Makrokosmos Project: expansive vision

Fifth annual festival of 20th and 21st century music creates and relies on community

When Portland native Stephanie Ho first heard Makrokosmos, the massive, four-volume cycle of amplified piano and percussion music written in the 1970s by one of America’s greatest living composers, George Crumb, she thought, “I haven’t lived on this Earth until I heard this music,” she remembered. 

Years after that epiphany at Oberlin College’s prestigious music school, Ho and her husband and piano duo partner Saar Ahuvia decided to play Crumb’s mega-masterwork to inaugurate their first Portland festival — which they named.

Makrokosmos Project turned out to be an apt name for their annual five-hour, come-and-go-as-you-please music marathon, which happens for the fifth time from 5 to 10 p.m. this Thursday, June 27, at Portland’s Vestas Building. A macrocosm is a social body made of smaller compounds — in this case, a series of five 30- to 45-minute concerts with breaks for locally sourced vino, vittles, and conversation. And the expansiveness the name suggests also alludes to the broad audience the festival seeks for new and often unfamiliar music by creating a relaxed, communal experience.

E Pluribus Unum

The festival started because Ho and Ahuvia, a married couple who live in New York City, visited Ho’s native Portland each summer to catch up with family — and nature. Their friend Harold Gray, the Portland State University professor and pianist who founded Portland Piano International, suggested that “instead of only doing so much hiking, we should do something musical, too,” Ahuvia recalled.

Stephanie & Saar performing in Portland.

After all, as DUO Stephanie & Saar, the pair of powerhouse pianists had earned a national reputation for their performances of classical and contemporary music. Since moving to New York in 2004, they’d staged performances in “strange venues” like World Financial Center and One Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, Bank of America building in LA, (le) poisson rouge in NYC (the old Village Gate – a grungy indie-rock club), Knockdown Center in Queens (an old doorknob factory that has been transformed into a gallery and performance space), and the basement bar of the now closed Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. “If any place was up to that, it was Portland,” which is all about keeping it weird.

With Chamber Music Northwest already covering traditional classical music in its annual summer festival, the couple decided to focus on the late 20th and 21st century classical sounds they cherished — a niche within a niche. How to make it appealing to a wide audience? Rather than cater to today’s alleged short attention spans, they decided to go against the grain and go big.

The marathon length runs counter to conventional thinking. “In New York, everyone wants to make concerts shorter,” Ahuvia said. “The conversation always seems to be about how people’s attention spans are shrinking. I’m not convinced by that argument. If you create the correct experience, you can hold their attention. We’re both runners and hikers, and there’s something about having something be long enough to create a real critical mass that creates a different kind of experience.” 

Their solution: a big festival made up of smaller, independent concerts.

“We wanted to create a curated marathon — but also give the option for those who don’t want to run as long distances to pick and choose, take a break, come back,” he said. “Sets of 30 to 45 minutes do just that. You can see how little or how much you want to take. At Makrokosmos, you can walk around different parts of the space, listening closely to the music, or you can go a few floors up, contemplating life and having a glass of wine, and having that music be a soundtrack. It’s the experience you make of it.”

They staged the first big event in a tiny space — downtown Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, where they crammed a pair of pianos, nine musicians, and as many listeners as they could squeeze in around and between them. “We really wanted the music to have visceral effect on the audience,” Ahuvia explained, “and we thought the best way was to have the audience sit around the pianists, to create the effect that you’re literally in the music.”

FearNoMusic pianist and Makrokosmos Project regular Jeffrey Payne performs at Blue Sky Gallery.

Expanded Community

It worked, but it also couldn’t accommodate the growing crowds, and it got pretty hot when the sun streamed in the big window on the North Park Blocks. And two years later, when they decided to make American minimalist master Steve Reich’s Six Pianos (which required just that) the centerpiece of the third festival, they needed more room.

The Pearl District’s capacious Vestas Building provided a more expansive space to accommodate their increasingly expansive vision. The former 1927 Meier & Frank Depot Building that serves as American headquarters for a Danish wind turbine manufacturer offered “the perfect urban vibe that minimalism evokes in our minds,” Ahuvia said. The lobby could host wine and cheese and intimate performances, while the central atrium with stadium seating could hold as many listeners, musicians, and instruments as needed — and room to move. Audience members could gaze down on plentiful percussion and pianos, walk around, even escape for a bite in the Pearl if they didn’t like what they were hearing. 

Apparently, though, many do. “We’re most surprised by the number of people who stay for all five hours —total immersion,” Ho said. “We’re told we’re approachable people and we make this music approachable. We’re trying to create a comfortable experience. Maybe the food helps, the wine helps.”

Musical Garden

This year’s festival, featuring DUO Stephanie & Saar and a half dozen of Oregon’s most adventurous classical pianists, again starts with late 20th century sounds — this time, the sublimely spare, spacious piano music of the great Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930-96), presented in two sets at 6 and 8 pm. Inspired by trees, water, and gardens, Takemitsu considered himself a “musical gardener” and that suggested the festival’s theme of nature and the human condition, beginning with the opening 2007 work by Pulitzer winner John Luther Adams

“As I composed Dark Waves I pondered the ominous events of our times: terrorism and war, intensifying storms and wildfires, the melting of the polar ice and the rising of the seas,” wrote the longtime Alaska-based composer, who now splits time between Mexico and New York. “Yet even in the presence of our deepening fears, we find ourselves immersed in the mysterious beauty of this world. Amid the turbulent waves we may still find the light, the wisdom and the courage we need to pass through this darkness of our own making.” 

For contrast to Takemitsu’s ruminative abstraction, Ho and Ahuvia programmed more expressive works — by Takemitsu’s major inspiration, 20th-century French mystic Olivier Messiaen; by another American Pulitzer winner, Julia Wolfe; and by California composer Gabriela Lena Frank, who draws on her Peruvian heritage. 

Stephanie and Saar will perform Gabriela Lena Frank’s Seis cantos do los campos at Makrokosmos V.

The festival closes where Makrokosmos Project began, with Crumb’s dark, shattering 1970 string quartet, Black Angels, which inspired David Harrington to form the famous Kronos Quartet just to play it. Its chaotic fury, emerging from the divisions that tore the country during the Vietnam War, seems to offer a warning about the consequences ensuing if humans fail to heed the ominous warning sonically signaled by Adams’s opening work.

“In some ways, we are at war here in our country today,” Ho said. “Social injustice, destruction of the environment, divisions in our society, atrocities committed on people fighting for social justice. We are in turmoil. Those things are on our minds.” 

Arriving after the natural beauty evoked by Takemitsu’s music, Crumb’s cathartic classic, performed by Portland’s Pyxis Quartet, suggests “it could all just go away unless we do something about it,” Ahuvia said. “This music is therapeutic — it goes through nature, hope, danger, war, destruction, then hope again, compassion, desire.” 

Pyxis Quartet will perform George Crumb’s Black Angels at Makrokosmos V.

Maybe the festival’s communal model itself, so antithetical to today’s divisiveness, offers a ray of hope. “It’s really a community effort,” Ho said. William Rose Wines and Quailhurst Vineyards donate the wine, and Elephants Deli and Mandarin House (Old Town) the food.

Such generosity makes the whole thing possible. “People in New York ask us all the time why we don’t do [Makrokosmos] there,” Ahuvia said. “We would need five years of fundraising.”

 “There’s something amazing about the Portland community,” he continued. “Vestas donates the space. Portland Piano Company donates, moves and tunes the pianos. Our New York-based web designer, videographer and graphic designer Masataka Suemitsu does work for Makrokosmos at a fraction of his usual fee. Fees are nothing close to what these musicians should be getting. Everybody just wants to get together and wants it to happen.” 

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon Thursday.

Makrokosmos Project 5: Black Angels

Thursday, June 27, 5pm-10pm at Portland’s Vestas Building, 1417 NW Everett Street. Advance tickets are $15, $20 day of the show, $10 students/seniors. Tickets cover ALL events and complimentary food and wine. Tickets and information: www.makrokosmosproject.org. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.


Previous coverage

Year One, Part One: Rites of spring survey 2, Oregon interludes

Year One, Part Two: Magical music

Year Two, Part One: Joyously crazy music

Year Two, Part Two: Tag teaming a piano classic

Year Three: Powered by percussion

Year Four: Screwy spiritual music for a summer evening

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    A wonderful festival with admirably sane ticket prices!

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