Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

MusicWatch Monthly: Sounding together

Youth orchestras, Oregon poets, spiritual moments, and more.

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The Harney County Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
The Harney County Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

This month Portland Youth Philharmonic celebrates its centennial with yet another promising concert season and an exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society. The three-month exhibit, Sagebrush to Stumptown: Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Astonishing First Century, opens with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. this Friday, November 3. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is: Will they be using one of those cartoonishly large pairs of scissors?

No answer to this burning question was forthcoming in a recent OPB feature on the exhibit and the orchestra’s history, in which Think Out Loud host Dave Miller completely failed to show any interest in giant scissors. Instead, current music director David Hattner–only the fifth to hold the PYP baton in its entire century of existence–focused on the group’s remarkable origin story:

Miller: So David, I mentioned the short version of this august history in the intro just now. But can you tell us more about the founding of the Portland Youth Philharmonic? Who was Mary V. Dodge?

Hattner: Mary Dodge was really an orphan who learned to play the violin in an orphanage and she married a man who moved her to Harney County around 1910. And having very little else to do with being in a really very primitive environment, she managed to get a bunch of string instruments sent to Burns and she taught the local children to play. She raised them to such a level that the local businessmen, mostly ranchers, decided to send them on a little tour of Oregon. So they came to Salem and they came to Portland and these young children played and were embraced by the city and written about. And when she herself moved back to Portland, she became a teacher at the Irvington School, started a strings program there, and had private students. Gradually this orchestra, “advanced orchestra” I think she called it, began to rehearse at her house. And she dreamed that there should be a symphony orchestra of young people, something that at least in this part of the country, no one had ever heard of.

But there needed to be a conductor to do it. At the time, of course, women were not conductors. They weren’t even playing string instruments in symphony orchestras for the most part. And into town came a Russian immigrant named Jacques Gershkovitch. Exactly how he got to Portland, we’re not sure. We know that he came to San Francisco as a refugee from Tokyo, where there had been a terrible earthquake in 1923. And despite his very limited English, she convinced him to hear this orchestra in her attic. And he agreed that he would take on the project of forming a symphony orchestra, which he did. He was the conductor until 1953.

ArtsWatch correspondent James Bash recently spoke to Hattner too. Note, again, the failure to ask the hard-hitting ribbon-related questions. Instead, we read all about PYP’s role as a college preparation program–one which seems to have worked out pretty well for folks like Juilliard alum Kenji Bunch, Oberlin and NEC grad Sarah Tiedemann, oboist Ben Price (read Bash’s recent feature on Price here), and plenty of others.

PYP’s season begins Saturday November 11 at The Schnitz with a program centered around Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Also on the bill: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (performed by 2023 Portland Piano International Concerto Competition winner Nolan Tu). Note that the concert will take place at 7:30 pm–not at midnight.

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Silly symphonies

Meanwhile over at Metropolitan Youth Symphony, they’re not afraid of cartoons or kid composers or much of anything. Their season-opener Music In Motion–Sunday November 12, the day after PYP and also at The Schnitz (nice how they got that handled)–celebrates music for cartoons, music used in cartoons, even some music for an imaginary cartoon that doesn’t even exist yet.

In the “music for cartoons” category: a whole slew of Alan Menken music, including suites from his Oscar-winning scores for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid (yes, he won both of those, and rightly so–despite being up against John Williams both times). MYS will also perform “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” perhaps the finest villain song of all time (“Be Prepared” would be a close second)–and the vocalist on that one is Zach Galatis, best known as Oregon’s Favorite Piccolo Player but also a fine singer and an incorrigible karaoke fiend.

Why place “music used in cartoons” over here in its own category? Because this concert also features two pieces of music composed before cartoons existed, but which came to be indelibly associated with one extremely important cartoon–Fantasia. For several generations of classical music lovers, this piece of Disneyana was the reason we fell in love with classical music in the first place. It’s got Bach and Beethoven, it’s got Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky–and it has two particularly memorable sequences, Modest Mussorgsky’s terrifying Night On Bald Mountain and the Mickey Mousery of Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They’re both tons of fun on the concert stage, even if you’re not picturing dancing skeletons and enchanted brooms.

And then there’s the “imaginary cartoon.” It’s literally called that: Music for an Imaginary Cartoon, a group effort collaboratively created by five composers involved in Fear No Music’s terrific Young Composers Project. What these five–Elishiya Crain-Keddi, Manu Isaacs, Max Evans-McGlothin, A’shariá Pendergrass, and Malia Baker–have done is compose a suite of music for a nonexistent cartoon.

Mr. Bash recently spoke to MYS music director Raúl Gómez-Rojas about all this cartoon stuff, and Gómez-Rojas had this to say:

MYS has been involved in commissioning works as part of the Young Composers Project in a series called The Authentic Voice. Consequently, the Symphony Orchestra has given several world premieres of pieces by local young composers.

It is really terrific that the Symphony Orchestra and our other ensembles play music by their peers. So a wonderful idea for our fall concert came from Jeff Payne and Ryan Francis, who lead the Young Composers Project, to create a piece for an imaginary cartoon. They took five young composers who will collaborate on a brand-new piece of music. Those five young composers will figure out how to write it. We aren’t going to tell them. They will invent a story line for the music, and the Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere of a piece that is about eight minutes of music for an imaginary cartoon.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Free jazz and all political prisoners

It’s not “free jazz” exactly, but it is a free concert of “normal jazz”–it’s Noah Simpson’s The American Refrain: Jazz and Modern Music, this Friday November 3 at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. Simpson is known to all Oregon jazz fiends as a fine trumpeter and jazz composer known for his performances at Oregon’s various jazz clubs and festivals and his appearances on various recordings in the remarkable Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble catalog, notably George Colligan’s Long Term Goals and Jasnam Daya Singh’s Ekta: The Unity Project.

It’s not just a jazz concert, in fact–it’s also an educational demonstration, developed during the pandemic in collaboration with PDX Jazz Education Director Shelby Walton-Clark. At the time, Simpson told Jazz Society of Oregon all about his not-exactly-a-jazz-education-seminar:

“We actually start with a tune by [pop music artist] Pharrell,” Simpson says, “to say, ‘This is music that comes from a Black American, and jazz is music that comes from Black Americans; let’s talk about how this came to be and how these musics share certain themes, both musically and concept-wise… We talk about how for Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, songs like ‘Confirmation’ and ‘In A Mellow Tone,’ they were made for clubs, made to be performed in front of an audience for entertainment. But songs like [John Coltrane’s] ‘Alabama’ and [Kendrick Lamar’s] ‘How Much A Dollar Cost,’ and the old worker song ‘Which Side Are You On,’ they have a message behind them that were meant to be presented in a certain frame.”

Want more jazz in Oregon? It’s all over the place, not just cultural centers at the edge of wine country but in house shows and in schools and even in your living room if you want. But jazz lives in night clubs, where you can see/hear/feel the musicians and high five your friends and eat pizza and drink drinks and go out for a smoke when the band takes five. Since the lamented closure of Jimmy Mak’s in 2016, it’s fallen to two specific spots to keep this torch burning several nights a week: the 1905 and Jack London Revue. Like every brick-n-mortar venue that has to compete with earbuds, Spotify, diminishing attention spans, widespread agoraphobia, and all the rest of That Modern Bullshit, they need asses in seats to keep the dream alive. That’s where you come in, dear reader. Free your ass and your mind will follow.

Here’s what up at the 1905 just this coming week:

  • Alan Jones Social Music on the 2nd
  • Farnell Newton & The Sexual Chocolate with Vanilla Sprinkles on the 3rd
  • Yuck and Friends on the 4th
  • Cyrus Nabipoor Quintet on the 5th
  • Nathan Eklund with the Christopher Brown Quartet on the 6th
  • Tom Wakeling’s North by Northwest on the 7th
  • Jeremy Pelt Quintet on the 8th

And that’s not even all that’s happening this week! Then it’s Christopher Brown again on the 15th (every Wednesday, in fact). Mel Brown B3 Organ Group on the 20th. Look past all those headliners and you see even more of the big names in Oregon Jazz playing in these bands, folks like Darrell Grant, Kerry Politzer, John Nastos, Micah Hummel, Jalen Baker, Tyrone Hendrix, Noah Simpson again–you get the idea.

At Jack London Revue it’s a little less relentless: Soul What on the 4th, Próxima Parada on the 10th, New Origin Trio on the 11th, Jonathan Scales Fourchestra on the 12th, Mel Brown again on the 16th and the 30th, Stump City Soul on the 18th. Again, you get the idea.

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Poets laureates

We’ve recently learned that the Oregon Poet Laureate Program is now accepting nominations for the state’s next poet laureate. In a perfect world, current poet laureate Anis Mojgani would have to be forcibly dethroned via an old-fashioned basement poetry slam, but apparently the Oregon Cultural Trust has more peaceful ideas.

Now, as a musician and music journalist the present author officially knows nothing about poetry (check out K.B. Dixon’s portrait series for a more informed and visually stimulating take). We’d nevertheless like to present three candidates for your consideration, dear readers, and you can do with them what you will.

First up has to be Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, for a wide variety of reasons almost too obvious to bear mentioning. You’ve heard her at numerous Resonance Ensemble concerts, and you probably also read her recent opinion piece on arts funding right here at ArtsWatch. As a poet, performer, educator, and activist, Mitchell makes Oregon a better place to live and be.

There are two others we’d like to mention, both musicians, both with appearances this weekend–on the same day, in fact, Sunday the 5th (remember, remember). And they’re nicely timed so you could catch both if you wanted to.

In the afternoon, it’s Alicia Jo Rabins at the next Third Angle New Music Listening Lab at Portland’s notorious Bowstring Truss House. Rabins–a composer and Torah teacher as well as a well-known poet–will discuss her “indie-folk/art-pop song cycle” Girls In Trouble, which she describes thusly:

With this project, Rabins mines the complex and fascinating stories of Biblical women, exploring the hidden places where their lives overlap with her own.*The result: a world of ancient stories brought intimately to life.

That’s at two in the afternoon, which gives you plenty of time to head over to Polaris Hall for Laura Veirs. The musician-poet (I mean, “songwriter”) celebrates the release of her latest album, Phone Orphans, out November 3. You can listen to a couple tracks off that one (and pre-order the “bespoke colored vinyl”) on Bandcamp:

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

It’s classic Veirs stuff, the same guitar-and-poetry thing we’ve all always loved about her. And this one has a curious backstory:

It feels good, on my 50th birthday and after 30 years of writing songs, to bring these Phone Orphans into the light. These songs have been hiding out on my phone, some of them for over eight years. They are about my family, my lovers and me. I recorded them alone in my living room into my voice memo app. I like their relaxed feel. These songs were mastered but we made no edits to the recordings. I hope you enjoy this intimate glimpse into my artistic process.

That show also features long-time Veirs pal Karl Blau, and it starts at 8 pm. You could even take Tri-Met if you were so inclined.

“Symphony” means “sound together”

We leave you with a handful of “classical” concerts, from chamber to orchestral. First up is Oregon Symphony, performing Andy Akiho’s outrageous Sculptures alongside Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. You can read all about that right here in our recent conversation with the always-entertaining Akiho. The concerts are this Saturday through Monday, the 4th through 6th. More info and tickets right here.

Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kuneko's sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kaneko’s sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.

Also on the 4th and 5th, up in Vancouver, guest conductor Sarah Ioannides leads the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and violinist Philippe Quint through a concert of visually-stimulating works: Vaughan Williams’ theatrical “Overture” to The Wasps, Ravel’s gypsyesque Tzigane, Corigliano’s Oscar-winning music from The Red Violin, Debussy’s painterly Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and Respighi’s tone poem Pini di Roma. You can read more about it in James Bash’s recent preview, featuring interviews with Ioannides and Quint. Tickets and more information available here.

Way down in Southern Oregon, the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra performs a pair of newish American works and a pair of oldish Germanic ones. Violinist Bella Hristova is featured on Max Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto No. 1 and David Ludwig’s Saturn Bells (written for her as a kind of engagement present). Here’s what Ludwig has to say about that:

I was so inspired thinking of the rings of Saturn; I first saw them when I was a kid at summer camp. One of the parents brought a high power telescope and we got about half a minute each to look through it. I was so taken by those rings, and the little stars floating around the planet, which I later found out were a handful sample of its sixty-two moons.

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

But to come clean, I can’t help but think my unconscious mind was at work while I was writing Saturn Bells. I wrote the piece for my wife, Bella Hristova, who was at that point still my fiancée. Thoughts of Rings and Bella really couldn’t have been too far removed from the process…

Completing the planetary theme, RVSO will also play Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) and Mozart’s über-popular final symphony, Symphony No. 41 in C Major, “Jupiter.” Performances are in Ashland on the 10th, Medford on the 11th, and Grants Pass on the 12th. More information and tickets are available here.

In Portland, on the smaller side, it’s the manifold world of Cascadia Composers in another of their many collaborative concerts–Conflict and Resolution, November 11 at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall. This time around it’s the delicious Rose City Brass Quintet, with VSO principal percussionist Wanyue Ye and bel canto mezzo Sarah Beaty. As always, the list of composers is impressively diverse and local: Adrienne Albert, Dinah Bianchi, I’lana S. Cotton, Ken Davies, David A. Jones, Theresa Koon, Brian Magill, Jan Mittelstaedt, Liz Nedela, Timothy Arliss O’Brien, Mark Pritchard, Christine Richardson and Nicholas Yandell.

We’d like to call attention to one particular name here: Theresa Koon. You may have heard her work on a couple different Resonance Ensemble concerts, 2018’s Souls at First Presbyterian Church (Koon’s multi-movement Where Everything Is Music) and 2020’s Safe Harbor at Alberta Rose Theatre (the Statue of Liberty-themed Mother of Exiles).

Someday, Cascadia will start its own PJCE-style record label, and it will change classical music in Oregon forever. Until then, you can hear a lot more of their many composers’ musical offerings throughout the years on the group’s YouTube channel (and on the channel of their frequent videographer, Alan Niven).

Also on the 11th–and again on the 12th–another of the area’s fine orchestras presents a program of “spiritual moments.” The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra (PCSO to its devoted fan base) invited two striking guest artists to participate in this concert. The first: oboist Titus Underwood, who will perform the West Coast premiere of Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild: Concerto for Oboe.

The second guest is Leroy Bynum, a name you may not have heard but should. The present author had the immense privilege of interviewing Dr. Bynum upon his appointment as Dean of PSU’s College of the Arts in 2017. That interview formed the backbone of the inaugural issue of Subito, the student-run journal of the School of Music & Theater, and there’s one passage that has resonated ever since. It’s Dr. Bynum’s “A-ha moment”:

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

We all sang as children. My father was a marvelous singer, absolutely marvelous. Gorgeous baritone. My mother says the marriage was preserved because he was able to wear her down with singing. He had one of these mellow Brook Benton-type voices that charms the birds out of a tree. And he would sing at church every now and then—probably when he got in trouble and needed to get out of the dog house he would offer to sing at church.

I remember him singing this hymn in church; he practiced it at home and sang it in church. It was “His eye is on the sparrow,” and I remember him singing it, and singing it myself, and learning what I considered the words. When you’re four years old you mimic sounds, and the words I put with it were probably not the exact words, but close. I remember sitting there that Sunday morning he decided to sing that in church, and not long after that, when I was sitting in church and my mother was sitting in the choir stand—so she could get to me in time—I decided I wanted to sing a solo, like my daddy does.

I went up to the organist and I said, “I wanna sing,” and my mother saw that happening, so she tried to intercept me, but she couldn’t get to me quick enough. She said, “Baby, no, you go sit down,” and the organist—I had already spelled out what I wanted to do—the organist said, “Ruth! You let that boy sing!”

She grabbed me and set me up on the organist bench beside her. Stood me there and she began to play. And I belted “His eye is on the sparrow” extemporaneously in church that Sunday morning, to my mother’s immense embarrassment. And of course, I was a hit, this child singing in church. And a star was born! I got my taste of stardom and adoring fans. As they say, the rest is history.

On this concert, Dr. Bynum will narrate selections from the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom. And here’s a bit of Oregon classical music trivia for you–none other than the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, under the directorship of James DePriest, recorded the work in 1995.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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