When Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia are putting together their annual summer Makrokosmos music festival, it always starts with a single piece. The great American composer George Crumb’s epic Makrokosmos cycle inspired the four-concert program — as well as the name — for the first festival in 2015.
This year’s edition sprang from the seed of Havana-born, New York based composer Manuel Valera’s eventful Migrant Voyage, a ten-minute 2015 composition for two pianos that drew inspiration from the struggles of immigrants (especially those crossing the Florida strait) to make it to — and in — America.
When the New York-based couple, who perform classical and contemporary piano music around the country as DUO Stephanie & Saar, heard the premiere, “it really resonated with us,” Ahuvia recalls. Along with the colorful music, the piece’s subject led the pair to build the festival around the themes of immigration and Latin music. “The American classical sound without Latin music is nothing,” he says, citing famous works by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. And today, “There are so many amazing Latin composers. It all fell into place.”
A feast – make that fiesta this year – for fans of contemporary piano music in the classical tradition, the festival, like the Latino community itself, covers a broad range of styles and sounds. Along with Stephanie & Saar, a bevy of veteran Portland contemporary classical musicians from ensembles such as FearNoMusic and 45th Parallel Universe will play contemporary music for flute, violin, percussion, string quartet and more — including plenty of piano.
The New York-based couple, who met in graduate school at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, started Makrokosmos in 2015 at the instigation of retired Portland State University professor Harold Gray, who founded the piano presenting program Portland Piano International. Ho grew up in Portland, and “since we were spending summers in Portland visiting Steph’s family anyway, we thought we should do something that involved music, not just hiking,” Ahuvia remembered. (They’re also performing next month at PPI’s summer festival.)
Their affinity for extensive hikes influenced the festival’s extended format — this year, five 30-45 minute concerts commencing at 5 pm. “We’re both runners and hikers, and there’s something special about having something be long enough that creates a real critical mass and different kind of experience from the usual concert hall,” Ho explained.
“We wanted it to be a big, critical mass of music,” Ahuvia said. “You can always stay for just one piece or one show, but we curate it so you can also choose to stay for the entire thing so you can have this immersive experience. You can make the experience what you want it to be.”
That freedom to come and go, take in as much or as little as you please, makes experiencing new and unknown music a lot less risky, especially since wine and snacks are also available between the short sets. “Between the shows, people are chatting about what’s going on and it becomes this happening, this community thing,” Ahuvia said. “We’re not in this for a dime of profit. We do it because we love community, and we love Portland. We find people to work with who share that love.” He says the festival relies on a variety of donated in-kind support to continue.
Makrokosmos’s non-traditional venues also make the shows more inviting than a standard classical concert. They’d enjoyed the fresh, informal atmosphere of performing in alternative spaces in New York, and accordingly staged their Portland festivals in venues as diverse as a downtown art gallery and the Pearl District lobby of a wind turbine manufacturing company.
This year’s shows at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art offer outdoor food and beverage space (welcome in these virus-plagued days) and the festival’s first East Side location.
While the space is new, most of the performers return from previous festivals, and Stephanie and Saar rely heavily on their input in developing the program each year. Musicians are chosen not just for their chops and interest in new music but also because “they’re great players, fiery on stage. These artists can deliver these scores with incredible gusto,” Ho says. “We want [the audience] to have a good time. If they learn something too, great, but the purpose of our festival is to entertain people with wonderful music, and wine and food.“
Politicians often make the mistake of assuming anyone from a Spanish-speaking background has similar interests or inclinations. Not Makrokosmos. Latinos come from many widely divergent and distinctive cultural backgrounds, and like today’s Latino community itself, this weekend’s program is astonishingly diverse, with no common musical elements that characterize the compositions as Latin-influenced except for the ethnic heritage of most of the composers. In this year’s program, “the Latin-ness can be overt or covert,” Ahuvia explains, but he still detects common threads in the patchwork quilt of a program.
For example, along with Valera’s jazz-tinged music, the festival offers a trio of chamber works by another Cuban-American composer, 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner Tania León.
“Even though she is kind of an avant garde composer, with all that schooled sound, many of the chords [in her music in the festival] are the same chords Manuel uses. They both have a jazzy flair and drive, even though her language is different from straight up jazz people” like Valera, who’s best known not for contemporary classical music but rather for energetic progressive jazz.
The program also includes a chirpy flute piece by Adina Izarra; another fleeting flute flight by recent Portland visitor and rising star Angélica Negrón; and Sonata Serrana #1, a dramatic four-hand piano epic by frequent Portland visitor Gabriela Lena Frank, a stellar California-based composer whose mixed heritage includes Peruvian ancestry.
“Her music is so universal,” Ahuvia notes, “but without those specific Peruvian sounds she integrates, it wouldn’t be her.”
Two works reflect — in music alone, not lyrics — on today’s immigration conflicts. Along with Migrant Voyage, Marcos Balter’s brief, shimmering Dreamcatcher responds to the human impact of the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
Not all the works involve Latino composers. Concerts include the bright, bubbly flute, vocals and electronics of Haitian American composer Nathalie Joachim; a sizzling violin rhapsody by in-demand New York composer Jessie Montgomery (also featured at Chamber Music Northwest next week); and the darker, troubled modernist sounds of Korean composer Unsuk Chin.
Nor is Makrokosmos only a piano-fest. The closing concert features longtime regular contributors from Portland Percussion Group and Pyxis String Quartet. The latter plays new music by Inti Figgis-Vizueta, an exciting young New York based composer of Andean and Irish descent, while the former performs a zingy marimba and electronics quartet by veteran Argentinian-born composer Alejandro Viñao: Stress and Flow.
The all-piano penultimate performance pays tribute to the festival’s inspiration, George Crumb (who died earlier this year at age 92), with two pieces from his original Makrokosmos and the later Processional, as well as a brand new tribute composed for the occasion by Oregon composer-pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf.
“Stephanie and I have this personal fascination with Crumb,” Ahuvia explains. “Her teacher at Oberlin had played Book 1 [of Makrokosmos]. That’s how we started. We learned that piece. When we started this whole endeavor, we really wanted to have an event that showcased the first two solo piano volumes, which we never get to hear live,” Ahuvia says.
They met Crumb only once, and he cheerfully offered advice about how to perform some of his more difficult music. Ho says her teenage piano students really responded to Crumb’s music when she introduced them to it recently. “What I get from them is that it has a sense of freshness,” she says. “They loved the meditative quality of the piece. They loved the drama George Crumb brings, sometimes explosively, yet also an otherworldly feeling, all thrown into this one piece. For them that’s vastly intriguing. They just absolutely loved the different world this piece had created. He brought so many ideas to them.”
For Stephanie & Saar, Crumb’s music offers a model of mixing old and new that animates their namesake festival to this day.
“Crumb brings everything that came before him — Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky — and does it in his original way,” Ahuvia explains.
“That’s what we loved about Crumb,” Ho says. “We wanted that aspect to be the prevalent messaging in our festival. It’s contemporary and avant garde but made from sounds that are already familiar.”
His loss, and the memory of the recent death of their mentor, the great pianist Leon Fleischer, will end the festival on a melancholy note. Maybe that’s appropriate considering it’s the first live Makrokosmos since the pandemic receded, leaving so many losses in its wake. “We’re feeling a little orphaned these days,” Ahuvia acknowledges. “We want their legacy to live on.” At the Makrokosmos Festival, it does.
Makrokosmos 8. Sunday, June 26, 5pm-10pm, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), 15 NE Hancock Street, Portland.
A previous version of this story ran in The Oregonian.