Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

MusicWatch Monthly: April in the Anthropocene

Earth days, green days, Russian music, new music.

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With the mask mandate lifted, it’s been a relief to be able to get a coffee without needing a mask. Frankly this is probably the first column where I didn’t feel like I had to address Covid at any length. We’ve passed wave six, hoping for no wave seven. On the other hand, there are plenty of other things to talk about to give context to the concerts this month. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is hard to ignore and will likely have political ramifications for years and decades to come–though like any war it can be impossible to see through the chaos of the moment. 

The Vancouver Symphony performs the weekend of the 23rd with pianist Alexander Toradze, on a program of Russian composers: Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. In particular, they are playing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, nicknamed “Little Russian”–referring to Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky composed it.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many arts organizations have organized concerts in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and given tributes at concerts, a touching gesture. At the same time, there have also been some calls to remove Russian composers from concert programs and the ensuing backlash, along with some other controversies

I would like to believe that great music knows no borders and that taking such drastic measures turns what should be a way for us to recognize our shared humanity into a political weapon. Maybe I’m naive to think that, but I also don’t think Shostakovich or Tchaikovsy would have supported Russia’s invasion–Stravinsky, it’s hard to say. Regardless, it’s an opportunity to hear one of the great pianists perform in town with his brilliant repertoire. 

One would hope that rising gas prices would encourage us to drive less, to save money and slow the rising specter of climate change, though that doesn’t seem to be happening. After all, our infrastructure is based around cars, trucks and trains, so actually ditching the ride in favor of the bus or MAX ranges from inconvenient to near impossible. Meanwhile the Antarctic is reaching record highs and fossil fuels continue to fund the war machine. You know, your typical April in the Anthropocene. 

As long as you’re still driving, you may as well get out of the metro and into the high desert for the Sunriver Music Festival in Bend. This year’s concerts and masterclasses feature four brilliant pianists: Michael Allen Harrison, Mac Potts, Colleen Adent and Andrea Johnson.

If you’re in the mood for a true Earth Day show, Mezzo-Soprano and composer Lisa Neher has you covered with “No One Saves the Earth from Us But Us.” This live streamed concert goes live at 5 pm on Friday the 22nd. The show takes advantage of one of the realizations artists had during the pandemic: we don’t have to travel and burn fossil fuels to collaborate across the world. Along with Jennifer Wright’s concert in January, it has been–well, I wouldn’t say pleasant, more encouraging to see composers in Portland tackling one of the biggest existential threats to our society.

The other Earth day

And now for something completely different. The other big celebration this month is of course 4/20 (the other Earth day). There have been odes to cannabis for decades across genres, from heavy metal stoner doom and hip-hop weed anthems to reggae classics (incorrectly attributed to Bob Marley from the Napster/Limewire days). The green leaf has long inspired musicians for its minor hallucinogenic properties and its ability to inspire creativity and focus (or paranoia and anxiety). 

45th Parallel boasts two impressive shows this month, one of which deals with our stoner theme of the month. The first is on the 14th, with the Pyxis Quartet performing Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet, with the performers scattered around a blackened room (not a bad show to get stoned at either, to be honest). The second is a 4/20 concert of Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, probably the best classical piece to get stoned to. They won’t be serving spliffs, blunts or Js at the show, though they will be serving non-alcoholic aperitifs by GHIA–something akin to a virgin Aperol Spritz. After the show you can redeem a voucher for either Serra or Electric Lettuce to get a deal on some sticky. This is the closest we’ve gotten so far to a full-on hotbox at a classical show in Portland. Some of us have been waiting for a show like this for a long time, so the show will probably be packed (no pun intended).

Some other great shows to catch that night if Steve Reich isn’t “your vibe” include post-rockers Mogwai at Wonder Ballroom and pop star Rina Sawayama at the Roseland, though the latter is sold out. We also get Northwest Cannafest at At The Garages in Lake O’, with tributes to Prince, Tom Petty and the Beastie Boys. 

Big names around town

We have regretfully said little about one of the secretly best concert series in Portland: PSU’s Steinway Series. You probably haven’t heard or seen much about it unless you find the posters scattered through Lincoln Hall, but it brings an impressive array of some of the best pianists alive to the city for concerts and masterclasses. This month welcomes Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman, a brilliant soloist and chamber musician. Apparently not content at only being a great pianist, Hochman has also taken up conducting in the last few years. 

The Steinway Series program for the concert on the 22nd will include late works by Schubert (his final Sonata for piano) and Brahms (Fantasies op. 116 and Four Piano Pieces op. 119), alongside the world premiere of a new work by New York composer Tamar Muska, In My Heart I Am. The following two days feature a masterclass with Hochman along with a masterclass by PSU’s piano area coordinator Susan Chan. 

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And speaking of big names, one of the great living violinists comes to Portland that same weekend: Joshua Bell with the Oregon Symphony. The program includes two starring roles for Bell: Dvořák’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1. If you’re dying for more Dvořák, the month also ends with the Oregon Symphony performing his New World Symphony, alongside selections from Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (in the Tyzik/Ellington arrangements) and a new tuba concerto by Wynton Marsalis. The concerto is a co-commission by the Oregon Symphony featuring their principal tubist JáTtik Clark

One of the best choruses in town, In Mulieribus, ends their 15th season on Sunday the 24th with Luminous Waves. The show is at St. Mary’s Cathedral at 5 pm, which I feel the need to specify since it seems like every other classical concert starts at seven-thirty. The major work at the center of Luminous Waves is the Missa Lumen de Lumine by Sungji Hong, which you can listen to a preview of below. 

At the Keller Auditorium, we get a month of performances of Hamilton, last decade’s massive Broadway show that broke records and launched Lin-Manuel Miranda to superstar status. Thankfully it won’t be impossible to get tickets, since this is hosted by Broadway in Portland with many matinee and evening performances from April 13 until May 1. If that isn’t your thing and you want something more mellow, famous “dream pop” band Beach House also performs at the Keller, on the 8th.

Near the end of the month on the 26th, the Imani Winds give a bunch of world premieres by PNW composers: Miguel del Águila, Yuan-Chen Li and Damien Geter, in addition to Seen by OSO Creative Alliance member Nathalie Joachim and Cane by Jason Moran. Isn’t it nice to have a program where the oldest piece is from 2008?

And finally, in case we haven’t mentioned the new Reser Arts Center in Beaverton enough, there are tons of great shows happening there this month. There are some jazz shows you ought to check out hosted by PDX Jazz: Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita Suba; John Scofield (!); and “The American Refrain: Jazz and Modern Music,” featuring a variety of familiar Portland jazz names (Noah Simpson, Charlie Brown III, Machado Mijiga). You also have two Oregon Symphony concerts to choose from at The Reser in April: Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle Magnificent Bird on the 14th; and Be As Water, featuring music by Andy Akiho, Nico Muhly and Gabriella Smith, alongside (sigh) Handel’s Water Music, on the 15th.

And perhaps the biggest name of all: Caroline Shaw returns to Portland at the end of the month with Third Angle, performing Graveyards and Gardens with dancer/choreographer at the Bodecker Foundation’s skate bowl in Northwest Portland from April 28-30.  

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Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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