoured the homes and surrounding countryside–and are overlaid with the Dies irae chant, adding gravitas. A quote from Bach’s chorale Es wird shier der letzte Tag herkommen (Lo, the final day is fast approaching) graced the final movement, “Embers,” which quietly closed the piece with a sense of sadness and loss.

Waterways, the longest piece on the album–sixteen movements in two parts–portrays the Willamette River, starting with a tributary near Reed College. Written for two flutes, viola, and cello, the piece received an outstanding performance from flutists Martha Long and Zach Galatis, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Pansy Chang (all members of the Oregon Symphony).

The quartet created gentle, flowing lines that made it easy to visualize scenes of a watery journey to the Pacific Ocean. Fluttering, buzzing, and glissandos conjured the wildlife, landscape, and rhythm of the river. The “Sea Shanty” movement was flavored with a folk-dance-like jig, and the final movement, “Into the Pacific,” elicited the merging of fresh water into the vast expanse of the ocean. 

Although Waterways was not performed at the benefit concert, a short film that captured the essence of the piece was shown. The video incorporated evocative paintings by Collin Murphy, who lives in Portland and whose vivid paintings were on display in one of the adjoining rooms of The Old Church.

'A Boat on the Ocean' by Collin Murphy.
‘A Boat on the Ocean’ by Collin Murphy.

The concert featured three pieces by Grossman that are not on the CD. Mirabai Peart performed the plaintive and wistful Temenos: Sacred Space, which involved singing while playing viola. Amelia Lukas played the bass flute to render a soulful and solitary snowy egret, january messenger, impressively fashioning raspy tones and to give the impression of the bird flying away at the end of the piece. Lukas returned with her concert flute to produce a bold Island of the Spirit.

Cowell brought the concert to a close with Falling Light, which is also the last number on the recording. The descending lines of that brief piece offered a delicate and crystalline finale. 

One of the cool things about the experience of listening to this music was the fact that a non-profit that is not a music organization has a composer-in-residence. Would it be possible for similar non-profits to create such a position? Imagine if Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund, or Doctors Without Borders had a composer-in-residence. It would be great if that became a trend.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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