MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

But don’t let our irascibility get you down: these concerts are still going to kick ass. Mazzoli and Smith are two of the asskickingest composers alive, far more compelling than critical darlings like Andrew Norman and Gabriel Kahane (sorry guys; your music is good too). We first heard Mazzoli’s music on a Sound of Late concert a few years back, and every time she shows up on a program she steals it (as with Saar Ahuvia and Ron Blessinger’s performance of A Thousand Tongues at Makrokosmos IV). It will be a great day in Oregon when Portland Opera or Eugene Opera or PSU Opera or Opera Theater Oregon or somebody, anybody, finally performs her opera Breaking the Waves.

Mazzoli describes her 12-minute, 2014 Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) as “music in the shape of a solar system, a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit…a piece that churns and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed, in the process transforming the ensemble into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy, flung recklessly into space.”

Smith impressed the hell out of us during Chamber Music Northwest 2017 (an exciting and illuminating summerful of women composers that we started referring to as “Token Women Composer Fest” following CMNW 2018’s return to patriarchy). Her string quartet Carrot Revolution–which the present author was privileged to hear in rehearsal and on multiple concerts that summer–is everything a string quartet by a living composer should be: a rich, post-modern musical vocabulary rooted in multiple traditions from Perotin to Reich to Riley; vast amounts of extended string techniques, invented and shop-tested by the violinist-composer herself and deployed with cheeky grace; catchy melodies and riffs, fun earworms, heart-breaking lyrical passages; and an intriguing title that makes no sense, makes complete sense (you’ll get your own chance to hear it live in May, when Pyxis Quartet pairs it with Andy Akiho’s Prospects of a Misplaced Year). We expect that Smith’s OSO-commissioned Bioluminescence Chaconne will be an intense thirteen minutes.

And the usual “oldies but moldies” are the good kind of cheesy. Pictures at an Exhibition exists in three primary iterations: the original 1874 suite for piano, the expanded 1970 version for prog trio, and the orchestral rendition created in 1922 by French composer Maurice Ravel. The orchestra version is by far the most popular, and with good reason–Ravel literally wrote the book on colorful orchestration, and painted Mussorgsky’s picturesque music with a vast palette of symphonic charm. And the virtuosic uber-Romantic first Violin Concerto by Nicolò Paganini–the Jimi Hendrix of the 19th century–will allow the excellent young soloist, Augustin Hadelich, to shred.

After this weekend, the symphony has two other concerts this month. On the 15th and 16th, they’ll perform the music of the Great American Composer John Williamssans screen, sans movie, sans distraction, just the music. Their concerts the 22nd through 24th feature a pair of mid-20th-century compositions: an American violin concerto and a Russian symphony. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak performs Gian Carlo Menotti’s lush, lyrical Concerto for Violin, and if you missed Menotti’s The Telephone (one quarter of Portland Opera’s nearly sold-out American Quartet), this will be a good chance to make it up to him. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905” remains one of his most popular, with its epic cinematic glow and revolutionary folk songs. This is an orchestra that knows its way around Shostakovich’s emotionally complex soundworld, playing at least one of his moody works to perfection every season (two this year: they’ll play his Eighth in May).

Some of that jazz

On Thursday the 13th, local guitarist Ryan Meagher and local sax quartet The Quadraphonnes join forces for an evening of jazz at the Mcmenamins White Eagle Saloon in North Portland. Nearer the end of the month, on the 26th at downtown Portland’s The Old Church, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and pianist Jasnam Daya Singh will perform Singh’s composition Ekta: The Unity Project, commissioned for the 2017 Montavilla Jazz Festival. The Brazilian-born composer’s polystilistic jazz suite combines choro and samba with jazz and classical while exploring themes of faith (Singh converted to Sikhism in the ‘90s) and immigration.

But the big jazz news this month is the Biamp PDX Jazz Festival, running from the 19th until March 1st. Now, we are absolutely not going to sit here and tell you about every single artist on this magnificent and densely-packed festival; it would take all damn day, and you can read the complete lineup on the website. Instead, we’re simply going to tell you which artists are most exciting to the present author.

The top of the list, of course, is Terry Riley. This guy probably knows exactly how lucky he is: his name is a footnote in the Official History of Minimalism, wherein he invents In C and disappears for good. This obscurity spared him the obligations and market demands that ruined the bigger names (consider Reich and Glass, who haven’t done anything worthwhile since blowing up in the ‘80s), leaving him free to live and work and perform in a state of perpetual exploration where he’s created an extraordinary, decades-deep body of work that Bows to No Man. You’ll get to read all about Riley and his son Gyan in Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s upcoming preview, so for now I leave you with a date and venue (the 21st at Winningstad Theatre) and an exhortation to mark your calendar.

The next evening, the 22nd, mapquest your way over to Stage 722 at 722 SE 10th Avenue, where you’ll encounter three very different dance bands. Headliner Antibalas is an important part of the American Afrofunk revival spearheaded by Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, whose all-star roster also includes Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, The Budos Band, and The Daktaris.

The openers are both Pacific Northwest dance bands, which means you can unreservedly fall in love with them in anticipation of actually hearing them again in the PNW. Seattle-based funk octet The True Loves features a killer rhythm section and a four-man horn section, one man of which is the incomparable saxophonist Skerik–seriously, the show is 100% worth attending just for this one guy. Portland’s POPgoji rounds out the bill with their high-energy samba soul music.

Next, on the 23rd at Mississippi Studios, singer-pianist Kandace Springs comes to town performing music from her new album The Women Who Raised Me, a tribute to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Sade, and Lauryn Hill. Local chanteur-composer Jimmie Herrod takes time out from his busy schedule with Pink Martini and ODEZSA to open for Springs, in what is possibly the best pairing of the fest.

On the 24th at The Old Church, the Aguas Trio performs music from their recent Afro-Cuban album Aguas. Percussionist Gustavo Ovalles joins composer-pianist Omar Sosa and violinist-vocalist Yilian Cañizares for a ritualistic evening of music the artists describe as “dedicated to Water, and especially to Oshun, the Goddess of Love and Mistress of Rivers in the Lucumí tradition of Yoruba ancestry known in Cuba as Santería.” Also at The Old Church, on the 27th, singer-songwriters Kat Edmonson (Texas) and Halie Loren (Oregon) team up for an evening of original songs.

We’ll close with a Leap Day concert at Portland Art Museum: on the 29th, Thundercat and Georgia Anne Muldrow perform in PAM’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. You’ve probably seen Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s badass album covers, and you’ve definitely heard his bass playing: he’s worked with everyone from Suicidal Tendencies to Erykah Badu to Kendrick Lamar to Kamasi Washington.

Muldrow can’t boast quite the same litany of Big Name Collaborators, though Badu and Yasiin Bey have both raved about her. Instead, she has a vast discography, twenty-odd albums of her own music, all released within the last fifteen years. Portland intergalactic jazz duo Brown Calculus opens.

A kick in the pants

“What,” you may ask, “the hell is a theorbo?” I’m tempted to make up some absurd nonsense about a hybrid theremin-oboe Frankenstrument, but then you’d be all disappointed when you arrive at The 2509 in Southeast Portland on the 13th and see theorbist Hideki Yamaya’s lute. Actually you might not be all that disappointed: the theorbo is no mere lute but a gigantic 14-string monstrosity, common in the Baroque era but a little unwieldy for modern tastes.

Musica Maestrale founder Yamaya will be playing his own adaptations of the first two Bach cello suites. The thing about literally immortal music like Bach’s is that you can’t hurt it (consider the 8-Bit Brandenburgs), which means every adaptation is worth the attempt. Translations like Yamaya’s are one way to keep musical traditions alive, and the big difference lies in the translation from bowed cello to plucked theorbo, which foregrounds Bach’s harmonies without going all the way into plinky harpsichordia.

Our love for PSU’s Queer Opera knows no bounds. These (mostly student) singers have been making waves the last couple years by the simple act of rejecting traditional gender and voice type conventions to sing Whatever The Hell They Want. It’s subtly powerful, this reassessment of a problematic tradition, and that power can be summarized by one of our favorite quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s latest book Whose Story is This?:

The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially straight white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way–one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters, and who decides.

Rebecca Solnit, Whose Story is This?, p. 13

On the 13th at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall, QO artistic director and pianist Chuck Dillard examines this power shift in the lecture/discussion “Beyond the Pants Role: Un-gendering Opera,” which uses the traditional gender-bending “pants roles” (in which female singers would portray young men and other gender-fluid characters) as a springboard for the more extensive genre queering at the heart of QO’s mission: “By casting scenes in new ways–often based on the singers’ identity rather than their voice type or gender–this innovative program allows for more authentic performances on stage and powerful experiences for the audience.”

Not enough pantslessness for you? That weekend, go check out Portland Baroque Orchestra’s “Trousers & Tiaras: Gender Roles in Handel Operas” (First Baptist Church the 14th and 15th, Kaul Auditorium at Reed College on the 16th). The PBO tends to be refreshingly stodgy, so it’s no surprise that when they get into the gender game they put their own Baroque twist on it. For these concerts they’ve partnered with contralto Vicki St. Pierre to perform music originally written for castrati singers–a special class of church-trained male vocalists who, in stranger times, had surgery forced on them in boyhood in order to preserve their high voices into adulthood. In modern times these roles are often undertaken either by contraltos like St. Pierre or countertenors–male singers who train their voices for high register singing, sans surgery.

We’re always complaining (see above) about how living composers get crowded out by the undeadspreading of the zombie decomposers. A few local organizations go out of their way to focus on living composers, and one has built its mission around a dedication to living local composers: Cascadia Composers, who has spent the last decade producing concert after concert of music written in the Pacific Northwest (we should note here that the “Matthew Andrews” who served on CC’s board 2017-19 is identical with the “Matthew Andrews” who is writing this column; caveat emptor).

Cascadia’s next concert–“Concert Mosaic” at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall on February 15–focuses exclusively on women composers, a focus which has been a facet of their mandate throughout its history, starting with Bonnie Miksch’s invitation to join their otherwise all-male founding board and continuing through several “Crazy Jane” concerts. The composers on this program–Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson, Lisa Ann Marsh, Lisa Neher, Stacey Philipps, Christina Rusnak, Dawn Sonntag, Linda Woody–are some of our favorite locals regardless of gender, and if you’ve been to any Cascadia concerts in the last few years you’ve probably heard their music.

As always, the music is all we really care about, and the dazzling Delgani String Quartet will ensure that it’s exquisitely performed. But those who enjoy words and images with their music will be happy to learn that each of the composers had at least one artistic partner. Blachly-Dyson and Corvallis artist Susan Johnson. Rusnak and Whidbey Island painter Teresa Saia. Woody and Oregon City painter Cindy Geffel. Neher and Portland abstract painter Paulette Insall. Marsh and her regular collaborator, poet Deborah Buchanan, along with Ellen Blazich’s cyanotype-dyed cloth prints. Philipps’ song cycle, with text by poet Wallace Stevens and nature photography by Karen Drain. Sonntag’s setting of poetry by Gabriela Mistral, accompanying the work of sculptor Ildikó Kalapács.

Later in the month, two Cascadians out of Eugene (Paul Safar, Arts Watch contributor Daniel Heila) pair up for their “Hair Reed Hammer” concert on the 22nd at Eugene’s Idit Shner Sax Studio. Delgani will be playing this one too, along with Shner’s sax quartet, pianist Matthew Pavilanis, and Safar’s regular vocal collaborator Nancy Wood. You should never miss a chance to hear Safar and Wood, one of the state’s finest composer-singer couples, and if you’ve ever found yourself on the receiving end of Heila’s incisive wit–here’s your chance to go get even.

On the 18th, also in Lincoln Recital Hall, singers Stephen Rodgers, Carl Halvorson, and Harry Baechtel (accompanied by the ever busy Dillard) present their lecture/recital “Hidden Gems,” featuring the unpublished songs of Romantic composer Fanny Hensel. We’re quite lucky to have access to Hensel’s work, which was supported by her husband and her more famous brother and was consequently preserved–it could have gone the way of Mozart’s music, none of which has survived to the present day (at least, not under her own name).

On the 19th, over at Pullman Wine Bar by the convention center, Third Angle New Music continues their charming Wine Wednesdays series with Sarah Tiedemann and Mario Diaz. Tiedemann has been running 3A since 2018 and doing a hell of a job, with a wide variety of chamber music concerts all across the contemporary classical map, and still somehow manages to find time for flute practice. Last fall, after hearing her play Eve Beglarian and Jacob TV at Jack London Revue, we had this to say:

Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann saved the best, grooviest, flashiest music for herself, like a boss–but like a good boss, you know? The rare type of boss who approves all your sick days, keeps meetings on topic, knows how to use Excel, and not only can fix the copier but actually does. Tiedemann’s graceful performance of the fiendishly difficult (but oh so melodic!) music of Jacob TV and Eve Beglarian that night had us shooting coffee out our noses in shocked delight.

These Wine Wednesday shows are quite fun (even for recovering alcoholics like the present author, who is always happy to sip free water). Mostly they’re duets–clarinetist James Shields with cellist Laura Metcalf last November, mezzo Lisa Neher with cellist Valdine Mishkin this March–and this time around Tiedemann takes over the corner table with guitarist Diaz. We have no clue what they’ll be playing, and that’s just the way we like it. Have yourself a glass of wine (or smuggle in your own medibles) and savor the serendipity!

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