MusicWatch Monthly: Hot music in the cold city

Warm up your fall with saxophones, film and classical music, international virtuosi, and metallized Metroids

Are you cold yet? Have your fingers and toes and hearts and guts frozen as Winter creeps closer and you face down the end of the world? Are you ready to put on a sweater and a balaclava and drown out the chaos with frosty music and a fire in the belly?

Good! Here’s your prescription for October.

Saxomaphones

Now that you’re all sweatered up, it’s time for some hot sax. Tuesday, October 2nd–tonight!–it’s the zany trio Too Many Zooz at Crystal Ballroom, wherein baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino, trumpeter Matt Doe, and drummer David “King of Sludge” play their stompy dancey “brass house” music. If that’s not zany enough for you, wait until tomorrow and check out skronky Skerik at Goodfoot Lounge on the 3rd. Then, at 4 in the afternoon on the 5th, head over to the Midland Library on Southeast 122nd for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s tribute to Portland’s Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. Or wait all the way until next week and dig local diy jazz quintet Blue Cranes at The 1905 on Sunday the 13th.

Oregon Symphony Orchestra

After a cancelled zoo concert and a weekend of Empire, the OSO’s symphonic season is officially underway. We heard from composer Oscar Bettison last week, and you’ll hear all about his rewilded music (performed last weekend alongside Mozart and Brahms) from Charles Rose soon enough. This month, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi continues into full fall mode with concerts of music all over the “classical” map, from film music to Stravinsky to Coldfuckingplay.

The first set of shows is this weekend, and it’s got this cold town all hot and bothered: OSO and the Oregon Chorale perform Batman in Concert” this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with conductor Norman Huynh and a screen full of dystopian cityscapes, black masks, wonderful toys, and criminal clowns (perfect for taking your mind off the news). It will probably be a few years before OSO starts playing the “proper” classical music Danny Elfman has been composing for the last half-decade, but these concerts of his groundbreaking Batman score will mark the second year in a row the symphony has performed his film music (last year it was Nightmare Before Christmas, and you can read my take on that right here).

Elfman’s Grammy-winning 1989 score isn’t just iconic, and it isn’t just good film scoring–it’s also a damn fine two hours of brash, melancholy, ersatz-Wagnerian symphonic music from a young composer who had only just finished perfecting his craft after five years of scoring goofy comedies. And, until one of Elfman’s new and upcoming concertos (one each for violin, cello, and percussion) makes its way north, this is your best chance to hear his music performed live in Oregon.

Next up is “Stravinsky’s Firebird” on October 12, 13, and 14. Guest conductor David Danzmayr and percussionist Colin Currie take over the OSO for the long-awaited world premiere commission of hot-shot Brooklyn-Portland transplant Andy Akiho’s Percussion Concerto. Akiho has been making choppy waves for the last decade or so as a composer-performer of colorful, catchy, rhythmically bizarre contemporary chamber music, collaborating with Sandbox Percussion’s Ian David Rosenbaum, Friction Quartet, adventurous pianists Vicky Chow, Vicki Ray, and Jenny Q Chai, and Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin.

Akiho’s new concerto is one of his few major works for orchestra, and will include tuned ceramic bowls and a whole slew of other Harrisonesque junkyard percussion, and that’s all we need to know. Also on the program: Charles Ives’s densely layered Three Places in New England and Igor Stravinsky’s early masterpiece The Firebird, presented in its 1945 suite version.

Later that week, on the 17th, virtuoso composer/conductor/arranger Steve Hackman returns to OSO for another of his unique pop-classical mashups: “Beethoven v. Coldplay.” For those who have never experienced Hackman’s beautiful gimmick: the basic idea is that he combines an orchestral work by a major historical composer with contemporary pop songs; Hackman conducts the orchestra and three or four vocal soloists, and occasionally plays piano. It should be a complete disaster, but Hackman is an exceedingly clever musician who has unlocked Charles Ives level superpowers: an expert-level hypermodernist approach to combining drastically different harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic ideas in a way which feels both respectfully traditional and radically post-modern.

Previous Hackman performances with OSO have included Brahms v. Radiohead (the Viennese Romantic composer’s first symphony combined with the British prog band’s third LP) and Tchaikovsky v. Drake (Russian melancholy with Canadian hip-hop). This year, it’s Beethoven’s Heroic Third Symphony crossed with songs by Coldplay, and we expect Hackman will manage to make even the ubiquitous radio hits “Fix You” and “Clocks” sound fresh.

As the month ends and Halloween approaches, it’s “Beethoven’s Fifth,” in Salem on the 25th and in Portland the 26th-28th. OSO performs the Fateful Fifth, Californian composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra, and Polish modernist Witold Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, featuring OSO Artist-in-Residence Johannes Moser, who last year gave a soulful, thrilling, sensitively aggressive performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto in Eb to rival Rostropovich’s.

Old “classical” music

If you like your classical music like you like your coffee–old and cold–take a sip from two cups of antique classical music happening this month. On the 9th, Chamber Music Northwest welcomes the San Francisco period-instrument ensemble Dark Horse Consort to Alberta Rose Theatre, where they’ll spend the evening playing late-Renaissance and early-Baroque music by De Wert, Merulo, the Gabrielis, and plenty more, all on sackbuts, recorders, and other old-fangled instruments.

The Portland-based all-women choral ensemble In Mulieribus performs Barbara Strozzi at Vancouver’s Providence Academy Chapel on the 12th and at Portland’s Old Church on the 13th, along with a premiere of Cascadia composer Stacey Philipps’ Sospira, Respira, written for In Mulieribus for this very concert. The Renaissance-era singer-composer Strozzi has a curious backstory you should look up–there’s even a secret society of feminist male musicians formed as a vehicle for Strozzi’s performances and (gasp!) published work. Her music sits somewhere in that Gesualdo zone of “outsider” Renaissance music, all weird intervals and songs about sex and politics. In Mulieribus mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn is a Strozzi scholar who knows exactly how to bring out all that beautiful weirdness, which she’ll tell you all about in her pre-concert talk.

Philipps makes a terrific pairing with Strozzi: her Witch Trials, performed earlier this year on Resonance Ensemble’s Women Singing Women concert, was right there in that same beautifully spooky, hauntingly droney, heartbreakingly contrapuntal territory, and even if Sospira, Respira is completely different we expect it’ll be appropriately excellent.

New “classical” music

If, on the other hand, you like your coffee hot and local, you have several other good options this month.

On the 5th and 6th Portland’s Resonance Ensemble opens the 2019-20 season at Northeast Portland’s Cerimon House with “Beautiful Minds,” a concert of contemporary classical music by Deep Listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros, star choral composers Jake Runestad and Sarah Kirkland Snider, frequent Resonance collaborator Melissa Dunphy, and Portland composer Brandon Stewart. Previous Resonance concerts have featured a variety of social themes, and their Beautiful Minds show–created “in honor of World Mental Health Day”–highlights the stories of individuals struggling with mental illness.

It’s enough of a chore to get classical ensembles to stop playing Beethoven long enough to do some music by living composers, and it’s even harder to get them to perform music by living local composers. Third Angle New Music sits comfortably among the handful of Portland music organizations (like Resonance) who boldly ask “Beethoven who?” and embrace living music of all kinds. For their “Homecomings” concerts at Southeast Portland’s New Expressive Works on the 17th and 18th, they present music by several composers from Oregon, including premieres of music by Aaron Helgeson, Phil Taylor, Lisa Neher, and Mario Díaz, alongside works by Andrea Reinkemeyer, Fear No Music artistic director Kenji Bunch, and Poet Laureate Kim Stafford.

You can hear some very new percussion music at Portland Percussion Group’s Fixtures concert in Lincoln Recital Hall on the 21st. Former Princeton Chair of Composition Paul Lansky’s expansive Threads is the centerpiece of this concert, which also includes the winners of the percussion quartet’s 2019 call for scores. PPG and their score-call concerts occupy a special place in the present author’s heart: their 2016 concert at The Old Church was my first Arts Watch story and introduced us to the lovely music of Christopher Bradford, Kylle Strunk, and Mason Lee. This year, it’s Daniel Webbon’s Whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, Ben Justis’ Nucleation, and Douglas Hertz’s Fixtures in the Fold.

Technically Bernstein would have turned 101 this August, but we’re not going to hold that against the 45th Parallel Universe and their Bernstein Centennial concerts on the 22nd and 23rd–not when they’ve got soprano Arwen Myers, the 20 Digitus Duo (two pianists = twenty fingers), and half of the inhumanly delicious Oregon Symphony brass section performing a few of Lenny’s early songs and chamber pieces instead of rehashing West Side Story and Candide for the zillionth time. Nothing against those classics, without which we would truly be living in the Worst Possible Timeline, but aside from Portland Youth Philharmonic’s soul-shaking Jeremiah Symphony and the Portland State choral collective’s masterful Chichester Psalms that seems to be about all anyone in Portland could find time for last year during the actual centennial.

And speaking of 45||, why not take a trip out the coast on the 11th for their “Primordial Swamp” concert in Astoria? The ‘Verse will be playing classical music from Eastern Europe: Dohnanyi’s Sextet in C major for clarinet, horn, piano, violin, and viola; Martinů’s Nonet for Strings, Bass, and Winds; and Bartók’s glorious Romanian Folk Dances. And what the hell, as long as you’re out there, why not stay an extra night for the all-female AC/DC tribute band Hell’s Belles on the 12th? Goonies never say die!

The world

Portland is the perfect size. We’re small enough to be comfortable (at least until the next wave of gentrification hits) and we’re big enough to have a couple of orchestras and a bunch of new music ensembles and a metric ton of choral groups–and an impressive variety of live music from musical cultures around the world. Highlights this month include virtuosi from Japan, India, and Nigeria.

On the 6th, Oregon Koto-Kai brings Japanese koto virtuoso Kazue Sawai to Lewis & Clark’s transcendent Agnes Flanagan Chapel for Koto–Beyond Horizons. On the 12th, local Indian arts organization Kalakendra brings Carnatic instrumental ensemble Vaadhya Tarangam to First Baptist in Southwest Portland. And on the 26th, Nigerian electric guitar whiz Vieux Farka Touré plays Stage 722.

Play it again, Samus

Remember how when you were a kid playing video games you’d sometimes turn down the tv volume a little (but not all the way) and put on an Iron Maiden tape while discovering alien worlds and blowing away brain-sucking bio-weapons with Samus Aran? And then the game music coming from the tv would melt into the metal coming from the stereo, and you wished there was a band that played music like that?

Or was it just me?

Anyways, Bit Brigade is that band. It’s one thing to decide you’re going to learn and perform classic video game music, but you still have to pick a sound. Could be anything, right? These guys go straight for the shreddy ‘80s metal sound of bands like Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate, and Motörhead, exactly the stuff you had on your walkman. What makes it even better is that their concerts include playthroughs of the games–meaning someone is sitting there on stage with the band, playing through Zelda or Contra or Castlevania or whatever while the band plays the live score.

Curiosity alone would make it worth heading to High Water Mark on the 14th, just for the spectacle. But this time around they’re performing the Metroid music–the classic of classix for us game music nerds–and it’s going to be epic. Strap on your powered exoskeleton (or at least a thick hoodie), and I’ll see you there!

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