MusicWatch Monthly: March of Progress

Virtual house shows, American composers, a micro-opera festival, and more

I don’t have much experience of the “good old days” of Portland. I was a toddler when Powell’s City of Books renovated in 2002 and barely a teenager when IFC’s Portlandia premiered–two events I have heard heralded as the beginning of the end for our true underground culture. The nineties and early 2000s economy that allowed for our Elliott Smiths and Dandy Warhols among a hundred others to blossom was short-lived, and we can attribute the shift to Portland’s cultural discovery by the rest of the country, gentrification, the boom of the housing market, the influx of tech companies wanting to avoid Seattle and Palo Alto…or some combination of those things. It can sometimes be hard to remain forward-looking all the time.

One of the lesser-thought-of social casualties of this shift–and especially of the last year–has been the world of house shows. Thankfully, KPSU is hosting a virtual house show on March 6th from 6-8 pm, an imitation of what once was but still a welcome chance to hear some young local talent. This includes local experimental synth duo Sea Moss (a pun on the CMOS batteries computers use to keep time), named by Willamette Week as one of Portland’s best new bands of 2020, and Songs for Snow Plow Drivers. Nothing will match the experience of standing in a crowded basement somewhere in Northeast, reeking of mildew and tobacco smoke, listening to great music by your friends, your friends’ friends, the band that friend of yours knows from work.

To some that sounds awful, to others heavenly. You can find their virtual house show online here. There is also a bit of a scavenger hunt: on the days leading up to the show, PSUaffiliated instagram accounts will be giving out clues, leading to letters and eventually leading to a word. Guess the word right and you’ll get entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card.

This month’s installment of Fear No Music’s Tomorrow is My Turn series is its own sort of house show, a livestream featuring flutist Amelia Lukas. The concert is available for forty-eight hours from its premiere at 7:30 pm on Monday the first, so tune in now while you have the chance. The program features Valerie Coleman, Carlos Simon, Allison Loggins-Hull and Joshua Mallard. A friend of mine compared Lukas’ playing to a shredding metal guitarist, which sounds awesome–and after hearing it myself I have to agree.

45th Parallel Universe stays strong with their Friday night concert series, kicking off this month on the fifth with flutist Zach Galatis playing Copland, Robert Beaser and Broadway tunes from Sondheim and company. They also have a Patreon set up for those who wish to support them for as little as $5 a month with all sorts of special perks, including Q and A sessions with performers–and even exclusive concerts and sneak peaks for those who go above and beyond the $5 level.

On March 7, Oregon’s Delgani String Quartet presents Pieces of America, which will be available to ticket holders for thirty (!) days. The concert could be considered a Survey of the String Quartet in American Music, from the early steps forward of Ruth Crawford Seeger, Amy Beach and George Whitefield Chadwick up to the present with Caroline Shaw’s Valencia

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Metropolitan Youth Orchestra’s March 13 Spring concert features composers from the Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative, including Regina Carter, Katie Palka, Seare Farhat and Bernardo Quesada. March 14 sees Friends of Chamber Music and the Modigliani Quartet performing a program of Hadyn and Debussy. The concert is free and on-demand for 72 hours from 3 pm. In the meantime, feel free to acquaint yourself with Modigliani with an excerpt from Dvorak’s “American” string quartet.

The 15th continues the ongoing Soundwalks series by Third Angle, this time a soundwalk by Loren Chasse around the Leach Botanical Gardens in far Southeast. Let’s hope the blooming of spring plays a large part in Chasse’s depiction of the garden, since his music and thoughts are so preoccupied with natural sounds and environment. March 17 at 8 am brings the PYP fundraiser where you get the opportunity to meet some of their young musicians and support their musical education. The 23rd features Russian conductor and director of Cantabile Youth Singers Elena Sharkova with the Portland Symphony Choir performing Gabriel Faure’s Requiem

On the twentieth, Chamber Music Northwest will host the Goldmund Quartet, performing string quartets by Puccini and Strauss (two composers not usually known for their chamber works) along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. And they play on Stradivarius instruments formerly owned by Paganini himself! At 7 pm on the 26th, The Portland Columbia Symphony accompanies marimbist Mike Smith and a menagerie of percussionists to play Ney Rosauro’s First Concerto for Marimba and Percussion Ensemble.

The big event for the end of March is the micro-opera festival by Kendra Leonard and Lisa Neher from March 22-26. The festival consists of five short operatic scenes premiering from Monday to Friday at 5 pm at Neher’s Youtube page. Opera singers perform from across the US, according to the press release: “Hugo Vera (Metropolitan Opera), mezzo Margaret O’Connell (Center for Contemporary Opera), soprano Audrey Yoder (Pacific Opera Project), tenor Zach Finkelstein (New York City Opera), and mezzo Lisa Neher herself (Opera Theater Oregon).” A musicologist, theorist and poet, Leonard wrote the libretti on a range of topics–from the pandemic to female athletes facing discrimination–all centered around the theme of resilience.

Marching On

Let’s take a minute to note that the pandemic hasn’t slowed down some of Portland’s most staid music institutions: our beloved local radio stations. Despite the encroachment of mass-media conglomerates such as iHeartMedia (formerly known as Clear Channel Communications), Portland has kept a few solid holdouts for independent radio. KQAC (89.9 in the Metro area), KPSU (Online), KRRC (Online) KBOO (90.7 FM) and KOPB (91.5 FM in the Metro area) remain strong. The musical ecosystem shifts in response to our conditions, and terrestrial radio can do its thing while we all remain socially distanced. And remember that many radio stations these days broadcast online too, so you don’t need to be stuck in your car or at work to tune in.

Independent station KBOO has kept its varied programming going through the last year. Their Artist in Residency program applications are still open until April 7, for those who wish to propose and create a new work of sound art. Check out their website for programming schedules and special events, especially their upcoming events in celebration of International Women’s Day. 

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The origins of this March 8th celebration are fascinating. Like many holidays such as May Day and Labor Day, International Women’s Day has a history far more radical than one would suspect. May Day (which is labour day or International Workers day for much of the rest of the world) coincides with the Haymarket affair, a protest for the eight-hour work day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square which turned into a riot, a fire, a massacre. In the US, the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor declared Labor Day a holiday in 1882, with Oregon declaring it a public holiday five years later and the federal government soon after that.

The first International Women’s Day celebrations happened in 1909, and the holiday was declared by German socialist women, including most notably Clara Zetkin of the German SDP. The March 8 women’s march in St. Petersburg was one of the first events to kick off the February Revolution in Russia that led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the eventual rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in October. (At the time Russia used the Julian calendar, so our March 8 fell on February 23 for Russians.) Despite its radical origins, International Women’s Day is celebrated worldwide today thanks to the United Nations’ affirmation of the day in 1975. 

One major event that would have been just in time for International Women’s Day comes (or rather would have come) to us from the Portland Opera: Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s opera Frida, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with libretto by Migdalia Cruz and book by Hilary Blecher. Rodriguez’s 1991 opera premiered ten years before the famous biopic directed by Julie Taymor, starring Salma Hayek in the eponymous role. I assume I don’t need to inform my readers of Frida Kahlo: her radical politics, her highly personal and dream-like self-portraits, her turbulent relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera, her bohemian sexuality and her chronic health problems all contribute to her mystique as an artist.

One of the great things about her art is the breadth of expression of herself. While not all of her art is explicitly about her femininity, one sees in her paintings dimensions of womanhood absent from much of earlier Western art, where, to paraphrase John Berger in Ways of Seeing, men act and women appear. It is thus little wonder why she is so popular an artist and also a large influence on fellow female painters such as Georgia O’Keeffe.

The performance of Frida is postponed until further notice, but keep on the lookout for the summer: they may have an outdoor production in the works. And as we know from the recent outdoor production of The Magic Flute I covered at the end of last summer, the outdoors are a welcome place to experience opera.

Finally, March would also have been the month of March Music Moderne, Portland’s annual festival of classical leaning towards the mid-century Avant-Garde. Last year’s performances were postponed until further notice, as the festival was set to happen right as the current crisis began to sink in. We missed out on talks and performances by Caroline Shaw, Gabriel Kahane and a gamut of local artists.

The programs were to highlight the interconnectivity of classical music mostly stemming from the postmodern symphonic opus Sinfonia by Luciano Berio. The term “postmodernism” is so often used that it can become meaningless, but if it means anything then the Sinfonia’s quotations–crashing together Beckett, Mahler, Boulez, protest slogans and civil rights anthems–certainly fits that definition. The centrality of Berio comes despite the series intending to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven–perhaps you’ve heard of him? The Sinfonia then branches out into performances of Berio’s virtuosic solo works, the Sequenzas, along with works by Mahler, Beethoven, Ives, Schnittke, Ustvolskaya among others.

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What is more interesting to me are the commissioned works: Radium Butterfly by local composer and pianist Stephen Lewis would be of interest to fans of Lachenmann; plus an electroacoustic remix work by composer and Xenakis scholar James Harley called BTHVN 9x9x9 Re(v) Mix.

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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, while also studying composition, mathematics, philosophy and political theory. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. In addition to composing, he is the sound engineer for chamber music group Fear No Music and a contributor to the Portland State music journal Subito. For ArtsWatch, Charles’ writing analyzes the culture of art music in Portland within the context of broader musical trends, hoping to understand where contemporary music is heading into the twenty-first century.

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