Living Traditions, Part One: American symphonica

Keeping the American orchestra alive with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A couple years back, during the Bernstein Centennial, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner said something that stuck with us: “if American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will.” He meant it, too; that concert, with a deeply moving performance of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony as its centerpiece, was one of only two really worthwhile Bernstein concerts that season (the other was PSU Chamber Choir’s Chichester Psalms). Jeremiah soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, plus superb performances of Jacob Avshalomov’s The Taking of T’ung Kuan and Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (with dazzling solo cello from Kira Wang), only sweetened the deal.

We’ve noticed that PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra all do their fair share to keep the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland. In fact, from an aesthetic point of view they often do better than bigger institutions like the Oregon Symphony. (The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the contrasting American composer relations of the conservative but modern-friendly Portland Opera and the living-composer-obsessed Opera Theater Oregon–which is, to be fair, co-directed by a living, local, American composer).

This month, all three orchestras have concerts that enrich and enliven the American Symphonic Tradition: PYP and MYS this weekend, PCSO the following. We’ve been to most of these three orchestras’ recent concerts, and each one was a perfectly flawed contribution to the tradition’s vitality. That is, they were enjoyable as symphonic concerts and laudable as concerts of music by American composers, but each made (lucky for this music critic) a few critical mistakes.

Let’s start with Amy Beach, whose music is boring in the best possible way. That is, her music is boring in the same way Beethoven’s music is boring–it was composed for different ears, in an age before recording technologies transformed everyone’s brains. Don’t get me wrong: Beach’s music is awesome, too, full of beautiful orchestral textures and lovely folkish melodies.

PYP gave a terrific performance of Beach’s Symphony in E Minor “Gaelic” on their most recent concert in November, a lively show that also featured Brazilian composer Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez’s Batuque as the opener and piano soloist Joshua Ji playing another American staple, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The Ferndandez was entertaining but nothing special, the Gershwin was fun and extremely well-played, and I enjoyed getting bored with Beach a lot more than I enjoy getting bored with the OSO’s zillionth Haydn symphony. Gods help me, it was “nice”–a vague word we hate using in print but which nevertheless captures the warm feeling of community and even (dare I risk another problem word?) patriotism that we got from this all-American concert.

In terms of American symphonic music, with its long Anglophile adolescence, Beach’s late-19th century Gaelic gaze isn’t quite as satisfying as the more tuneful Price or the more original Ives, but it’s pretty damn good for an early effort (nationally speaking), and has no small amount of delicious orchestral counterpoint and color. Certainly Beach’s symphony has more heft and more delight than similarly folky symphonies (Dvořák’s, say, or Mendelssohn’s). We were honestly happy to hear it, if only to damn it with faint praise.

Here comes some more faint praise for PYP: we love that they’re playing a Chinese composer and a Hollywood composer on this Saturday’s concert at the Schnitz. Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture, though banished to the Fanfare Zone with Joan Tower, is still a good chance to listen outside the western imperium. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold is another of our all-important immigrant composers: he fled Austria in 1934 at the urging of his buddies and landed in Hollywood, where he promptly co-founded the American Film Music Tradition. We have no doubt PYP and soloist Nate Strothkamp will give a delightful and rewarding performance of this crucial and underappreciated American composer, but that will only just barely make up for them playing a Brahms symphony instead of an American one.

Actually, PYP doesn’t really need to earn that Brahms. Not when they’ve been championing American symphonic music for coming up on a century, with something like forty homegrown composers just in the last decade of programs, and many of those Oregonians–including one of their alumni, Kenji Bunch, who came all the way back to Portland after his Juilliard Odyssey and more or less immediately became one of the mosts successful composers in town. Later this season, you’ll get to hear more of Bunch’s beautiful orchestral music (we know you’ve all been dying for it ever since Aspects of an Elephant) when PYP plays a new work they commissioned from him, she flies with her own wings, along with more from erstwhile Oregonian Ernest Bloch.

And before we move on, we can’t fail to mention one of our greatest regrets of 2019: missing PYP’s west premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 1 “Chimera” last May. At the time, we had this to say:

…you’re really going to thank us for Auerbach, whose music is exactly the right kind of fresh. It’s punchy and agitated, modernistically morbid, bristlingly bombastic, colorfully dissonant, heroically wistful, and melodically profuse—which, to my ear, places her about halfway between Khachaturian and Elfman.

D’oh!

It’s a trend that needs to be resisted, this stopping short of full Symphonic Americana, and PYP makes a good example of what that resistance can look like (Brahms notwithstanding). Because every time we see Synecdoche van Beethoven (who stands for all decomposers) on a program, we have to wonder: would it have been so difficult to pick one of the dozens of solidly excellent symphonies by American composers? Not just Auerbach and Beach but Barber, Chávez, Harris, Harrison, Piston, Price, Rouse, Schuman, Svoboda, Theofanidis, Villa-Lobos, and Zwilich all have wonderfully accessible symphonies that could round out a program built on an overture and a concerto by American composers. It’s only the next logical step.

Consider Portland Columbia Symphony’s fall concert, exquisite in every way except that we never need to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade ever again, no matter how well played (oh and it was wonderfully played, dear reader, and we almost feel guilty for complaining about such beautiful music). The rest of the concert was a solid win. Local composer Nicole Buetti’s literally perfect Odyssey Overture has been making the rounds since its premiere with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 2018, and PCSO (with Buetti on contrabassoon) played the hell out of it in November: from their characteristically rich and expressive strings to their crunchy and bombastic brass, from the spooky Firebirdy opening through achingly beautiful Gloryous melodies to that jaunty quintuple meter fugue that starts in Buetti’s contrabassoon and ends up taking over the entire orchestra, finally ending with a bold brass chorale echoing the best of Tchaikovsky.

My favorite thing, upon hearing this music live for the third time, is how Buetti’s compositional voice is both fresh and experienced. It makes sense: she’s a seasoned composer with a whole bunch of commercial work on her resume, but she’s only lately started applying those skills to concert music in her adopted hometown.

Another oft-neglected segment of the American Symphonic Tradition: composers who are successful but not quite famous, partly because they do good work in a somewhat mainstream style (I’m looking at you, Walter Piston). This can overlap with the stratum of composers who are alive but not young and hip and affiliated with a critically acclaimed School or Label or Metagenre; you’ve got your Towers and your Glasses, and you’ve got your Shaws and your Kahanes, but the generation of composers in between can sometimes be less well-known. This is where we come to Grammy-winning Iranian-American composer Richard Danielpour.

It speaks volumes about PCSO’s commitment to American symphonic music that they not only played Danielpour’s fairly recent viola concerto, but even brought the commissioning violist here to play it with them. The Voyager, composed in 2017 for Brett Deubner, is peak American Mestizaje: the energy and modern tonalism of the minimalists, simple-but-not-simplistic pentatonic themes out of Price and Copland, “Eastern” influences from Danielpour’s Jewish and Persian heritage, jazz and tango rhythms, and a confident musical voice that adroitly mixes all that up with healthy doses of the classical tradition from Bach to Britten.

Deubner and PCSO drenched Danielpour’s concerto in sweet sadness, by turns boastful and defiant, questioning and resolute, anguished and placid–an almost cinematic moodiness, except that film scores rarely have this much melody and never have such tidy finales. The PCSO string section deserves particular mention for their rich, delicious ensemble sound, reliable as a good chocolate bar, and nimble concertmaster Nelly Kovalev got into several call and response routines with Deubner’s viola. After all that, Deubner made a surprising choice for his encore: Gershwin’s “Summertime,” one of the doomed composer’s “Crazy In Love”-level megahits. We fell in love with Deubner the instant he started whistling with his viola, all Kenji-like, and he careened all over the usual virtuoso toolbox–Bach-like riffage, high slidey wildness a la Lakshminarayan Shankar, multi-stop harmonics, and a cute closing wink on the song’s signature added six chord.

This month, PCSO plays a bit more American music on their “A Concert for Hope” (Mar. 13 at First United Methodist in Southwest Portland, the 15th at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham), when trumpeter Ryan Anthony joins the orchestra for a new concerto composed for him by Chicagoan “Concerto King” Jim Stephenson. Alas, Stephenson’s Concerto No. 3 for Trumpet and Orchestra “Concerto for Hope” is the only American music on the program: Vivaldi and Dvořák complete the bill.

Of the three orchestras we’re discussing, MYS has the most exciting program this month. We’re obliged to tease them a little bit for playing Beethoven’s Seventh on their fall concert, but it actually doesn’t matter: kids should play Synecdoche van Beethoven, not just as part of their musical training but also as part of their upbringing as conscious human beings.

Most importantly, MYS nailed it. Beethoven’s Seventh has quite honestly never sounded so good to these ears. In fact, MYS nailed it so well I’m wondering if youth orchestras should be the only ones playing the chestnuts. What if it was actually difficult to go hear Beethoven performed live? What if you looked over the OSO’s season offerings and thought, “crap, nothing but new stuff, guess I’ll have to go listen to the youth symphony”? Even then, lucky you: the youth orchestra is going to crush that Beethoven symphony.

Anyways, the double zinger for that concert was the two Americans they played: Joan Tower and Matthew Kaminski. Not content to simply rip through one of those rib-rattling Tower Fanfares, they then welcomed Kaminski himself–a student of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project and one of the brightest composers in town–to conduct his own orchestral Hidden Voices.

We’ve been keeping an ear on Kaminski for a couple years now, as he’s blazed his way through YCP and Cascadia Composers chamber music concerts with sensitive and well-crafted music that is as close to “normal” in the complimentary sense as I’ve ever heard. This is my first time hearing his orchestral voice, and Hidden Voices was more of this same lovely normalcy, from its quiet and reflective opening through its Shosty storminess and Mahlerian melancholy to its long fade-out ending. Kaminski also has one distinct advantage over many other contemporary composers: his willingness to compose a wistfully expressive melody and then unabashedly get it stuck in everybody’s head.

This weekend–Sunday afternoon at the Schnitz–it’s the MYS concert we’ve all been waiting for: “An Evening with Regina Carter.” Portland-based composer David Schiff composed his violin concerto Four Sisters specifically for Regina Carter,  a superstar violinist who has built her career crossing jazz and classical traditions, and although Schiff hasn’t exactly said that no other violinist is able to play the piece, he has spoken of Carter’s enthusiastic devotion to the work, praising her ability to never play it the same way twice. Carter will also perform a set of jazz classics and new work by students of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble young composers program. MYS will also be premiering a new work by Grace Miedziak, a young composer based in Bend, Oregon.

Not that it’s a competition, but for this show alone MYS takes the gold.

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