MusicWatch Monthly: Reopening the Rubicon

Into the mid-post-pandemic unknown unknown with upriver music festivals and more

In the opening remarks at last week’s Makrokosmos festival, pianist and co-Artistic-Director Saar Ahuvia said, “live music is finally back.” That is true, with an asterisk. Despite the state’s official reopening on June 30, many* may still be hesitant to declare that the pandemic is really over, which is a necessary precondition for live music to truly be back.

* including myself

Makrokosmos Project artistic directors Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho at part one of this year’s festival. Photo by Orlando Sanchez.

The vaccination percentage basically topped out at around sixty-five percent, where they are now. It is also uncertain what all constitutes the one-third of Oregonians who are not vaccinated: lack of access to the vaccine isn’t the problem, since so many doses went unused. Thankfully, the events we discuss this month take place in the most vaccinated counties.

Trust me, we’re as ready as everyone else is to be able to go places without needing a mask and being able to see live music again. On the other hand, it seems like Oregon’s government and many of its citizens are just collectively saying “fuck it,” declaring that this disease that is still ravaging other countries and spawning new variants is no longer a concern for us, if they didn’t already months ago.*

*these statements have not been evaluated by the CDC

This is Musicwatch Monthly, not CoronaWatch Monthly, however. But we still need the global and local context in which to place this month’s events. Let’s face it, Portland’s had a rough few years, and we deserve a much-needed reprieve from all the chaos and drama–healthcare and essential industry workers most of all. We need a less ineffectual government, we need to house and care for the homeless, we need a more organized left and a less organized right, and we need cops to just chill.

The individual under neoliberalism–homo economicus–is not only incentivized but required to treat everything like a financial transaction, including relationships. If workers start to get too close to each other, they may start whispering the u-word around their co-workers, and the shareholders won’t be happy about that. In such a world, our connections with our community become more vital than ever, especially after the latest global crisis ripped people further apart from what little real-life connections we had.

Leonard Bernstein said in his Norton lectures, “we have to believe in a future–otherwise, why write music for it?” Note the importance of a future rather than the future. The world is full of uncertainties, and now with the future seeming less certain than ever, we should be reconnecting with what is important, what we wish to bring with us into the unknown.

Maybe more than anything, we want live music to return because it provides a sense of community. It’s not only a joy to see music performed as it has been for thousands of years prior to the invention of recording technology, but to see friends, meet new people and share in our passion for music together. One could consider it a secularized church service: a ritual gathering of the community around a shared experience, with homiletics and sermonizing replaced with musical performance. What mass gatherings are there left but music festivals, sports games and political rallies?–and these three things have more in common than you’d think

Catch the blues, not the rona

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The nice thing is that most of this month’s festivals are outdoors, thus inhibiting the spread of COVID*.

*this statement has not been evaluated by the CDC either

This weekend’s Waterfront Blues Festival–moved “upriver” this year to The Lot at Zidell Yards–will also have live-streams available via KBOO (90.7 FM) for the afternoon sets (12-4 pm) and on their website for the evening sets (6-10 pm). The most exciting of this year’s headliners are probably Ghost-Note, a funk project by the percussionists of Snarky Puppy–seemingly every collegiate jazz student’s favorite band. Next would be Portland’s own funk circus marching ensemble Marchfourth.

There is a clearly-delineated hierarchy of artists at music festivals: a few big names to draw the crowds, a middle-tier of artists who are known to music fans, and a ton of smaller artists who are getting a rare opportunity to perform on a large stage for stadium crowds. Like many Oregon music festivals, there is always a wealth of local talent slotted in between the big names.

Many local artists have seen the stage at the Waterfront before, such as the duo Karen Lovely and Ben Rice on Friday and the Too Loose Cajun Zydeco Band on Saturday. Ben Rice can kill it–both on his beat-up Telecaster and steel guitar–and seeing him play live is an opportunity one shouldn’t pass up. On Friday, guitarist Sonny Hess once again leads an all-women band, as she has for decades. For those who wanna hear some dirty, heavy electrified blues, Portland-via-Virginia guitarist Kevin Selfe makes his way on stage Sunday, along with “funk-soul collective” Outer Orbit (featuring Dirty Revival singer Sarah Clarke). And Samba band Bloco Alegria gives us the Carnival we missed out on this year.*

*“we” meaning those of us who celebrate the Brazillian pre-Lent festival

To show how far back the tradition goes, guitarist Norman Sylvester–who performs on Sunday evening this year–played the first Waterfront festival in 1987 over thirty years ago, and has brought his undeniable charisma and fantastic band with him ever since. Check out the Blues Fest program for a full run-down.

Those who haven’t had the pleasure of going to a jazz festival may not know it, but in this setting the term “jazz” is as loose as the music’s form and structure. It’s not uncommon to see Americana, funk, electrified rock fusions, and hip-hop intermingle with more straight-ahead jazz at such festivals.* And sure enough, in many parts of the world “jazz” is a catch-all term for all sorts of American music, even things we would never consider jazz at all.

*The same goes for blues festivals: blues is the root of almost all American music and its offshoots, even if that influence is sublimated, and it’s not uncommon to hear music at a blues festival which we now separate into country, bluegrass, rock n’ roll, rhythm n’ blues, or just plain old folk music.

For a large-scale example of this, just check out artists who appear at the Cape Town and Montreux jazz festivals. Locally, consider the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival–taking place the weekend of July 16-18 and hosted by Jazz Society Oregon, who know all the great local names in jazz (they cover them in their blog). Friday closes with local blues and soul phenom Lloyd Jones, hopefully playing some tunes from his latest album Tennessee Run. Sonny Hess makes an appearance here as well, performing at Friday’s kickoff show alongside Lady Kat “Smokin’ True Blue” (these two are performing around Oregon all month).

The Saturday night headliner, keyboardist and singer Jarrod Lawson, just released his newest album, Be the Change, and has been compared favorably to Stevie Wonder, D’angelo and Dwele. Just before Lawson, local duo Korgy & Bass does their uncategorizable thing. Ending the show Sunday night is Soul Vax–a prescient name taken from a song by jazz funk greats Tower of Power, whose dozen-man grooves the local band has been channeling for decades.

Speaking of North Portland, we also want to point people towards the St Johns Artwalk which will take place on the 24th. Use these opportunities to get outside, get some much-needed sun and exercise, and enjoy the summer while it’s here.

Festivals of the classics

Chamber Music Northwest will put their performances online two weeks after they debut live at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. A few concerts stand out. On the 6th, CMNW premieres Marc Neikrug’s “unique union of music and theatre,” A Song By Mahler*. On 7/8 and 7/9, Sounds of Brilliance and Unity features music by Jessie Montgomery and familiar Imani Winds composers Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott. The concerts on 7/10 and 7/11 will feature premieres by Kenji Bunch and David Ludwig, performed by various guests and several musicians from the Oregon Symphony. A couple world premieres from Pierre Jalbert and Matan Porat show up too, though it is a bit disappointing that the New@Noon concerts are not part of the festival, as it was one of the most consistent opportunities to hear “new music” in Portland.

*no Mahler will be premiered at this concert

One of the other major festivals this month is the ongoing Oregon Bach Festival, taking place in-person in Eugene and online at their website via Vimeo until July 11. There are the big names like organist Paul Jacobs and the Emerson String Quartet. But what is important to remember is that Oregon’s musical community is foremost a breadth of local talent, not just our ability to draw talent from abroad. All of the events are also free, which is nice.

Beyond what you would expect–Bach, Monteverdi, Beethoven–there are a couple nice reprieves from the old shit. Pianist Lara Downes showcases American women composers across two concerts–Elena Reuhr’s piano concerto on 7/3, then on 7/7 a recital of solo piano music by Amy Beach, Eve Belgarian, Margaret Bonds, and Hazel Scott. There are also the Composers Symposium events, led by director Robert Kyr.

This year’s Bach Festival will also include performances by some of 45th Parallel Universe’s resident ensembles: the Pyxis Quartet playing pieces by Kenji Bunch and Scott Unrein, and the Arcturus Quintet playing everything from Tallis to Carl Nielsen. The University of Oregon Chamber Choir also makes an appearance, singing Hildegard von Bingen alongside choral music from Spain and Sweden. 

Included in OBF’s listening guide is also a great list of books, podcasts, movies and documentaries to expand one’s knowledge of classical music. Although it missed one of our favorites–Meet The Composer from KQXR, hosted by violist Nadia Sirota–it is quite extensive.

July 11 features an afternoon-long festival at Sauvie Island: Fresh Air Fest, presented by Third Angle. It will have a picnic vibe, with outside seating and food and drink vendors. And while you’re up there, there are always plenty of things to do. These concerts that are a bit outside of Portland city limits are always a pleasant retreat from the hustle-and-bustle of most concerts, and without the annoyance of urban parking.

The long-awaited Fresh Air Fest is three concerts spread out from 3:30 to 7. The first concert is solely works by the recently-local Andy Akiho, performed by the composer with longtime collaborator Ian Rosenbaum. The second features 3A Artistic Director and flutist Sarah Tiedemann alongside harpist Sophie Baird-Daniel and violist Wendy Richman in a Dubois-and-Debussy-inspired ensemble. This concert features a premiere of Portland-via-Taiwan composer Yuan-Chen Li, along with other pieces written within the last forty years. The third is a showcase for brilliant percussionist Chris Whyte, performing with Tiedemann and cellist Valdine Mishkin; the concert features music by Cerrone and Akiho, with a premiere of new music composed by Whyte himself.

There are still lots of online projects still happening, such as Extradition’s Social Distancing Project. Moiré, a music/game project by Chloe Alexandra and aesthetic.stalemate for Sounds Et Al, premieres on July 16. These are for those who may be more comfortable staying at home for just a bit longer, though that is underselling their uniqueness a bit. Moiré appears to be an extremely odd project, and will hopefully signal a returning of Portland’s avant-garde, along with Marcus Fisher’s performances on July 10 at the opening of the new PICA exhibit, A Letter from Souls of the Dead.

The second half of the Makrokosmos festival on the twentieth features an extended focus on women composers of Asian heritage. This is a rare opportunity to hear Keiko Abe, Unsuk Chin, Chen Yi, Juri Seo, Karen Tanaka and Haruna Miyake’s music in Portland, in the beautiful Japanese Garden no less. Portland Percussion group, with a few new members, takes the stage, as well as one of the best pianists in town, Monica Ohuchi, who performed the Goldberg Variations wonderfully on AllClassical’s Thursdays@Three last month.

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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. 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.

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