When violist Kenji Bunch left his native Portland for music school in New York more than a quarter century ago, contemporary classical music wasn’t much on the city’s radar. Outside New York, “there wasn’t a lot going on anywhere, compared to today,” Bunch remembers. “New music didn’t have the cachet or excitement it generates today.”
The next year, a group of Portland musicians formed an ensemble devoted to elevating contemporary classical music. And five years ago, that ensemble, FearNoMusic, selected Bunch as its new artistic director. Returning home after winning a reputation in New York as one of the nation’s finest and most listener friendly composers of his generation, he found a very different city and musical culture than the one he’d left.
“Definitely there’s a real vitality now in the new music scene,” he says. “The level of attention nationally to our region has only grown and developed. There’s a real interest in and fascination with Portland nationally. Maybe that comes from things like Portlandia, but it’s also deeper than that. I think it’s recognized as a hub of activity and innovation. It’s pretty evident the West Coast is leading innovation in orchestral music — look at LA, San Francisco, Seattle [symphony orchestras], and the Oregon Symphony is starting to hold their own in that mix as well.”
Bunch immediately decided to showcase his hometown’s contemporary classical vitality by creating an annual concert of music by Portland composers. On Monday, FearNoMusic plays its fifth Locally Sourced Sounds concert, featuring half a dozen homegrown compositions.
The program includes works by another composer who followed Bunch’s Portland-to-New York conservatory-back to Portland trajectory. Bunch describes Ryan Francis’s Music for Four Hands as “a really delicate, soft, slow piece, informed by electronica music and pop harmony but that also [reflects] a deep understanding of classical traditions.”
Willamette University music professor John Peel’s Cielo is the third in a series of duets written by Oregon composers for FNM’s wife-and-husband team of violinist Inés Voglar-Belgique and violist Joël Belgique, who both also play in the Oregon Symphony. Two more FNM/OSO members, who have degrees in composition, also wrote pieces for the show, including movements from cellist Nancy Ives’s solo cello suite written in response to J.S. Bach’s famous set of six, which were just recorded for the third time by Yo Yo Ma. Bunch says clarinetist James Shields’s Lost Man Loop ripples with “a driving rhythmic energy” reminiscent of the music of leading contemporary American composer John Adams.
Bunch, who teaches composition at Portland State University and privately, especially relishes the chance to showcase promising young local composers. Last spring, he was so impressed on hearing graduating PSU senior Julia Kinzler’s trio Swirls, inspired by the patterns of water in a stream, he added it to the program. Reed College senior Yiyang Wang (a viola student of Bunch’s) wrote Converse for Bunch and his pianist wife, FNM executive director Monica Ohuchi, to play at her graduation last year. “It’s almost impressionistic but then there’s this folk like dance in the middle,” Bunch says. “It has a sense of humor, and a lyrical, rhythmic energy.”
One composer you won’t find on this year’s LSS program: Kenji Bunch himself. He’s one of the region’s, and the nation’s, most esteemed composers, and he’s been writing up a tsunami for performers around the world including the Oregon Symphony, but he’s also increasingly taking on a different role.
“I’ve gotten to a point in my career where it feels just as rewarding to help another composer out as it does to promote my own stuff,” Bunch explains. “I’ve been very lucky: it’s pretty evident I’ve had some good breaks over the years and a lot of opportunities have come my way. Sometimes they’ve come relatively easily and I’m not unaware of that. I really feel like I’m at a point where I can help younger composers who might not have had those breaks, and older composers who’ve come to it later in life.”
The emerging composers’ success reflects Portland’s burgeoning 21st century new music scene. FNM has had to double the size of its teenager-focused Young Composers Project.“Our main concern is trying to figure out how to accommodate more people who are interested,” Bunch says. “These are real composers doing real sophisticated work. I always remind myself that every one of them is way ahead of where I was at that age.”
The surge in contemporary classical music by young composers, including several represented on this program, bodes a bright future for the city’s new music scene. “I think it’s only getting more robust,” Bunch says. “It’s a trend I’ve noticed since we came back, and I see no sign of that slowing down. ”
He also sees it diversifying. Citing Third Angle New Music and other local ensembles that program new music, “I think all of our groups have made a real push the last couple seasons to show the visibility of composers of color, female composers — to show people that composers do indeed look like all of us,” Bunch says. “We try to cultivate that with our YCP students, too. The diversity is only going to grow and invigorate the already pretty robust scene we have here.”
That diversity extends to the styles he’s hearing in the music emerging from Portland composers. He draws an analogy to another area of Portland creativity.“I read something recently about the food scene in Portland,” Bunch muses. “We don’t have an iconic dish like cheese steak or pan pizza, but what is characteristic of the Portland culinary scene is the availability of amazing ingredients — fresh produce, seafood, locally sourced ingredients. So the food scene is about honoring the ingredients in creative ways.
“I think that’s what happens in music too. Stylistically, things are all over the map, but there’s this sense of free spirit, of unbounded creativity that doesn’t have roots in a specific tradition but can borrow freely from multiple traditions. Composers seem fearless here, willing to take creative risks — just get out there and do something without worrying if the proper traditional hoops have been jumped through in advance.” More than ever, Portland composers and audiences really do fear no music.
“Locally Sourced Sounds,” 7:30 pm Monday, January 21, at The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland. Speaking of the Portland food scene, locavore edibles will be available, and Fear No Music will offer a pair of free tickets to this performance to any federal employees furloughed due to the government shutdown. Tickets may be requested at the event with proof of employment. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.
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