Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

MusicWatch Monthly: Fingers crossed for festivals

Summer brings sunny festivals to Oregon ears: Chamber Music Northwest inside, Cathedral Park Jazz Festival outside, and more.

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The sun is (fingers crossed) here to stay, and summer is festival season in Oregon. Sometimes I get a bit of that Summertime Sadness early into July as my body has yet to catch up with the weather. But, at the very least, there are plenty of things to do to get us outside, into the sun, getting the vitamin D we so desperately need.

The annual Chamber Music Northwest festival is the big thing happening this month in the classical music world. There’s too much to cover here, a testament to how damn good their programming is. Stay tuned this month for weekly coverage of the New@Night series of premieres and contemporary classics. The New@Night concerts are all great, but one that stands out is the complete performance of Andy Akiho’s Seven Pillars by Sandbox Percussion, with staging and lighting by Michael Joseph McQuilken. Catch this show on the 19th at the Alberta Rose Theatre. 

Another CMNW highlight is the two-night Colors of Debussy and Crumb, featuring the French master’s underappreciated lone string quartet and Crumb’s A Journey Beyond Time, a setting of African-American spirituals for baritone, piano and percussion quartet. Up-and-coming Viano String Quartet plays the former, while the latter will be sung by Kenneth Overton alongside Ellen Hwangbo and the wonderful Sandbox Percussion. You can see it live at The Reser on the 14th or at Kaul Auditorium on the 16th. Debussy returns at Shades of Impressionism on the 30th, alongside Franck’s Piano Quintet and the premiere of Fang Man’s Partridge Sky.

Strangely enough, CMNW’s commission from Oregon composer David Schiff–his Chamber Concerto No. 2, “Vineyard Rhythms”–is only to be performed in selections at the final New@Night on the 27th. Not to fret, though: the whole thing will be on display at the Seasonal Rhythms concert on the 28th at the Reser, alongside selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Piazzola’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

Another great show to catch is on the 23rd at Kaul Auditorium, featuring Grammy-winning soprano Dawn Upshaw. In the past she’s premiered works by some of my favorite composers, including Dutilleux and Saariaho, and you’ve probably heard her on Nonesuch’s infamous release of Gorecki’s Third Symphony. The first half of the program has Upshaw singing Renaissance songs by Purcell, Locke, Dowland and Byrd, accompanied by the Brentano Quartet. The second half is the West Coast Premiere of CMNW’s co-commissioned opera/oratorio Dido Reimagined, with music by Pulitzer winner Melinda Wagner and libretto by Stephanie Fleischman. I am excited to hear what they do to re-imagine Purcell’s opera.

At the end of the festival on the 31st, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to hear Schoenberg’s brilliant string sextet Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), one of my favorite pieces by the Austrian avant-gardist before his journey into dodecaphony: it’s a work of stunning beauty that takes the lush harmonies of late Romanticism to expressive extremes. Also on the roster are songs by Strauss performed by mezzo Fleur Barron and the string sextet from Strauss’ Capriccio.

If all the new stuff and antonal-adjacent stuff isn’t your vibe, you might consider An Evening with the Brentano String Quartet on the 21st, with string quartets by Haydn, Bartók and Dvořák. Or go full Americana with the Sinta Saxophone Quartet on the 24th and 25th, when they’ll perform music by Mark O’Connor and John Mackey, the premiere of Chris Rogerson’s Meditation for Violin and Saxophone Quartet (with CMNW co-director Soovin Kim), and Alistair Coleman’s arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue (with pianist Gilles Vonsattel).

Cascadia Composers’ annual In Good Hands concert is happening this Saturday, with two shows at 2:30 and 4 respectively in Lincoln Recital Hall. The show runs the gamut of talented local composers, with works for violin, piano and voice. Cascadia took a hit in terms of membership during the pandemic as people forgot to pay their dues and let membership lapse, found it no longer necessary, or maybe moved on. But thankfully, as composer and board member Jeff Winslow told me, their membership is back up to where it used to be with over a hundred (!) members.

Vitamin D

The summer Jazz Festival is finally back at Cathedral Park, and what’s better than listening to the best jazz musicians in town underneath the beautiful St. Johns bridge? As a friend said at last year’s festival, this should be called an “American Music Festival,” since there was much more than jazz happening on stage. At that festival I was stunned by both the size and diversity of the audience, which I suspect had to do with it being the first major outdoor gathering in over a year. The whole breadth of Portland’s community made a showing: young women in sundresses and young men in tee-shirts hanging out with their friends; children let loose from their parents to do cartwheels and somersaults in front of the stage; stoners sneaking hits from a vape pen and aging hippies smoking openly; families of three or more generations speaking to each other in their native language; shut-ins happy to go outside and get off Discord for a while. Even the dragonflies and mason bees came out to see what was happening. A similar vibe to the Oregon Country Fair, which is happening outside Eugene this weekend. 

The lineup at this year’s Cathedral Park Jazz Festival is almost entirely different than last year–though Mel Brown of course will be there. The headlining act of the first, blues-inflected night is Tony Coleman, who resides in Portland after playing drums with B.B. King, Albert King, Etta James, and countless other legends. His set will be a tribute to “Three Kings: B.B., Albert and Freddie.” Saturday night ends with a set by Outer Orbit, a band with many great members including vocalist Sarah Clarke, Galen Clark (Trio Subtonic), and Damian Erskine (Skerik Band). I got to see Clarke perform last year with drummer Machado Mijiga, which blew me away, so I will be excited to see Clarke perform with her latest band. And yes, they’ll also be at the Oregon Country Fair on the 10th.

Finally on Sunday, Cathedral Park welcomes the latest project by Greaterkind, featuring the voices of members from the Albina arts community. And between the cracks there will be plenty of other great bands worth hearing, including Bridge City Soul, Pura Vida Orquestra, Brown Calculus and Rebecca Hardiman. It’s a diverse set, so may as well spend as much time as possible at this free outdoor festival: visit some vendors, drink a beverage or three, and check out some of the great food and shopping in St. Johns. 

Starting Wednesday evenings, the Music on Main series returns to downtown Portland. The free outdoor series kicks off at five p.m. on the 13th with Melao de Cuba. The Afro-Cuban-Jazz group plays a tight-as-hell rendition of the Cuban classic “Gunatanamera,” among other great tunes. Redray Frazier plays the week after. His music strikes me as combining so many styles of American music (soul, hip-hop, rock, R-and-B) that people give up trying to categorize it, instead focusing on his beautiful voice and throwback tunes. The week after, on the 27th, Portland bluegrass and country stalwarts Jackstraw take the stage (I heard plenty of Jackstraw growing up, since my parents were big roots country and bluegrass fans).

Speaking of outdoor music, I definitely wouldn’t miss the Portland Cello Project at Topaz Farm on the 17th. This is where Third Angle put on their Fresh Air Fest last year, which I enjoyed very much. The PCP cellists will play arrangements of Elliott Smith, Radiohead and Prince, three artists who really take the genre of pop music to a new level of richness, complexity and experimentation–much like Alarm Will Sound’s arrangements of Aphex Twin tunes or countless examples of Beatles worship. Here’s to hoping Björk, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush are next in line for some love by the classical community. For a taste, listen to the cellos version of Smith’s “Between the Bars.” 

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Air-conditioned

There are some cool experimental festivals coming up this month as well. One is Verano: An Ambient and Experimental Electronic Summer Experience on July 9th at the Leaven Community. The show will feature sets from artists from Portland and Seattle in both stereophonic and quadraphonic sound. If you’ve never had the chance to hear a quadraphonic set before, it’s a wild experience to hear sounds buzzing around your head in all directions. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear it in person. Also this Saturday, another experimental electronic show haunts the Coffin Club (formerly known as the Lovecraft), featuring local artists Elrond, Sumner, and Badrich (plus Snowbeasts from Rhode Island). 

I also have to note some of the big out-of-town artists worth seeing this month. We’ve got some great shows by a couple Indie Rock favorites coming up, including Wolf Parade this Friday, Yuvees opening for Cola this Sunday and Wavves on the 25th. We also have a show by the underrated Burning Spear on the 26th, one of the many great Reggae artists who isn’t the one everyone knows. We even get some cool young cats in jazz, such as epic tenor saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington at the Crystal on the 30th. Plus, as I mentioned last week, George Mother-Freaking Clinton.

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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