All Classical Radio James Depreist

Feast of all: Makrokosmos Project, Chamber Music Northwest, Oregon Bach Festival

The end of June heralds the tenth iteration of DUO Stephanie & Saar’s modernist microfest, the 54th year of the much-loved CMNW, and another relatively Bach-light but nevertheless lovely OBF.

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William Blake, "Ah Sun-flower," from the 1794 collection "Songs of Innocence and Experience."
William Blake, “Ah Sun-flower,” from the 1794 collection “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”

One of the beautiful things about classical music is how it is inherently educational. You learn something just by listening to it; most of the time, you have to learn something to listen to it in the first place. And it tends to reward study and repeated listening, in the sense that you hear something new every time you listen to, say, a Bach cantata or a Beethoven sonata. And, unlike the proverbial laws and sausages, the more you know about how this sort of music is made the more you like it.

This all applies to the extra-musical elements of classical music, too, the opera libretti and the programmatic elements and the visuals. It can be easy for purists (like the present author, it must be admitted) to scorn music that needs some outside excuse or explanation to justify its existence. We tend to think that such things belie a lack in the music, that music should stand on its own, unadorned. We tend to agree with this line of Leonard Bernstein’s, which for years has served as a personal motto:

Music is never about anything. Music just is.

And yet … and yet, and yet, and yet. That’s hardly the whole story, is it? We could go on all day about this particular musical question, but the aspect that interests us today is the one we started with: these extra-musical elements are part of the education. You don’t need to understand the history of Napoleon and Romantic Heroism and all the rest in order to grok Beethoven’s Third Symphony–you don’t need to–but it sure doesn’t hurt. It enriches the experience. It broadens your mind.

And this, ultimately, is the point of what we call “classical” music, in distinction to music which is merely “popular”–it’s how we find something transcendent in it, something beyond ourselves. The majority of “classical” composers had no difficulty in identifying this “something” as God, or something like God–here we’re specifically thinking of the Catholic composer Hildegard von Bingen, the Protestant composer J.S. Bach, the Masonic composer Wolfgang Amadeus (“Lover of God”) Mozart, the Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt, the naturalist composer John Luther Adams, and so on. As the A.A. folks say, it doesn’t matter how you conceive the “Higher Power” as long as it’s not you.

And because today is the Summer Solstice, we’d like to quote Jon Anderson, from his last Yes album, Magnification:

If we were flowers we would worship the Sun

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Lux, Lumen, Splendor!

All of this brings us around to the first of the music festivals we’d like to discuss today, Makrokosmos Project, which ArtsWatch has been covering since the beginning. Several years ago, we had this to say to Makrokosmos pianists and impresarios Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho: “Bring it on, Makrokosmos Project.” Meaning, of course, that they could probably hit us a lot harder without hurting us. This thing is an all-day festival of intense music, not just modern but modernist, often long-form stuff or series of miniatures, usually leaning heavily into the “piano as percussion” mentality of Reich and Rzewski. Sometimes it’s music by local composers, or by venerated modernists like John Cage and Meredith Monk, or by the composer whose work gave the festival its name: George Crumb, and his four-part cycle Makrokosmos. This one, as most you probably know, has a strong extra-musical element that begins and ends with its shockingly visual written scores:

Makrokosmos Volume I, Part 12, “Spiral Galaxy (Aquarius)”

S&S have performed those four parts in bits and pieces, most memorably (for this listener) in 2018 when the piano duo paired up with half of Portland Percussion Group (Chris Whyte and Paul Owen) to perform the astonishing Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening (read all about that here). This year, for their Xth festival, they’re going all out and doing all four parts, in reverse order, from Makrokosmos IV: Celestial Mechanics (Cosmic Dances for Piano, Four Hands) down to parts I & II amplified piano. Interspersed between all that, music by Steve Reich, Ashland percussionist/composer Terry Longshore, the more-or-less uncategorizable Danish composer Anders Koppel, and the world premiere of two works by Princeton-based Korean-American composer Juri Seo: her 12 Preludes and Lux, Lumen, Splendor!

Seo’s music has a sort of “cat on the piano” quality, but for once we mean that in a good way–sort of a zany, jazzy, capery vibe, as if Bernstein scored a Pixar movie and won an Oscar for it. Listen to “#Three” from her album Mostly Piano, and this little excerpt of S&S rehearsing the new one, and you’ll hear exactly what I mean:

My sweet lord, these two sure know how to get maximum heft out of that instrument, don’t they?

“Makrokosmos Project X” happens 5-10 p.m. Thursday, June 27, at The Redd on Salmon Street in Southeast Portland. Tickets are a whopping $20 at the door; $10 in advance, which is about the best deal you can get anywhere.

The balancing of musical energies

Chamber Music Northwest gets rolling the same night, June 27, at The Reser in Beaverton – but the same “Opening Night” program will be repeated June 29 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, so there’s no reason to fret.

I said calm down! Sheesh.

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That one features the only Oregon composer on this year’s CMNW fest: Kenji Bunch, who’s also one of only three Oregon composers being performed across the fifty-odd concerts we’re talking about today, which is a damn shame but nothing new for this neck of the woods. As Jesus once said, “no prophet is welcome in his hometown.” Unless, of course, your hometown happens to be New York or Los Angeles or Vienna or Paris or London. Then you’re welcome in everybody’s hometown.

Ahem. Anyways. This first concert of the season will feature Bunch’s CMNW-commissioned Ralph’s Old Records, which you can hear a bit of (performed in Bridgehampton, New York) right here:

Also on the program: Brahms’ Sonata in F minor (originally composed for clarinet and piano, here performed in its viola version) and a chamber orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s oft-underappreciated Second Symphony. According to Wikipedia (which, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, contains “much that is apocryphal”), Beethoven’s Second was described by a contemporary Viennese critic as “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death,” which is a pretty good description of old undead Ludwig himself.

It’s a fine symphony, of course, like all of Beethoven’s music, and the ideal way to kick off this summer’s CMNW, which bears the subtitle “The Beethoven Effect.” Each week bears a different Beethovenisch name:

  • Week 1: Beethoven’s Sound–Inspiring A Sonic Revolution
  • Week 2: Beethoven Now–Challenging Today’s Youth
  • Week 3: Beethoven’s Fire–Igniting Explosive Innovation
  • Week 4: Beethoven’s Piano–Propelling Piano to Center Stage
  • Week 5: Beethoven’s Virtuosity–Launching Music & Musicians to New Heights

In other words, if you’re not into Beethoven you’re not going to find much to love at this year’s CMNW. But Ludwig fanatics will find plenty to cherish, not just from the old master but from various of the innumerable composers who’ve received some influx of his Immortal Spirit.

One such name may be surprising if you don’t know her work: Joan Tower. Here’s what she had to say in this ever-illuminating interview with Bruce Duffie:

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Bruce Duffie: So, where’s music going today?

Joan Tower: Which music? There’s pop music. There’s classical music. There’s folk music. There’s all kinds of music.

BD: Are we blurring the lines between those kinds of musics?

JT: Not enough. I’m beginning to think that we have to blur the lines more.

BD: Why?

JT: Because I think that classical music is suffering under the weight of being too much in the past as compared to pop music which is very much in the present and is a quite healthy art, at least in that sense. That new stuff is being presented all the time and tossed around and competed with and bought and sold. But classical music is still too much living in the past.

BD: You think classical is not a healthy art then?

JT: I don’t think it’s healthy for the dead composers, actually. I think Beethoven needs someone next to him that reminds you the music is vulnerable rather than it’s just a masterpiece and so therefore why should we even bother to think about it. The wonderful thing about new music is the reaction it provokes. “Do I like this or don’t I like it?” The audience is reacting to the music itself. With Beethoven, they don’t do that.

And here she is talking about LvB’s impact on her orchestral work Sequoia:

Long ago, I recognized Beethoven as someone bound to enter my work at some point, because for many years I had been intimately involved in both his piano music and chamber music as a pianist. Even though my own music does not sound like Beethoven’s in any obvious way, in it there is a basic idea at work which came from him. This is something I call the “balancing” of musical energies.

And here’s what she has to say about her new work, To Sing Or Dance, commissioned by CMNW to be premiered at this year’s festival:

When I spent some time with the wonderful composer Arvo Pärt, we had a discussion about the origins of music. He felt music came from the voice (or singing) and I had a different idea that it came from the drum (or dancing). Basically, this difference of opinion reflects a longtime split between composers who write mostly for the voice (Pärt, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, etc.) and those that compose mostly for instruments (me, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc.).

When I was asked to write a piece for violin and percussion, that difference became immediately apparent: how to have these two very different instruments in the same space, living fairly comfortably together. What I discovered was that the pitched percussion (vibraphones, glockenspiels, and crotales) were an easier match to join the violin. So right at the beginning, when the percussion starts alone, there is a dialogue between non-pitched and pitched percussion, which eventually invites the violin to join the discussion. And, eventually, the violin starts picking up on some of the rhythms of the percussion as another interaction. Occasionally, I gave solo space to both the violin and the percussion group to let them develop forward into their individual and special DNAs without having to adapt to the other one.

I want to thank violinist Soovin Kim and Sandbox Percussion for taking on this piece.

You may remember Sandbox – and their cornerstone, Ian Rosenbaum – from their CMNW performances of George Crumb’s A Journey Beyond Time and Andy Akiho’s Seven Pillars (read about those here and here). Also on this program: artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim pairing up (always a CMNW highlight) for violin sonatas by Beethoven (his ninth, the “Kreutzer”) and by his 20th-century counterpart, Béla Bartók (his second). As is CMNW’s custom, this program is performed twice: July 14 at PSU and July 15 at Reed.

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Another composer with a massive debt to Herr Ludwig: Leonard Bernstein, who spent rather more time conducting Beethoven’s music than his own. You remember that scene in Maestro when Lenny introduces his future wife to his former boyfriend? That’s David Oppenheim, to whom Bernstein dedicated his Clarinet Sonata; you can hear them playing it together right here:

Later, West Side Story collaborator Sid Ramin orchestrated the Sonata, creating the version that CMNW Artistic Director Emeritus David “Shif” Shifrin and crew will perform June 30 at PSU and July 1 at Reed. Also on this “Sonic Evolution” program: Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor and another CMNW-commissioned work, Marc Neikrug’s Oboe Quartet in 10 Parts. Note that Cleveland Institute of Music stalwart Frank Rosenwein is the only oboist involved – it’s not a quartet of oboes but a new work (in, yes, ten parts) scored for one oboe and string trio. Caveat auditor!

We could go on, but you can see the entire summer calendar for yourself over here at cmnw.org. We’d like to leave you with one of CMNW’s lovelier aspects: their bounty of free concerts, open rehearsals, masterclasses, and Young Artist Institute showcases. If you’re only going to the regular (i.e., “paid”) concerts, you’re missing out! Remember what we talked about earlier, about classical music and education and broadening your mind and all that good stuff? Here’s where it kicks in. Never mind that most of these are at noon, or 11 a.m., or in some cases 9 o’clock in the damn morning – that’s what coffee is for, dear reader.

A sampling of CMNW’s free offerings:

Phew!

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“I had much grief”

Before we dive into this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, we’d like to quote at length from a much better-informed music journalist, Tom Manoff, reviewing last year’s festival for ArtsWatch:

I had been excited that opening night featured conductor Jos van Veldhoven, former artistic leader of the Netherlands Bach Society and creator of the “All of Bach” project, which is recording the composer’s entire work for online release. My hope was that Veldhoven would reinvigorate the festival’s Bach profile – potentially providing a point of focus on the festival’s namesake.

For all its occasional successes, this year’s festival suffered from lack of connection to both its history and its founding spirit.

It’s a difficult task to come up with a theme each year. But there’s an “easy” way to bypass the need for a theme each season to be packaged as a promotional blurb: Add more Bach.

The annual summer festival was created at the University of Oregon in 1970 specifically to perform and study J.S. Bach’s music. Its world-class reputation rests squarely on that vision. While the past festivals included music by other composers — often connected to Bach in some way — Bach was the center of the programming. This year, there were no strong intellectual connections to Bach and relatively few of his works performed during the festival.

Returning the focus to Bach’s music and its continuing cultural importance and influence in contemporary works would stabilize the cohesiveness of the programming. If Bach’s music made up, say, half the concerts, such concerts would be at the festival’s core and a constant theme.

However, the best solution now, with a new year arriving, is hiring a new artistic director – not necessarily a Bach specialist, but an energetic music talent who overflows with creativity. New blood. New energy. Recommit to Johann Sebastian Bach.

This year OBF has conveniently created a whole webpage – ”Where’s the Bach?” – listing all the Bach being played this year, and you can read that here. What stands out to this particular Bach nerd is an absence of large-scale works, such as the Masses and various well-known cycles such as the Suites for Solo Cello, the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the Brandenburg Concertos, other concertos for violins, for oboes, for harpsichords, etc. etc. etc., ad infinitum, world without end, amen.

Which is to say, there’s a massive amount of music by Johann Sebastian Bach to choose from, and one does have to wonder why so little of it seems to get performed by the Oregon Bach Festival.

“Now wait just a gosh darn minute, mister,” I hear you saying. “You’re always whining about nobody performing Oregon composers, and now you’re crying about some dead German dude? Which is it?”

It’s a fair question, hypothetical naysayer, which is why we’re going to ignore it.

OBF opens June 28 at Beall Concert Hall in Eugene with the extremely HIP English Bach specialist John Butt conducting the OBF Chorus and OBF Period Orchestra in three of Bach’s choral works: BWV 21, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmeris” (“I had much grief”); BWV 11, “Lobet Gott in Seinen Reichen” (“Praise God In All His Kingdoms,” aka “Oratorio for the feast of the Ascension of Christ,” aka “The Ascension Oratorio”); and “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” from Cantata 147, aka “Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring,” aka one of Bach’s absolute biggest hits of all time:

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This program repeats on June 29 at Mount Angel Abbey outside of Salem. That night, back in Eugene at Soreng Theater, Portland Cello Project performs “Bach with a Twist,” which the OBF website describes like this:

This program will be announced from the stage, but with a title like “Bach with a Twist” … we sorta feel like we’re gonna hear some Bach! (Also, Taylor Swift and Radiohead, in case you were wondering).

More Bach appears alongside Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (July 1); alongside Pisendel, Zelenka, and Telemann on Butt’s Discovery Series concert “Music of the Dresden Court” (July 2); throughout Greg Zelek’s organ recital (July 8 at Central Lutheran Church); on Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy’s concert with composer-in-residence Eric Whitacre (July 9); in Damien Geter’s Prelude and Fugue (and Riffs too) [After BACH: Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I], alongside Paul Jacobs performing the OBF co-commisioned Lowell Liebermann Organ Concerto and the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (July 11); and elsewhere.

So. Rather than one big work, they’ve got an all-Bach concert and then more Bach scattered throughout the fest. We suppose that will do for now.

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Four particular concerts stand out this year, the aforementioned Stangeland concert and three we haven’t mentioned yet: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Holst’s The Planets; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; and Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered.

You can read all about the history of SFYCA in Daryl Browne’s feature from last summer right here; we need only mention that if you don’t know the name “Whitacre” you might not have been paying much attention to choral music. He’s won Grammys, everybody loves him, yadda yadda yadda. Besides the SFYCA concert he’ll lead a Hinkle Distinguished Lecture & Community Sing on July 6, and will conduct the OBF Chorus in his The Sacred Veil on July 12.

What we especially enjoy about this guy is his Virtual Choirs, which he started fifteen years ago (yes, well before the damn pandemic). You can check out the first one, from 2009, right here:

We recently heard the Mozart program described as a “mish-mash, head scratching concert,” which seems about right. Herr Wolfie left this Mass unfinished, like so much of his other work, when poverty killed him – so OBF artistic partner Jos van Veldhoven has, according to OBF, “lovingly and studiously reimagined” it by using the reconstruction by Dutch musicologist Clemens Klemme and filling in various gaps and interstices with music by Handel and Bach. That one is on July 5, and will (like many of these concerts) be preceded by a pre-concert talk. If you’d like to hear what van Veldhoven has to say for himself, here’s your chance.

Stravinsky and Holst really need no explanation: you must hear these two works performed in a concert hall at least once per incarnation. A bonus feature of this concert on July 7 is the visual element, which OBF describes like this:

A spectacular adventure through the cosmos! Projected in HD on a giant screen over the stage, the latest images from modern space – produced in cooperation with NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and filmmaker Duncan Copp – provide a stunning visual canvas as the OBF orchestra performs Holst’s glorious musical score. The jolting rhythms, grand tunes, and eerie atmospheres have been the inspiration for sci-fi and adventure films since the late 1910s.

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Which brings us back to Snider’s Mass, which on this June 30 concert is complemented by – you guessed it – more Bach. This is a helluva concert, in fact. Artistic advisor Craig Hella Johnson conducts a program that also includes one of his own pieces (“Wild Hope”); a bit of William Byrd; a movement from Earth Vigil by University of Oregon composition professor Robert Kyr (like Bunch, one of the Four Big Names in the Oregon School of Composition, and like Bunch one of only three Oregon composers on the slate today); and a few short pieces by Bach with new texts by Euan Tait. Note that Johnson’s group Conspirare recently recorded the entirety of Kyr’s Earth Vigil, and you’ll be able to hear the whole thing at tonight’s release party (livestreamed from Austin, which is not in Oregon).

But the centerpiece of this concert remains Snider’s Mass. Do you know Snider’s music? She’s another of those contemporary composers (like Bunch, Kyr, Schiff, Ives, Shaw, Akiho, and so on) making music which fulfills three necessary criteria:

  1. It has some degree of contemporary relevance, social or otherwise;
  2. It does something new and compelling, musically, while also being informed by the music of the past;
  3. It sounds good.

It’s surprising how few contemporary classical composers can hit all three of those marks. Seriously! Mark my words, Snider is one whose music will outlive her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s actually, you know, had her music recorded and released so that people can find it and hear it. Aside from the usual “one track on somebody else’s album” that so many contemporary composers get, she has three full-length albums to her name (four if you count the multi-composer The Blue Hour): 2010’s Penelope, 2015’s Unremembered, and 2020’s Mass for the Endangered. You can hear all three (ahem, four) on Bandcamp right now:

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Of these, the Mass is a personal favorite. Resonance Ensemble performed it last summer at their own mini-festival, “Earth’s Protection,” which you can read about here. Here’s how the composer herself describes it:

Commissioned by Trinity Wall Street as part of their “Mass Re-Imaginings” Project, Mass for the Endangered is a hymn for the voiceless and the discounted, a requiem for the not-yet-gone. Using original text by writer, visual artist, and musician, Nathaniel Bellows, in combination with the traditional Latin, Mass for the Endangered embodies a prayer for endangered animals and the imperiled environments in which they live. Written for SATB choir and twelve instruments, the six-movement piece appeals for parity, compassion, and protection, from a mindset — a malignance or apathy — that threatens to destroy the planet we all are meant to share.

Which leaves us, I think, on an appropriately reverent note. Happy Summer Solstice, dear readers, and we’ll see you next month.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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