MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

Although women were writing music long before—including the ancient Greek poet Sappho—Kassia’s is the earliest known music by a named female composer that has survived into the 21st century. Mostly chanted, drone-accompanied hymns that celebrate saints or religious occasions at her convent, it far surpassed that of contemporary male composers in its inventiveness and expressiveness. While not quite as ecstatic as Hildegard’s soaring sounds, Kassia’s music might a little sultrier, with more evident Middle Eastern influence, and radiates a melodic beauty that should especially, but not exclusively, appeal to fans of chant and other early music.

You can hear some of it on the Hymns of Kassianë concert, performed by its ideal interpreters: Cappella Romana, the Portland-based professional vocal ensemble which has gone on to garner worldwide fame and performances as the premier exponent and explorer of the musical traditions of Byzantium and other early Christian music. They’ll sing Kassia’s music Thursday, January 9 at at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church in a free concert, and again in Portland Saturday night, January 11 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Speaking of defiant musicians surviving difficult times: do you already know about Billy Tipton? The Pacific Northwest jazz musician performed sax and piano in big bands for fifty years, and if anyone ever suspected that their pal Billy had been born female, they either didn’t care or didn’t mention it. We’re confronted with the same question we always ask: how might Tipton may have lived in different times?

It’s entirely possible that it’s none of our business whether Tipton would want to be identified as male, or adopted a male identity as a matter of survival, or both, or neither. What we do know is that their determination to make music and live their fullest possible life inspired the formation of The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet–now simply The Tiptons–in Seattle in 1988. Co-founding saxophonist-composers Amy Denio and Jessica Lurie still perform with the group, which performs Saturday at Alberta Street Pub with Portland’s own sax quartet, Quadraphonnes.

Washington-based oboist Bhavani Kotha joins pianist Maria Garcia and bassoonist Lucas Zeiter at The Old Church Saturday afternoon to perform Francis Poulenc’s tasty Mozartesque Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, along with sonatafied concerti by Domenico Cimarosa and Franz Joseph Haydn. Kotha also plays a bit of music by Poulencesque British composer Madeleine Dring, whose Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano was featured on Kotha’s recent album Bhavani’s Oboe.

Popular American composer John Adams describes his Scheherazade.2 for solo violin and orchestra as a “dramatic symphony.” The concerto/symphony/tone poem for violin and orchestra was composed for soloist (and Adams enthusiast) Leila Josefowicz, who performs with the Oregon Symphony the 11th through 13th. Adams describes the music’s inspiration as a fresh twist on the titular 1,001 Nights narrator: “The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis.”

Also on the program: Charles Ives’ spooky, sonically layered The Unanswered Question and Richard Strauss’ Nietzsche ode Also Sprach Zarathustra–performed here in its entirety, not just the familiar overture used in 2001. You’ve probably never heard a twelve-tone fugue for orchestra before: stay tuned for the sixth movement, “Von der Wissenschaft” (“On Science.”)

Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s concert Sunday at Portland’s Newmark Theatre features ten award-winning short films by young filmmakers, with made-in-Oregon live scores played by MYS. The music was originally written for solo organ by International Youth Silent Film Festival’s New York-based resident composer Nathan Avakian, who grew up in Beaverton, and was subsequently arranged for the orchestra by local young composers from another MYS partner, Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project.

Continuing the locavore orientation, the concert features another recent work by a Portland composer, Nicole Buetti, whose cinematic Odyssey Overture for orchestra was premiered last year by the Vancouver Symphony and has been steadily performed around the region ever since. The show also includes a film music medley and a pair of MYS concerto competition award winners playing a flute and piccolo duet with the orchestra.

Next weekend, the 18th and 19th, Oregon Symphony performs Elmer Bernstein’s charming Ghostbusters score live to film. Bernstein is rightly revered as a film composer, and although his music lacks the symphonic appeal of Williams and Elfman this will still be a good show. The old screwball comedy is basically a Marx Brothers movie (with Sigourney Weaver standing in for Margaret Dumont), and Bernstein’s score sells the film’s creepy comedic tone by stirring together strutting New Yorkiness borrowed from the other Bernstein and spooky ondes martenot borrowed from Messiaen. Elmer’s son Peter conducts.

Chamber music: remembrances from the end of time

Delgani Quartet’s How We Remember concerts–this Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night at Eugene’s Christian Science Church, with repeat performances the following weekend in Salem and Portland)–feature a world premiere by one of the leading composers for string quartet of her generation, Elena Ruehr, who grew up in Michigan and has taught music at MIT for decades. A quintessentially contemporary eclectic composer, her influences include folk, jazz, dance, Javanese gamelan, African drumming (all of which she’s actually performed), as well as 19th century romanticism, early 20th century atonalism, late 20th century minimalism, Indian and medieval European music.

What’s most evident for listeners is her music’s lyricism and rhythmic punch, which give it a wider appeal than much contemporary classical music. Kudos to Delgani for helping bring more of it into the world, by commissioning her seventh quartet based on the themes of children of war and America’s shameful imprisonment of innocent Japanese-American citizens in 1940s concentration camps.

The other two compositions on Delgani’s tremendous program of World War II-related works are sure-fire classics. Steve Reich’s searing Different Trains weaves the live string quartet’s music with voices of Holocaust survivors (including one from Portland), a Pullman porter, and Reich’s own nanny, who accompanied the boy on train trips across the country in the 1940s when his divorced parents lived on different coasts. Reich, whose Judaism has informed much of his music, conceived the powerful piece when he imagined the very different trains carrying European Jews at the time.

The final work on the program was written a century and a half before the second world war, but because Haydn’s so-called “Emperor” string quartet later supplied the music for the German national anthem (sometimes called “Deutschland über alles,” or ”Germany above all”), it’s unfortunately been connected to the Nazis. But their use shouldn’t taint the music itself nor the humanistic composer who wrote it, and maybe in hearing it live in the form its composer intended we can reclaim it as a beautiful product of human creativity.

On Friday the 17th, local embracer-challengers of tradition 45th Parallel Universe get all francophile in a newly co-created performance space inside the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The 45|| folks collaborated with Portland technology studio Glowbox, artist Brad Johnson, and Princeton Music Cognition Lab professor Elizabeth Margulis to create a semi-screened stage area within PICA: a fascinating arrangement reminiscent of Indonesian shadow plays, with the square stage open on two sides and enclosed with projection screens on the other two.

Between the screens, the 45th Parallel Chamber Orchestra will perform works by Debussy, Ravel, and the reliably intransigent Boulez; incidental music from Common Practice Theory founder Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Les Boréades round out the concert and provide its title. Come early for a pre-concert talk with Margulis.

Local new music group Fear No Music is known for two things. They’re some of the best classical musicians in town, and they bring that expertise to lovingly daring performances of the sort of modern music that’s difficult for players as well as audiences, hearts as well as minds. Perhaps more importantly, they’re also known for taking a keen interest in promoting the music of living and local composers. Even when they’re doing Social Justice Music–as in last fall’s Hearings and The F Word concerts–they tend to collaborate with composers from Oregon and environs. That earns them an A+ from Arts Watch.

FNM’s annual Locally Sourced Sounds concerts focus specifically on new music by composers from Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and they’re always among the best of the season. This year’s concert, Monday the 20th at The Old Church, features the music of Reed College professor Kirsten Volness, local skeleton piano master Jennifer Wright, TaiHei New Music Ensemble director Li Tao, Portland State alum Nicholas Emerson, champion logroller Allen Skirvin, and Jake Safirstein, a graduate of FNM’s Young Composers Project training program.

Clarinetist Robert Plane joins Gould Piano Trio for two separate programs of classical chamber music at Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall on the 20th and 21st. Familiar works–trios by Haydn, Ravel, and Dvořák–complement performances of newer works for clarinet, piano, violin, and cello by contemporary British composer Huw Watkins and rediscovered late-Romantic Viennese composer Carl Frühling. French modernist Olivier Messiaen’s beloved, genre-defining wartime masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time closes the second evening.

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