March Music Moderne reviews: Cascadia Composers’ Piano Bizarro; MC Hammered Klavier’s Storm Session

Pianos — including this "skeleton piano"  — took center stage at two March Music Moderne concerts last week.

Pianos — including this “skeleton piano” — took center stage at two March Music Moderne concerts last week.


“What I care about is telling a story,” said pianist Jennifer Wright after last week’s Piano Bizarro concert. “I was getting bored of becoming a technical machine. How interesting is that to me or anyone else? In my concerts I want to present the story of the music in some sort of context that makes it meaningful so that people learn something, have fun, and go home wanting to share how the experience changed them. These little ripples make a huge difference cumulatively.”

Presented by Cascadia Composers at Portland’s Michelle’s Piano Company as part of March Music Moderne, Piano Bizarro was a tidal wave of, yes, bizarre sounds created by toy pianos, amplified harpsichord, prepared piano, percussion, music boxes, electronic delay effects, four people on one piano, and four pianos played all at once.

Wright and company succeeded in engaging the audience for two hours(!) of wild music by immersing the listeners in a story. The term “piano bizarro” plays off Planet Bizarro from Superman. “Everything that exists on Earth also exists on Bizarro in opposite form,” says Wright’s brightly colored comic-style program. “Pianos exist there, but as anti-pianos…. Piano Bizarro is about redefining what a keyboard instrument is and what the proper way to play it might be. It celebrates the elements of choice and chance, and questions what sounds are acceptable.”

Wright and her composer/pianist colleagues Art Resnick, Ted Clifford, and Paul Safar also acted out brief theatrical vignettes for each piece. For example, in Wright’s performance of Stephen Montague’s Dark Train Comin’, Clifford acted as a mail man delivering a package to Wright. Wright excitedly opened this present only to reveal the ominous portent of a skull. With a fearful “Oh no!” and a quivering clutch at her throat, Wright sat down at her harpsichord to perform Montague’s piece, which calls for tone-bending moaning, plucking of strings, and playing the harpsichord body like a percussion instrument.

Pianist/composer Jennifer Wright

Pianist/composer Jennifer Wright

Wright’s focus on narrative as a means to engage the audience came directly from her dissatisfaction with the culture experienced while pursuing degrees in classical piano performance. “I had been led to believe that classical music is more serious and thus more legitimate,” said Wright about finding her way to nontraditional music, “and I had a hard time relating the strict classical music tradition to anything else.”

Wright’s mission of liberating the keyboard from these strict classical traditions led her to the world of composition. As she began performing works by living composers, she was invited by Cascadia Composers to try her own hand at composing. “Instead of suffering over ‘How do I interpret this piece?’ or ‘How do I get that right?’ I ask, ‘How do I create that emotion?’” she explained. “My compositions always lead me in directions that I never would have gone if I had just been performing or just listening or just researching. Every aspect of composing is a journey where I learn more about what kind of musician I am and what I listen for; I bump into these barriers or preconceived notions that I didn’t even know I had.”

Wright overcame a few of these barriers with her “skeleton piano,” an old upright with a cracked soundboard that Wright acquired for free from Craigslist. The mystery and intrigue surrounding this piano was one of the main draws for listeners, particularly for the younger listeners who took advantage of the free admission for those under 12. Wright had stripped away most of the frame from the piano, exposing the strings. She began the piece by removing two of the keys from the upper register and using them like mallets on the strings.

“I thought I was being new and exciting by stripping down the piano, but as my piano students kept guessing what I meant by ‘skeleton piano,’ one asked, ‘Are you gonna take parts of the piano and throw them at each other during the performance?’ I never would have thought of that! Here was a barrier I didn’t even know was there. Piano parts belong on the piano don’t they? Why?” This piece was the most successful composition on the program for its presentation and performance.

The other main draw to this presentation of bizarre piano works was Evil Nigger, written by the gay New York African American composer Julius Eastman in 1979. Minimalist and raw, with Wright shouting, “One, two, three, four!” at transitional points, it featured four pianists playing two motives over and over again for about 15 minutes.

The concert also included Art Resnick’s Arrivals, valuable for its exploration of tuning and score-writing, and his Spaghetti Western: Showdown at Low Noon, which featured great programmatic flair. If this concert had been half as long my ears would have been more grateful, but visiting a new planet is always going to present a bit of discomfort.

The full house meant some audience members sat on stage at Storm Session. Photo: Leo Daedalus

The full house meant some audience members sat on stage at Storm Session. Photo: Leo Daedalus

A Storm of Svoboda

Tomas Svoboda’s sound is like no other sound you’ll hear in classical music,” proclaimed Maria Choban from the stage of Portland’s Community Music Center last Saturday, her face glowing with electric energy. “It’s trashy and thrashing and so fuckin’ loud! Tomas Svoboda understands everyday life. He’s not esoteric. He’s not academic. He’s really rock and roll!” The full-house audience, over 150 people, whooped approvingly after every piece and gave Choban’s piano transcription of Storm Session, originally meant for electric guitar and electric bass, a full minute’s worth of applause.

Here’s what made the evening of March 15 absolutely the best classical music concert of the season so far:

  • Accessible repertoire

Maria Choban and her classical music warriors presented an all-Svoboda concert: Storm Session, Fugue Op. 87, Scherzo Op. 186, the second movement from the Piano Sonata no. 2 op 121, and the four-hand Suite op. 124. Get up to speed on Tomas Svoboda here. Living, teaching, and composing in Portland, Oregon since 1969, Svoboda attended Choban’s concert, his first venture in public since his severe December 2012 stroke. Svoboda’s compositions avoid sunset-sweeping melodies and lush harmonies of romantic visions. Instead, as in the Fugue for violin, cello, and piano op. 87, short melodic units burst into the air like many stars and are herded into formation via stomping rhythmic patterns. Svoboda’s visceral rhythms are the listeners’ primary means to digest the compositions which feature folk-like melodies, sparse improvisatory gestures, and brawling lines which, in the Fugue, culminate in an orchestrally crashing finish.

  • Accessible performance

If his rhythmic body movement was any indicator, Svoboda seemed particularly overcome by the performance of his four-hand Suite op. 124. The calculated energy with which Choban and her young colleague Mitchell Falconer attacked it

Composer Tomas Svoboda laughs with pianist Maria Choban after her concert of his music.

Composer Tomas Svoboda laughs with pianist Maria Choban after her concert of his music.

cleared away the musty cobwebs of dispassionately sophisticated classical performances. Rhythmic grooves crashed into each other like many unsettled atomic particles and Falconer and Choban played it tight. In the Scherzo op. 186 for clarinet, flute, and piano,  the “lightest” piece on the program, Choban’s fingers skipped with present playfulness, capitalizing on this piece’s childhood innocence sans nostalgic mushiness.

  • Short explanations before each piece.

Rather than bore the audience with academic jabber, Choban’s comments celebrated the compositions, performers, and composer, motivating the audience to explore with their ears. To explain the complex articulation markings in the second movement of Svoboda’s Piano Sonata no. 2 op. 121 Choban stated, “Not even god can memorize this!” In this second movement, which is an aural representation of suicide, it wasn’t the articulations that impressed me, but more Choban’s drunken manner of plodding through the steady staccato quarter notes. Lost in the cycle of depression, the descending melody tries to push against the same immovable wall, but finding no solutions simply stops existing, no quieter and no louder than it began. More people than just Choban felt painful tears in this one.

  • Length: one hour.

Choban capitalizes on Portland’s voracious appetite for fresh classical music in small doses. This concert clocked in just under an hour and people were on their feet wanting more. The longest piece was about twenty minutes, and the variety of repertoire kept everyone’s ears on the ready.

  • Cost: FREE

Free is tough to do, but Choban takes this challenge as a means to find solutions that work best for both audience and music. Using her connections as a native Portlander and through Classical Revolution PDX, she finds competent musicians who share her passion for community outreach, passionate playing, and fresh classical sounds. Violin, cello, flute, and clarinet were all played with intelligence by Mike Hsu, Betsy Goy, Janet Bebb, Chris Cox.

  • Excellent promotion of the event by Choban herself to reach classical music virgins.

Choban took an informal poll at the concert to see how people found out about it, and the majority seemed to show up because of the bombardment of delightful emails and Facebook postings that offered short, enticing statements like “This is the sound I love so much: exuberance, counterpoint, metal-madness, modal, mixed-metered earthy dance…in short, intelligent rock and roll!” If you were at these concerts concert, what did you think? What are some other recipes for success for reaching classical music virgins? What does it mean for repertoire to be “accessible”?

Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

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12 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Hi Jana!

    Thanx very much for reviewing these two wonderful MMM concerts in such detail – you are a model citizen!

    I, too, appreciated Maria’s informal survey as to how people found out about the concert. Unfortunately, she forgot to ask how many people were in attendance due to the multi-leveled, Global Village PDX-wide March Music Moderne PR – brochures, posters, radio show previews on both KBOO & All-Classical FM & 4 weeks of sizable ads in Willamette Week. Now, I will forever wonder to what degree having had “Storm Session” as part of our extensive MMM carpet bombing PR campaign contributed to the hugely successful turnout this fine program enjoyed.

    Thanx again for your enthusiastic engagement with musics of our time in the here of the now!

    • Maria Choban says:

      yeah, that was definitely a big boo-boo on my part! I’m going to do that informal survey as part of every mchk show and I’ll start off with that question next time – “who came because of the mmm blitz?” Thank you Bob for all the work you did promoting not just Storm Session but the entire festspiel, which I also promoted in my program (which listed other MMM events) and in my remarks from the stage.

      • Maria Choban says:

        I had indeed intended to query regarding MMM blitzing.

        I also forgot to ask who came because of the informative flyers I spammed the pdx world with at every concert and grocery store and household and . . . . leading up to storm session.

        I also forgot to ask who came because they’re loyal fans.

        I also forgot to ask who came because they saw it on my alitisa blog/site.

        I also forgot to ask at the end of that survey a general “shout out your reasons for why you came tonight!”

        I also forgot what else I intended to ask in that query.

        I learned that I cannot leave discrete items like this to my memory. It’s different spinning a funny short anecdote to connect with the audience while onstage vs. retrieving specific info. Next time: A Written List!

        • bob priest says:

          hahaha, yes, a written list!

          sadly, in my case, sometimes i leave the list @ home.

          even more “bobi geriatric style” is to have the list in my pocket & forget to look @ it.

          or, as elvis once sang on his essential “sun sessions” CD, “i forgot to remember to forget.”

          and the beat goes on – with or without us . . .

  2. Maria Choban says:

    Regarding “Piano Bizarro” – I must add that my favorite piece on that program was Ted Clifford’s “Child’s Play” for prepared piano (with bean bags) and regular piano. I’m a huge Clifford fan and the preparation for the performance was such that the magic really came through – bravo Ted and Jennifer! I also LOVE the score of Jennifer Wright’s “Loopers” for one piano – EIGHT hands – which closed out the first half and want to do that piece on a future mchk show.

    • Jennifer Wright says:

      Maria, I’m trying to convince Ted to write a whole suite of similar prepared piano pieces based on odd childhood games, like dodgeball or Capture the Flag – wouldn’t that be a wonderful riff on Debussy’s Children’s Corner or Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants?! And I’m so glad you like Looper – since it’s based on the idea of losing one’s train of thought, I was not quite certain what an audience would make of it, but it seems the subject is something we can all relate to!

      • Ted Clifford says:

        Jennifer, I am definitely working on the suite. Maria thanks for your kind words! It was great to be part of this concert. And I’m still buzzing from Storm Session.

  3. jeff Winslow says:

    Nothing against Jana’s excellent reviews, but I just have to say I didn’t find “Evil Nigger” raw at all. Nobody reading this should be scared off by the bitterly ironic title Eastman gave the piece. When Wright, Resnick, Clifford, and Safar performed it, great washes of shimmering beauty, not quite like any other I’ve ever heard, filled the space!

  4. Jennifer Wright says:

    Jana, thank you so much for this amazing article! I am one darn lucky woman to be able to lead life suffused with the arts and to be surrounded by people who believe what I believe – that modern classical music is a living, breathing, ecstatic creature that enriches our lives immeasurably. I want to give a shout-out to my fellow “Bizarros” Paul Safar, Ted Clifford, Art Resnick and my student Olliver Barr – all of whom are top-notch musicians who happen not to bat an eyelash when asked to wear a superhero costume or otherwise step outside of the box for the love of music. I couldn’t have asked for better partners in piano adventure! I am also thankful for the wonderful audience we had – I know it involved a leap of faith for many people to walk on the Bizarro side that night, but I hope every one of them took something of value home with them.

    • bob priest says:

      hey jennifer!

      looking forward to “the return of piano bizarro” during MMM V – yes, that’s an invitation, by jovian!



      any chance of a 2nd run through “evil nigger” with 4 grand pianos surrounding the ODDience?

  5. Jana Hanchett says:

    Three million crazy cheers for everyone having such great reactions to each individual piece! definitely an indicator of the superhero-strength of Jennifer, Art, Paul, Ted, and Olliver.

    Right with you, Maria and Jennifer. Ted’s piece was absolutely charming! I so hope he composes that whole set for next time we ring around the bizarroses.

    And yes, thanks jeff for pointing out how absolutely beautiful Eastman’s expressions are. The composer Mary Jane Leach has a great Julius Eastman project here:

    keep on shouting out!


  6. David Bean says:

    As an audience member lucky enough to attend both of these concerts, I’d like to say each was Stupendous! Classical with zero snoot. The musicianship was exceptional. I loved the rhythm as a thread in what we think as classical.

    The exuberance with which Thomas Svoboda’s music was played, and in turn played with us seemed historic. I was so lucky to have been in that packed hall.

    And to be at the unveiling of the Skeleton Piano as well, I feel to be at the first of a very big thing. While amusing to watch…. it swept me with a lilting sort of peace. I want to hear more. As the performer said, this instrument, the piano, has thousands of parts and was by far the most complicated item in the household…… until the computer. It looks like this relic is a contender, has stripped off its mahogany cape, and strode into the ring.

    Portland, you are something!

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