MusicWatch Monthly: Death and recirculation

Nightlights, soundwalks, and snowed-in traditions

I’ve spent a lot of this last month thinking about the idea of tradition, as year’s end and the various solstice-adjacent holidays bring us back to annual traditions. Whether that be certain films or music, family events, or whatever else, there’s this feeling of recirculation, a point of return necessary to bring in the new year. But this year the holidays take on a more somber tone, as we may have to leave some of our favorite traditions behind.

Winter has long symbolized death. The sun–the celestial body that brings forth all life on Earth, the ur-symbol if there ever was one–reaches its lowest point, and days become shortest (in the Northern Hemisphere) on or around the twenty-first. In Portland, the sky becomes overcast for months on end–the same weather that makes the Brits so stereotypically dour. It seems ironic that humans have for millennia celebrated the nadir of this death season. But the inevitability of rebirth in spring is what gives hope for the future.

I’m sure readers don’t need to be reminded of what’s going on right now, since indeed Everything Happens So Much. But I do think it’s notable that we have adapted so readily to the circumstances of this year and the challenges presented to us. The steady stream of guest composers and performers dried up, the last major one being Caroline Shaw’s concert with Third Angle in March. All the choirs and ensembles had to quickly assemble A/V teams who could produce concert videos and live-streams, or else cancel their 20-21 seasons. 

Some annual traditions have been cancelled altogether, such as Tuba Christmas, or digitized like the obligatory Tchaikovsky ballet. Some have transformed into a facsimile of previous years’ traditions, such as the drive-through Zoo Lights, Portland Baroque Orchestra’s lone Pocket Messiah concert, and In Mulieribus’ winter concert. Thankfully there is still quite a bit going on, especially here at the beginning of the month before everyone checks out for the remainder of the year.

JLA on TV, Volness on the radio

December third brings the first major event, the rescheduled John Luther Adams concert for Third Angle (Thursday’s broadcast will remain available until Saturday). The concert’s name, The Place We Began, hides the fact that they are premiering a commission, the gloomy string quartet Noctilucent. Adams became a national figure after his Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning statement on climate change Become Ocean, and one thing interesting about his work is the way that it straddles two compositional worlds: despite his obvious interest in acoustic ecology and natural landscapes, as an undergraduate he studied with James Tenney, one of the biggest early voices in experimental electronic music.

While Adams rarely writes electro-acoustic music, Tenney’s granular approach still influences his work. You can hear samples of this on the 3A show, with the tape-based suite of reworked early compositions that gives the concert its title.

FearNoMusic and 45th Parallel Universe both performed the music of local composer Kirsten Volness this year, and now Volness is releasing her newest album River Rising on December fourth. To celebrate, X-RAY FM DJ (and ArtsWatch contributor) Bob Ham hosts Volness for a virtual release party Friday at 5 p.m. It’s a perfect opportunity to catch up with Volness and what New Classic LA describes as her “exquisite sound world.”

Also on the fourth, at 6 p.m., we see a performance from the OEDO (Oregon Electronic Device Orchestra) in Eugene. We’ll also hear the folks from my alma mater give a digital performance via Holocene the next day at noon. SAMPLE (Sonic Arts and Music Production Laptop Ensemble) at Portland State and OEDO at U of O are some of twenty-or-so live laptop orchestras in North America, and the first on the west coast after Stanford and CalArts. Laptop orchestras being the hot new thing, there is much to be explored in the infant medium. This digital performance also features collaborations with PSU film students. If you want to witness the latest in contemporary art, these are the shows for you. 

If you are looking for something more traditional, virtuoso pianists Gloria Chein and Marc-André Hamelin play dual piano works at Chamber Music Northwest. Rearrangement seems to be the theme of the concert, which includes Lutoslawski’s arrangement of the Paganini Variations, Stravinsky’s four-hand Rite of Spring, and Liszt’s arrangement of Bellini’s Réminiscences de Norma. Lutoslawski adds enough modernist touches to Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice to justify arranging such an overdone piece, while Liszt sprinkles his virtuosity all over Bellini’s baroque opera in his tastefully Lisztian fashion. And while the Rite of Spring loses its brilliant orchestration in a four-hands arrangement, it gains some clarity for what Leonard Bernstein once called “the best dissonances anyone ever thought up.”

Another delightful performance comes courtesy of Nordic Northwest and the Rose City Brass Trio, called Songs for Lucia. This program of traditional songs will be livestreamed from Portland’s Nordia House at 7 p.m. on the fifth–and unlike most recent concerts that deadline is fixed, so put it in your calendar ASAP.

Snowed in, sounded out, living on

One of the most cherished institutions of Portland’s music community is the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. Formed in the 80s, the PGMC survived their own pandemic: the AIDS crisis, which sorely impacted their membership. Their winter concert, Snowed In!, plays twice: at 8 p.m. on the twelfth and 3 p.m. on the thirteenth. The socially-distanced performance brings the delights of caroling and the hot moves of their contemporary dance ensemble Locomotion to your living room. 

On the fifteenth Third Angle returns with their second soundwalk, this time by Yuan-Chen Li (read Gary Ferrington’s review of the first one right here). Li is a Taiwanese-American composer who’s been in Portland for a couple years now, after teaching at Reed College. You may also remember her moving performance at one of the Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon concerts in 2019, with her Shore, Island, and Chelonia pairing video of sea turtles swimming through plastic in the Pacific Ocean and tape recordings of dolphin calls with Mingzhe Wang’s somber clarinet melodies and her own piano sparkles.

I have no doubt that Li will put Pearl District’s Tanner Park into a new light. The download link goes live December 15, at which point you can download the soundwalk, pop it onto your preferred mobile listening device and walk forth.

The twentieth features a concert live at Pioneer Courthouse Square (it’s been a while, I’m surprised it’s still there): ARCO-PDX performing Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Grosse Fuge is one of old Ludwig’s last and most difficult pieces for string players–as well as for listeners and analysts still trying to uncover its enigmas after nearly two centuries. It may not be as incomprehensible to us as it was to Venetian audiences at its premiere, but it’s absolutely worth a listen if you haven’t heard it live before: the huge leaps, intense chromaticism and jarring rhythms are something to behold. It’s almost a predecessor to the extremely metal Bartók string quartets, as well as the more dissonant side of metal itself. ARCO is also streaming it from Holocene on the 18th.

Portland Baroque Orchestra rounds out the year with a veritable classic, the most traditional of all traditional music, Handel’s Messiah–in an abbreviated performance featuring organ and string quartet with local favorites Arwen Myers, Hannah Penn, Zach Finkelstein, and Daniel Mobbs. The ostensible meaning of Christmas–the birth of Jesus Christ–often gets lost amidst all the feel-good movies and amazing limited-time deals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–Christmas traditions vary depending on culture, and the US loves movies and shopping so that’s what our Christmas is about–but Messiah is one of the few American Christmas traditions that connects to the Christian roots of the holiday. Listening to a performance is like attending a Christmas Mass.

These last two works feel relevant to this idea of tradition. As much as we go on about classical music’s conservatism and the necessity of reform to support new artists, we do still value tradition. It’s a matter of finding balance between these two forces. I’m glad the Grosse Fuge has persisted for two centuries, even if audiences at the time couldn’t understand it at all.

Isn’t this the value of making art? To create these monuments to human creativity? Even if it is difficult-to-impossible to understand, it is still valuable and worth preserving. And sure enough, the former radical Beethoven is now thoroughly institutionalized, as we make room for the new radicals.

Maybe it’s good that there aren’t too many concerts this month, though there are still plenty happening. Mirroring the slowing of the season, concerts slow down and we spend more time inside cozying up away from the rain and snow. This feels like an annual tradition in itself, along with vitamin D supplements flying off the shelves. The last few weeks of the year are a time for reflection, and I don’t think most of us mind the time off.

One thing that I do love about Portland’s arts community is how small and interconnected it seems. You could even say that I’m thankful. Interdisciplinary shows happen frequently, and our city is too small to have real conflicts between the conservatives and the radicals (in the arts at least). Some of these connections emerge out of necessity, the logistics of making shows happen. Some of it comes from publications like us here at ArtsWatch, where it is so easy to check on everything that’s going on in the world of Portland’s arts community. But it all comes back to this feeling of place, of dedication to and love for our home state.

No matter what 2021 brings us, we say, “good effin’ riddance” to this year and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. In the meantime, enjoy the sun while it’s still here, bundle up with a nice book or album, and imbibe on your beverage of choice. It’s the least you can do for yourself after this hectic year.

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