MusicWatch Weekly: Hot and cold running summer

Mandolins, saxophones, loopy music, and jazz fusion

Portland summers have a little something for everyone. If you like your summers dry, hot, and aggressive, you can easily get your fill of blinding, baking, oppressively sweaty sunpocalypse. If you like your summers bitter, cloudy, soggy, and unseasonably cold—well, you’ll get your fill of that too. And hey, if you like perfect summers full of warm, friendly blue skies and cool, refreshing breezes chasing fluffy clouds across the golden horizon….well, you live here. You know Portland’s got you covered for that kind of summer too.

The music here is much the same. Just this week we’ve got everything from massed mandolins and stacked saxophones to jazz of all stripes, a lot more Chamber Music Northwest, and digitally looped harp, voice, violin, and cello. Read on to get your weekly forecast—and remember your sunscreen!

This Weekend

If outdoor listening is your bag, you’ve got two good options in Southeast Portland this weekend. The two-dozen strong Oregon Mandolin Orchestra—“mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and crazy-huge mandobass”—performs at 2 p.m. on Saturday July 13 in Westmoreland Park, as part of the all-day Portland Picnic Wine Tasting Festival. On Sunday, Portland’s favorite saxophone quartet—the majestic Quadraphonnes, led by Mary-Sue Tobin—perform in Western Pacific University’s free “Summer Concerts & Movies In the Park” series. The band plays at 6:30. The surprisingly entertaining blockbuster Aquaman screens afterward, with free popcorn. Keep an eye out for Dolph Lundgren’s astonishing beard!

Portland saxophone quartet Quadraphonnes.

Meanwhile, CMNW is cooking right along with unstoppable verve and ferocity. Just today, at the third New@Noon concert, we heard the Miró Quartet turn in a very lovely performance of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’Acte, and you’ll read all about how their interpretation varied from Calidore’s in a couple weeks, when we all stop going to concerts and finally have time to write about them. For now, I can only tell you that their excellent playing and lively vibes got me all excited for their two appearances this weekend.

On Saturday July 13, Miró finishes their complete Beethoven Opus 18 mini-cycle, begun last Thursday. This will be the good half of old Ludwig van’s early quartet set, with its operatic C minor and its serendipitously transcendent Bb major. Then, Sunday July 14, they’re joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who today gave the only performance of Rzewski that made any kind of sense to me (more on that later as well). Vonsattel and Miró will perform Mendelssohn, Brahms, and the Schumanns.

The Territory and beyond

I can’t even imagine how local jazz composer Darrell Grant must feel about competing with the Sun Ra Arkestra next week. Grant’s The Territory has a two-day run at CMNW (Monday at Reed, Tuesday at PSU), while the Arkestra plays those same two nights at the historic Hollywood Theatre on Southeast Sandy. Although both artists fall broadly under the heading of “jazz,” stylistically and thematically they could hardly be more different. One is as local as it gets, a suite about the Pacific Northwest performed by a jazz great who’s called Portland home since the 90s. The other is—if you believe the hype—literally from outer space.

You can read all about Grant’s wonderful suite in Brett Campbell’s profile, and the Arkestra really needs no introduction. Two facts worth noting. One: the Arkestra is still under the leadership of near-centenarian Marshal Allen, who took the reins in 1995 after John Gilmore’s brief tenure following their fearless founder’s departure in 1993. This is a damn lineage you’re dealing with, people, over a half-century of continuous cutting edge American musical innovation, and you’d have to be either a damn fool or utterly broke (tickets are $40) to pass it up. You can scrounge $40 somewhere, right?

Second fact worth noting: obviously, you can catch the Arkestra one night and The Territory the other, and that’s exactly what you should do. Unless, that is, you also have a thing for Malian supergroups, in which case you might find yourself at Lan Su Chinese Garden in Southwest Portland next Tuesday, listening to BKO Quintet work their magic and wishing it would either start raining or stop.

Contemporary Classical

It’s a running joke among New Music Nuts that everyone likes contemporary classical music in the right context, because anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie, sci-fi movie, or action movie has heard Bartók, Penderecki, Babbitt, and all the rest of those crazy modernists. Next week, CMNW bundles it all together in a pair of mid-week concerts, one featuring “classical” music by film composers, the other featuring “classical” music by classical composers.

Wednesday’s “Fred Fest” at Alberta Rose revolves around cellist Fred Sherry, a grinning champion of contemporary classical composition who always brings out the best, most beautifully emotional side of what is generally perceived as a cold, thorny, obscurantist idiom. Sherry and guests (including Vonsattel and CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin) will perform works by 20th-century American composers Elliott Carter and Leon Kirchner along with a Haydn quartet and a bit of Bach. Superstar bassist-composer Edgar Meyer will be sliding into town with his wife and son just in time to join the fun.

Ida Kavafian, Ani Kavafian, Fred Sherry, Steven Tenenbom, and Paul Neubauer perform Mozart’s Quintet in G Minor, No. 4, K. 516 at Chamber Music Northwest 2018. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

On Thursday, most of the same crew (sans Meyers) perform music by three composers who won Oscars instead of Pulitzers: film giants Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, and Erich Korngold. You can come at this one from either side. On the one hand, if you recognize those names from such films as Il Casanova di Federico Fellini, Vertigo, and the Ronald Reagan classic Kings Row, this is a good chance to hear what these composers did when they got away from the studios and wrote “classical” music for a change (I’ll bet you didn’t know Herrmann wrote a pretty damn good symphony around the same time as his Oscar-winning score for The Devil and Daniel Webster). On the other hand, if you’re the sort of snob who turns their nose up at movie composers—well, just go and listen.

Next Friday

I’ll be all tied up in Salem next Friday, chilling at the 70th Annual Salem Art Fair & Festival with Oakland funksters Con Brio, so I’m gonna take a moment now to tell you all about what’s going down in Portland: looped vocals and string instruments. Remember on Monday and Tuesday how you couldn’t decide between Local Jazz and Solar Jazz? Friday July 19th has so much going on you’ll probably just end up staying home.

The Meyer tribe arrives Wednesday, but Friday is the real start of their CMNW residency, which runs into next week. The New@Noon concert will feature the Kirchner trio from Wednesday (in case you missed it!) and the premiere of Edgar and George Meyer’s co-composed, CMNW-commissioned duo Meyer Music. I expect this piece to be another of the festival’s brightest, hottest highlights, so take a long lunch and get down to the Lincoln Hall basement before the bells toll twelve. Stay after for a conversation with the composers.

Harpist and composer Sage Fisher. Photo by Matt Hook.
Harpist and composer Sage Fisher. Photo by Matt Hook.

Friday night is when the decision fatigue will really set in. Portland’s favorite singing harpist, composer Sage Fisher (aka Dolphin Midwives), performs at Beacon Sound, a record shop on Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Fisher perform live many times, as her eclectic musical world overlaps slightly with the gamelan realm where I spend my weekends, and it’s always a deeply moving experience. The music is a lot of fun to listen to (grab your best earphones and pull up her new release Liminal Garden), but the ritualistic nature of a live Dolphin Midwives performance is where the real action is. Let’s start with the harp: Fisher doesn’t use a modern chromatic pedal harp, but the old-fashioned Celtic lever harp (this gentleman would like to explain the difference to you), and that gives her music a relentlessly melodic, blissfully folky, harmonically-static-but-rhythmically-dynamic feel that often ends up sounding a lot like African kora.

As for the pedals she does use: a floorful of delay and looping pedals that allow her to create massively layered soundscapes with voice and harp. In your headphones (you’ve got it on now, right?) you can hear all the little details, fingernails on wires, burbly little electroacoustic stuff, washy overdubbed waves of harmony—all the things you love about modern recordings by modern sound artists. Imogen Heap comes to mind, Björk, that sort of thing. But when you hear it and see it live, surrounded by a roomful of enthusiasts, those layers smother you completely, immersing you in a sonic installation, bathing you in vibrating harmonies. And up on stage—or, at Beacon Sound, in one corner of the record store—there’s a harpist plucking strings and spinning knobs, filling the room with sounds familiar and unfamiliar and everything in between, calling to mind Pauline Oliveros describing her first experiences with combination tones, “like a witch capturing sounds from a nether realm.”

If that bunch of looping loveliness sounds great, but for some reason you’re afraid of harps or record stores or something and you’d rather hear cello and violin doing a similar routine in a quiet little church in not-so-quiet downtown Portland, well then Takénobu is what you want to be doing next Friday. The band describes itself as a “live-looping cinematic folk string duo performing original songs with vocal harmonies and ethereal instrumentals” and takes its name from cellist-vocalist Nick Takénobu Ogawa. He’s been doing this for years and is aesthetically squarely in the same “one-man-band” category as Fisher/Midwives—but when he tours, he brings along Tiny Rhymes violinist Kathryn Koch. What’ll it sound like when they both get sawing and singing and looping? Find out on Friday.

If you’d rather spend the weekend outside, basking in the Portland sun/rain/godsonlyknow on one of the town’s quieter waterfronts, make your way up to St. Johns for the 39th Annual Cathedral Park Jazz Festival. Bring your blankets and have yourself a mellow family picnic with a variety of jazz, blues, and R&B artists. Check out the full performance calendar right here.

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