MusicWatch Monthly: April is the coolest month

Looking forward to a wild summer where the masks start to come off and the concerts slowly start coming back.

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I spent the last week in March recovering from the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was the worst I had felt in a very long time: a whole Tuesday either napping, struggling to keep food down or hopelessly trying to read or watch something. It was an unpleasant forty-eight hours, but it’s hard to compare that against the existential dread and depressive ennui of the previous year.

At least there’s something in the future to look forward to, a wild summer where the masks start to come off and the concerts slowly start coming back. I’m personally looking forward to the opportunity to see Rhode Island noise-rock band Lightning Bolt, known for the absurd volume they can pump out of just bass and drums, as well as the return of the Oregon Symphony. Look out for my coverage of their new season, new music director, and new sound system.

There are other reasons to be feeling cheery lately. I finished a couple books that felt like they were taking forever and started a few new ones, which is always a good feeling, and I’m also getting back into the habit of going for weekend bike rides––I imagine I’m not the only one. Our beloved TrailBlazers are doing well this season, netting a 30-19 win/loss ratio and pulling out some solid wins lately (center Enes Kanter will start his Ramadan fast just in time for some tough competition against the top-ranked Utah Jazz on Thursday). The Thorns return to Providence Park for the Women’s Soccer Challenge Cup, and the Timbers begin preparing for the chance to qualify for the 2021 US Open Cup this month. Spring really has sprung, just after our weekends for Easter and Passover.

That spring feeling is even reflected in many of the events this month. PICA, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, is hosting an open-air fundraiser called BLOOM on April 30th (the same night as Walpurgisnacht). You can attend either by renting a drive-in spot or joining the online live-stream. The event features three musical performances by a collection of soulful local artists: Blossom, Moorea Masa and Frankie Simone–although “soulful” is a bit too vague for their eccentricities.

Blossom brings her Trini heritage into her neo-soul vocals (she sings of rude boys on her song, “Jah Bless”); Masa’s voice blends beautifully within her backing band’s harmonies; and Frankie Simone’s solo dance moves are worth seeing on their youtube. The music of these three provides the right setting for a bright spring celebration, adorned with all the usual accoutrement of a fundraiser––auctions, raffles, swag bags, etc. It is not an event to miss.

Speaking of spring, our friends at the Nordia House present Reverdie, a concert with members of the Portland Chamber Orchestra. Reverdie is a celebration of the return of spring through music, including works by a couple Nordic composers you may recognize: Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. The star of the concert, however, is not the old guys, but the young and exceedingly talented Hanami Froom, who at the age of fifteen has already been PYP co-concertmaster for three years. You may also recognize her name from one of the OSO’s last concerts of the 2019-2020 season before it was cancelled, The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra. Certainly one of Portland’s most impressive young violinists, Froom plays alongside Maria Garcia on piano. The event will be livestreamed at 7 pm on April 17.

The other major spring-themed concert that caught my eye is the Promises of Spring by the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland. Having just passed their fiftieth season, CAE returns for their first performance since the before-times. I’m unsure what their repertoire will be, though with choral music I’m just happy to hear the awesome (in the “full-of-awe” sense) and enrapturing sound of the human voice. In the meantime, check out their virtual choir performance of rising choral composer Elaine Hagenberg’s The Music of Stillness.

This rebirth of the new year has me also thinking about our responsibilities as music journalists–or more generally, where our place is within the musical ecosystem of Portland. Over a year without live music brings with it some changes, and I hope that I give a fair impression of “what’s happening” in Oregon at the moment. In this column I cover mostly classical concerts, a sub-community with which I have a strong personal connection, but I feel there is still much work to be done.

Conveniently, these thoughts seem like exactly the sort of thing that would be welcome at MusicPortland’s Third Thursday roundtable. Music Portland is a local advocacy group/musician’s union for artists to show support for their fellow musicians in Portland, and the roundtables are part of MusicPortland LEAP (Leadership Equity Advocacy Project) directed by DJ O.G. One and Sarah Clarke. Here’s what you can look forward to on the 15th:

Join us for a monthly roundtable to discuss our equitable path forward within the Portland music industry. This ongoing event will be a roundtable-style discussion where we invite the BIPOC community, and BIPOC allies, to voice their thoughts and ideas on how we can create a more inviting, just, and inclusive music ecology.

Sponsor

April 10 brings part 2 of PYPFest, the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s series of commissions and new works. The concert goes live at 7 pm, and tickets are pay-what-you-like, though donations are essential for keeping one of Portland’s best organizations for young musicians alive. These new works also predominantly feature women and people of color. If you’ve been following PYP closely, you may be aware of their connection with the Youth Composer Commissioning Initiative, which connects composers and youth orchestras for commissions.

Surely enough, many of the composers who are part of the initiative appear on the roster for PYPFest, and many of them are Portlanders as well. Along with the NACUSA New Music Festival, this is your best opportunity this month–maybe even this year–to hear music from local composers, especially among larger ensembles. In addition to their recent CD release of Portland-via-Prague composer Tomas Svoboda, PYP appears to be among the most supportive groups for local composers, at all points in their careers. The OSO has some catching up to do!

On April 17 at 7 pm, Disjecta presents members of the Portland Columbia Symphony performing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. While there may be more appropriate Stravinsky works for the blossoming of spring––L’épanouissement du Printemps, if you will––The Soldier’s Tale is a fun, accessible work from his early neoclassical era, a Faustian tale of a Russian soldier’s meeting with the devil. You will have to choose between this and the aforementioned Nordia House show, unfortunately. If Stravinsky isn’t enough of a draw for you, then how about composer and former All Classical host Robert McBride as the devil, playing foil to soldier Vin Shambry?

April also treats us to one of the biggest events of the classical music world in Portland: the NACUSA conference, hosted by Cascadia Composers. Cascadia is the local chapter of the National Association of Composers USA and one of the best organizations in town at promoting the music of local composers (I am myself a member, though I’m pretty sure my dues are late this year…)

The national organization connects similar local chapters across the country, of which Cascadia is one of the most active–having hosted the conference in earlier years, they are hosting online for the first time. The events–recorded at Lewis & Clark College, Augustana Lutheran Church in NE Portland, and elsewhere–span the three weekends from April 17 to May 2, and include many chances to hear music by living composers, both young and––well, David Schiff once told me that you’re a young composer until you retire, so that may be a meaningless distinction. You can find the event links on their page when they go up, as well as on Cascadia’s Youtube channel.

The opening concert on Saturday the 17th will present a rare opportunity to hear works by student composers from Lewis & Clark, PSU and The Evergreen State College in Olympia. The following Saturday features the return of Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebration (now his 251st), including an invigorating 4-hands arrangement of the “fiendishly difficult” Grosse Fuge. As I mentioned in a previous column, it was one of Beethoven’s last completed works. In terms of the complexity of its harmonic and formal language, as well as its difficulty, it is hard to imagine a more forward-thinking piece of chamber music of the 19th century, not being exceeded until probably Schoenberg in 1908, eighty years later. Each Sunday also brings a concert of pieces by NACUSA composers, some of whom will be local, some from across the country. All concerts go live at 5 pm PDT.

Additionally, a presentation on some composition-related topic precedes each premiere, ninety minutes before the music starts. It may be of little interest to the non-composers out there––unless you’re itching to learn about the art of text setting and “the Development of Musical Structure”––but the names will be familiar to most local attendees: Ben Kapp, Jeff Morris, Dr. Lisa Neher, Dr. Greg Steinke (former NACUSA president and Cascadia board member), and Nicholas Yandell, OMTA’s 2020 composer of the year. As a composer myself, this part excites me as a chance to learn some new skills in the time between my undergrad and whatever comes next. For composers, I would highly recommend Dr. Neher and Steinke’s talks, all of which deal with text setting and adapting poetry into music.

Speaking of Beethoven, the Parker Quartet performs courtesy of Chamber Music NorthWest on the 24th. They will be playing Arcadiana by Thomas Ades, one of the most successful young composers (again refer back to my Schiff quote) from England, and Beethoven’s A Minor String Quartet opus 132, one of his best. Over the last year I got to spend a lot of time with the score for Ades’ sorta-symphony Asyla. Not only do I admire the incredible depth of color and skill in his orchestration, but his willingness to engage meaningfully with the world of popular dance music in the famous third movement “Esctacio,” which portrays a wild party scene of stumbling through neon-drenched nightclubs. It’s not a scene that appears much in classical music, but I love it and Esctacio ended up on my Spotify end-of-year top 5 most-played songs for it.

Arcadiana finds Ades working in a chamber genre, and while he is mostly known for his orchestral and operatic works, it is always a pleasure to hear such a high-profile composer write something more intimate. Gone are the elaborate percussion parts and rare woodwind family members, such as the contrabass clarinet from Asyla–instead we hear him stretch his intricate timbral language into the uniform string quartet ensemble. For a sample, listen to the gorgeous harmonies of the sixth movement, an ode to the British Isles, “O Albion.”

The other big end-of-month event will take place on April 26 at 7:30: the big Headliner concert for FearNoMusic, concluding their Tomorrow Is My Turn season celebrating Black composers. This final concert features members who haven’t yet been featured in previous FNM solo concerts, including OSO principal cellist Nancy Ives, violinist Ines Voglar-Belgique, and percussionist Michael Roberts, in addition to members from the BRAVO Youth Orchestra. A couple pieces to look out for are the new work from BRAVO inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement; James Lee III’s lyrical tribute to Trayvon Martin, Abraham’s Sons; and the Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes by Daniel Bernard-Roumain.

And for those who haven’t caught it yet, Jeff Payne’s solo concert will still be available for a time.

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About the author

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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