MusicWatch Monthly: A vote for diversity

November concerts initiate reimagined seasons of socially distant, socially relevant new music

After a nice weekend of socially-distanced Halloween shenanigans, the beautiful blue moon and a well-earned extra hour of sleep, November is here. It took a long time, but it feels like Portland’s arts community has settled into a rhythm of live-streamed concerts and occasional outdoor performances. What I appreciate above all is that this new format allows for a bit more experimentation in repertoire as we continue to move on from the hegemony of German dudes in classical music.

We can hear that in how the classical music community expands its focus, as composers and musicians who used to be on the periphery move toward the center. Older composers are rediscovered, newer composers get more attention, and we continue to confront our long history of complicity in racism, sexism and classism in music.

This summer, much of that centered around music theorist Philip Ewell, who faced an onslaught of racist backlash after alleging that influential theorist Heinrich Schenker’s vicious racism and anti-semitism informed his thinking–and, therefore, much of contemporary music theory. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies did not take this kindly, offering spurious and poorly-researched rebuttals to Ewell, alongside some subtle and not-so-subtle racism. We have a long way to go, but above all I am glad we are finally doing something about it.

November is a month filled with music outside the repertoire of the thirty-or-so composers of the usual canon. Fear No Music, arguably Portland’s most politically progressive chamber music ensemble, dedicates their 20-21 season Tomorrow is my Turn entirely to the works of Black composers. The first of FNM’s four mini-concerts goes live Monday night at 7:30, with directors Monica Ohuchi and Kenji Bunch playing the music of Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Regina Harris Baiocchi and Adolphus Hailstork.

The keen follower of Portland’s chamber music scene may recognize Ngwenyama’s name from her performance at Chamber Music NW’s summer festival a few years back. If there’s anyone in town who can tackle Ngwenyama’s delicate viola writing, it is Bunch. And if you have never had the pleasure of hearing Kenji and Monica’s brilliant musical chemistry, wait until you hear them playing in their home studio–about as intimate a setting one can get.

If you miss it on Monday you’re not totally out of luck, but you don’t have forever: all of these concerts will available for 48 hours after they premiere, and no longer. RSVP here.

On Friday November 6, Portland Baroque Orchestra premieres a concert on their Youtube channel of some of the earliest string quartets ever written, with works by Saint-Georges and Sirmen, plus the obligatory Hadyn. The first two names are not as familiar as Hadyn’s “Sunrise” quartet, and deserve some attention. 

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy planter father and enslaved mother, moved to Paris, and became the first major African-descended composer of European classical music (as well as a talented fencer). Saint-Georges also had an impressive military career: during the French Revolution he was colonel for the Legion de St. Georges (the first all-Black regiment in Europe), and near the end of his life spent some time fighting alongside Julien Raimond and Toussaint Louverture in the Haitian Revolution.

He is occasionally called “Black Mozart,” a nickname that is thankfully dying away (as it implies the best thing a Black man can aspire to be is a white man, though the name certainly could be reclaimed). One thing they do have in common, however, is the charming beauty of their music.

Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen was born in Venice to poor parents. She grew up in an orphanage, occasionally taking lessons with Giuseppe Tartini. In adulthood Sirmen wrote virtuosic violin duos and concerti to perform with her husband Ludovico. Surprisingly, this orphaned upbringing was fairly commonplace for musicians in Italy: the Church trained orphans for vocations in music at places like the Ospedali Grandi.

I hesitate to call these two fascinating figures “pioneers” or “groundbreakers,” because I don’t want to throw our modern understanding of feminism and critical race theory (that dastardly field!) onto a society so distant from our own. I’m just glad they are getting more attention, and that we aren’t just relitigating the works of Hadyn for the God-knows-how-many-th time.

On the 6th, the continuing Fridays with 45th Parallel series presents Kirsten Volness and her piece little tiny stone, little blue flame for pierrot ensemble sans piano (meaning flute, clarinet, violin and cello). Volness currently teaches at Reed College, filling the spot left after David Schiff’s retirement a few years ago. If you like what you hear of her music, you can also tune in to her ongoing project with the American Opera Project, Working Women. Robert Muczynski and Jessie Montgomery round out the program. The following Friday, 45th Parallel’s Gemini Project–percussionists Sergio Carreno, Jon Greeney, and Michael Roberts–perform Viktor Derevianko’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.

November 8th brings us Friends of Chamber Music and Tambuco Percussion. This concert was planned to go out two weeks ago, but you know how it goes. Tambuco boasts an impressive and wide repertoire that includes the usual avant-garde darlings (Cage, Reich, et al.), but what’s more interesting is their promotion of Mexican composers old and new.

The biggest name among the modern composers on this program is probably Javier Alvarez. Tambuco plays a marimba quartet arrangement of his Metro Chabacano, an evocation of one of the central stations in Mexico City’s sprawling transit system. The measured, driving rhythms of the original (for string quartet) translate perfectly into the world of chamber percussion, the marimba’s dark tone lending the music a nice pensiveness. Tambuco also performs commissions from Raúl Tudón, Héctor Infanzón, Miguel Gonzales, and Leopoldo Nóvoa–the composer, not the visual artist. The concert goes live on FOCM’s Youtube channel at 3 pm.

On the 14th, Chamber Music Northwest brings us one of the biggest gets of the month: clarinetist Anthony McGill, playing alongside Gloria Chien. McGill is the first African-American principal at the New York Philharmonic, one of those bittersweet honors–glad it happened, even if it should’ve been done decades ago. One of McGill’s most distinctive accomplishments must be his performance at Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, especially for his ability to stay in tune in the freezing DC winter.

The 14th and 15th bring us to the long-awaited PYP New Music Festival, when Hattner and company premiere fourteen (!) new works from their Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative. The festival commissioned primarily women and composers of color from across the country, and includes a couple familiar names, including PSU professor Darrell Grant and local indie-rocker Kate Davis. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s coverage of that in the coming weeks.

On the 15th and 18th, we get some different approaches to the socially-distanced music experience. Third Angle presents a soundwalk around Mount Tabor created by local sound artist Branic Howard, the first of many in the coming months. Soundwalks are pieces meant to be heard while walking around a public, natural space; they were pioneered by some of our favorite Canadian composers here at ArtsWatch, R. Murray Schaffer and Hildegard Westerkamp. I’m intrigued to hear how Howard interprets the wide, winding roads and dense arbors of Mount Tabor through sound. If you’re like me and listen to music on long walks through the woods, this is the “concert” for you. 

A few days later, Resonance Ensemble premieres the next in their “Under The Overpass” series. Episode One took place under the Hawthorne bridge, harmonizing between the old warehouses of inner Southeast. This time, Resonance and the Kingdom Sound Gospel Choir take up the empty concrete lots beneath the Ross Island Bridge, a space usually reserved for Cirque Du Soleil tents and post-Thursday Night Ride bonfires. The concert is streamed–you have to watch it from home, not under the bridge–it is still a welcome change of scenery.

The last few concerts of the month will help get you into spirit for the various winter solstice celebrations–Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule and all the rest. These shows come just in time. Nobody wants to start thinking about the end-of-the-year celebrations until late November, a lesson most retailers have yet to learn, especially this year when “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” take on new meanings.

On the 21st, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony brings one of the more traditionally-balanced programs: the works of William Grant Still, Florence Price and John Coltrane sandwiched between Peer Gynt and “Ode to Joy,” a pair of obliquely Christmas-y favorites. Still and Price are two of the most notable figures of the diversified canon: they were respectively the first African-American man and woman to write symphonies, and beyond that their music is damn good (read the exciting story of Price’s rediscovery right here). It’s also nice to see Coltrane get some love from the MYS jazz ensemble.

We end the month with the Bach Cantata Choir, performing selections from the Christmas Oratorio on Sunday the 29th. This inaugurates the first of four advent concerts, Bach every Sunday until Christmas. I’ve spent much of this column giving grief to the classical canon of German dudes, but I admit that I have a soft spot for this German dude. The complexity of his counterpoint really drew me into classical music when I was younger, and even as my tastes change I still hold his music in high esteem.

So you might have heard a little about this presidential election happening right now, and it seems likely that we won’t know who passed the two-seventy threshold for a while. It’s like 2000 all over again, except this time I’m actually old enough to vote. We do thankfully have the hindsight of the Brooks Brothers Riot and Bush v. Gore to understand what sort of meddling can go down if we aren’t vigilant.

The race for Portland’s next mayor is equally nail-biting, as we see if people are more dissatisfied with Wheeler or apprehensive about Iannarone. For now, before the political quantum superposition collapses, you can check in with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office to make sure your ballot was received, and be sure to read investigative journalist Greg Palast’s reporting on the US election. Or, if you want to get your mind off the US for a while, Derek Davidson’s World roundups in Foreign Exchanges have you covered.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

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