While everyone is checking their brackets for one kind of March Madness (go Ducks!), some of us are equally excited by the return of another crazy rite of spring. March Music Moderne has been on hiatus for while, so it’s even more thrilling to welcome back one of Oregon’s most fascinating music melanges, because it spotlights music you can’t hear at other Oregon classical music concerts, primarily composers who write or wrote music in the modernist tradition. And unlike most overpriced classical music concerts, March Modness is always free, subsidized by Priest (whose wealth lies in his musical generosity rather than negotiable currency) himself.
Actually, though, this edition of MMM superficially resembles Ye Olde Classical Music in at least one way: what I call necromusicophilia, the worship of dead composers. Classical music institutions, desperately needing a news hook to provide an excuse to pay more than usual attention to composers who aren’t going to be releasing any albums of new material or embarking on tours, tend to focus on round number birthdays or, more macabrely, death days.
For Claude Debussy, that day came exactly 100 years ago Sunday, when the French composer died of cancer during World War I as German shells exploded near his Paris home. But why would the generally mid-20th century March Music Moderne’s three concerts this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, and associated other activities this month, commemorate Debussy’s demise?
One answer may be that it was one of his groundbreaking works, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that turned MMMpresario Bob Priest onto classical music, rescuing him from rock music’s gutters and vaulting him into the palace of — nah, not really. Priest still cherishes Jimi Hendrix, Prince and other rock and pop deities. And as we’ll see, this festival includes far more new music — and by Oregon composers — than old.
But Priest is far from alone in his Debussy devotion. This isn’t the only centennial commemoration of his death happening around the world this year. There are days when he’s my favorite composer too. And it’s a sign of Debussy’s artistic significance and variety that he’s legitimately claimed as a major inspiration by many if not most composers who followed — modernist, post-mod, and otherwise, including one of Priest’s prime mentors, Olivier Messiaen. That’s how rich was his palette — from La Mer’s turbulent seascapes to Children’s Corner’s playful naivete to Pelleas and Melisande’s shadowy moods and so much more. And that’s why Debussy makes an appropriate centerpiece of a modern music festival: not just for his past accomplishments, but also for his future impact, which continues here and now.
That variety and influence are on display at Friday’s Music at the Speed of Sound concert featuring music by Debussy’s younger contemporaries Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, much of whose music is unimaginable without the older composer’s influence, plus Witold Lutoslawski, and Debussy-inspired sounds by contemporary composers Thomas Daniel Schlee, R. Murray Schafer, and Portland’s Robert McBride and Priest himself.
Music by two more Portland composers highlights Saturday’s Music in the time of Absinthe show. Linda Woody based her Absinthe Minded on a tribute to Debussy by yet another great composer he influenced, Manuel de Falla, and scored it for the beguiling combination of flute, viola and harp that Debussy pioneered in one of his last works, the ravishing Sonata that’s also on Friday’s program.
That piece and many others were strongly tinged by the influence of Javanese gamelan music, which Debussy first encountered at a famous 1889 exhibition in Paris. The shimmering textures of the Indonesian percussion orchestra so enchanted Debussy that he called Western classical music “child’s play” in comparison. Accordingly, Saturday’s concert features some actual Javanese gamelan music, a ravishing traditional work called Sri Karongran, setting the stage for another new Portland composition: Jennifer Wright’s Flora, Fauna, Humans, Gods. To learn the basics of gamelan music, Wright did something Debussy couldn’t: she actually signed up for an intro to gamelan course at Portland State taught by Mindy Johnston, who also directs the ensemble performing here, Portland’s Venerable Showers of Beauty. (Disclosure: I’m a member and will be performing in those two pieces.) And Wright painstakingly tuned one of her own toy pianos to the gamelan’s just intonation (much lovelier than the the compromised equal temperament that became standardized in Western music in the years after Debussy’s death), enabling her to blend it in with the ensemble.
Wright also composed Relatively Minor Infractions for baritone sax (played by terrific saxophonist and ArtsWatch contributor Patrick McCulley) and amplified harpsichords, which neatly incorporates two more of his characteristics: interest in newly invented instruments like the saxophone and a concert harp, and ancient musical modes and instruments. (One of that series of last sonatas he didn’t live to compose would have included harpsichord.)
The saxophone also appears in the concert’s welcome profusion of Debussy’s own music: an arrangement of two movements of his sublime sole string quartet performed by the crack Portland sax foursome Quadraphonnes. And no tribute to Debussy would be complete without a dose of his magnificent piano music, played by one of the world’s most eminent authorities on it, frequent Portland visitor Paul Roberts, who’ll also introduce the concert.
The many new compositions Sunday’s closing Cascadia Composers concert, Tombeau de Claude Debussy à Travers la Mer, also belie the notion that MMM is merely another classical music tomb. Oregon composers Texu Kim (once composer in residence of his native South Korea’s national symphony), Christopher Wicks, David Bernstein and Stephen Lewis contribute new solo piano works inspired by Debussy and performed by two of Oregon’s finest pianists, Asya Gulua and Colleen Adent.
Theresa Koon and ArtsWatch contributor Matthew Andrews premiere new Debussyian music for singer and piano. Denis Floyd and Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson contribute original works for wind quintet. And Debussy himself is represented by his Chansons de Bilitis, a lovely setting of faux-ancient lesbian love poetry actually devised by a contemporary French dude.
Debussy’s life was as turbulent and colorful as his music, as you can see on Thursday at Portland’s Cinema 21 at MMM’s free screening of British avant garde filmmaker Ken Russell’s biopic, The Debussy Film.
Priest deserves toutes nos félicitations for putting together such an amazingly diverse — and free — festival on a baguette budget. That range, richness and freshness are also a tribute to the vital Portland classical music scene and of course to Debussy himself. His creativity was far too capacious to be confined to narrow categories like Impressionist or Symbolist or whatever. Few if any other artists created such varied treasures of innovative beauty, which continues to shine in the music of his successors down through the decades and across La Mer.