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MusicWatch Monthly: Summer is a’coming in, sing loud, seasons end

Resonance Ensemble celebrates fifteen years, In Medio Choir sings Randall Thompson and Judy A. Rose, Oregon Symphony plays Beethoven’s Tenth, Britt Music & Arts Festival warms up, and In A Landscape gets rolling.

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Norman Rockwell, “Summer Time,” 1933.

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Ah, yes, summer has come indeed. Every June, this very old Middle English song gets stuck in the present author’s head and stays there for months. If you’ve been in any kind of choir, or if you’ve ever taken a course in music history, you’ve heard and probably sung this one.

We’d like to begin today’s column by exposing your tender ears to five versions of this song, all radically different, all wonderful. Let’s start with Hilliard Ensemble’s achingly medieval version from 2002:

Next up, a group of madrigal-loving English Millenials at Exeter University keeping their heritage alive in 2014:

Which brings us to a considerably earthier rendition by the Greenleaf Singers of St. Louis, Missouri, in 2010:

And this bit of weird cognitive dissonance from 1972, at the Summer Olympics in Munich. Not too long after this festive opening, the infamous Munich Massacre unfolded.

Which brings us around to The Wicker Man. Yes, that’s Christopher Lee leading the proceedings. If you haven’t seen this glorious slice of slow-burning 1970s cinema, scoot on over to Movie Madness or find it online or do whatever you must. Clearly I’ve now spoiled the ending for you, but you’ve had over fifty years to catch this one so really that’s your problem.

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End of the line

Before we dive into the first of the summer festivals, let’s consider three season-ending concerts, all this weekend (if you’re reading this on or around Thursday, the sixth of June).

First up is In Medio Choir’s season finale, We Shall Have A Song, at Northeast Portland’s Augustana Lutheran Church on June 7. You may have already heard about this concert in ArtsWatch Choral Correspondent Daryl Browne’s column a couple of weeks ago, where this fascinating program–pairing a choral classic with a newly commissioned work by an Oregon composer (huzzah!)–is described in depth:

Several choirs are contemplating peace this spring and are programming songs about peace and coexistence with nature and with each other. In Medio Choir has chosen to finish their season with an a cappella work that presents the possibility that a place where peace exists might truly be possible, The Peaceable Kingdom by Randall Thompson.

In 1935 the League of Composers turned to American composer Randall Thompson and commissioned a work for the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. Thompson turned to a painting by Quaker artist Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” which depicts a child interacting with animals and the interaction of another Quaker, William Penn, with members of the Lenape People. Thompson then turned to Biblical texts from the Book of Isaiah and composed a cycle of eight songs for SSAATTBB choir, The Peaceable Kingdom, which premiered in 1936.

What a beautiful work this is. It’s Randall Thompson. The Frostiana and Alleluia composer we love so dearly. This work is just as precious but has passages filled with grandeur, a sense of awe. And in 1936 it was also gutsy, showing an early 20th-century American choral world that an extended, multi-movement a cappella choral piece was possible. It hasn’t been programmed in Portland, at least, for a while. Have you heard it? Listen here to Movement 7 of Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom:

In 2023 In Medio conductor John Eisemann decided that a response to The Peaceable Kingdom – the choral work and the idealwas due. Eisemann turned to a Portland composer, his former teaching colleague in Portland Public Schools, an artist whose voice he knew could speak the right choral language – his friend Judy A. Rose.

“Judy’s music,” said Eisemann in recent email to OAW, “always seems to tackle important societal issues but in a way that gives the listener (and the choir!) a reason to feel hopeful rather than depressed and stuck.”

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“I’m super thrilled,” said Rose in recent telephone interview with Oregon Arts Watch. “I think when we are asked by someone you know, love and respect and it’s a semi-professional choir, well–yeah! And John tends not to go for the average thing. He’s always thinking outside of the box.”

Outside of the box or no boxes at all works for Rose. A choral response is a new kind of commission for her and she chose not to listen to the Thompson work, although she has sung it. Instead, she wrote down the titles of Thompson’s seven movements and began to work from there. Throughout her process she returned to three essential questions: 1) is it possible to live in a peaceable kingdom; 2) is peace possible; and 3) can we return to our original light.

The title Rose has given her work, Walk in Beauty, Walk in Light – also the title of her eighth and final movement – suggests that the third question might have a hope-filled answer. Did she find a pathway to answers to questions one and two in Thompson’s text? Sort of. “I flipped the script,” said Rose. Her second movement, “Woe unto you: Karma (Cause and Effect are Flipping the Script)” hinting at the Golden Rule but pointing deliberately at cruel words and actions. Karma. Her third movement directly poses question number three: can we return to the light.

To find peace, in movements 5-8 Rose turns to the sweet and gentle hummingbird and affirms joy. She implores us to recall our personal moments of peace and love in “Have You Not Known” – semi-quoting Thompson text. And then Rose tells us to sing and dance and sing again.

In her music you will hear clusters of tone, explained Rose in the same interview, “not because they are cool, but because they are complex beings.” A little gospel sound, a bit of canonic jazziness? Perhaps. She’s done it before and it is cool. Singable? Absolutely. Rose writes singable music, listenable, meaningful music. Ah! Not only a 2024 response to Thompson, but a salute. And hope for a world that doesn’t question whether peace is possible.

In Medio’s “We Shall Have A Song happens at 7 pm, June 7, at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland. Tickets and more information here.

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The next evening, June 8, Resonance Ensemble closes their season with a celebration of their fifteenth anniversary. Those of us who remember the mighty choral ensemble’s early days can recall when they were mainly known for the purity of their tone, the excellence of Katherine FitzGibbon’s leadership, and their lovely audacity in combining old music, early 20th-century music, “pop” music, and new new music (often by Oregon composers).

For instance, here they are singing the “Agnus Dei” from 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir at their inaugural concert in 2010:

And here they are singing a reimagining of Bach’s infamous “Komm, süsser tod” by Cleveland Chamber Symphony founder Edwin London–alongside an arrangement of the Stan Jones classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky”–at their “Witching Hour” concert later in 2010:

The following year, they tackled Josquin des Prez, Oregon composer Michael Johanson’s Earth Dweller, and Stravinsky’s startling Les Noces:

We could go on like this all day. Check out their REAP initiative channel on YouTube–or their recent album LISTEN–for a whole lot more.

Anyways, cut to 2024 and they’ve kept the purity of tone, the excellent leadership, and the transtemporal audacity, all while boosting their emphasis on living and/or local composers and adding a massive dose of social justice awareness. Their motto: “Programming With Purpose.” This year’s season-closing concert: “Mission 15.”

What we love about this one is–um, actually what we love about this one is literally everything. Damien Geter is back! Honestly we kinda thought we’d lost him to America In General (he’s been doing work in Richmond, Chicago, New York, all over the damn place). But no, the renowned bass and composer remains on the Resonance artistic team and will conduct four of his own works at this concert. And we’re delighted, as always, by the inclusion of Resonance’s poet-in-residence, S. Renee Mitchell, who will someday be Oregon Poet Laureate (mark my words, Oregon). Mitchell’s recitations have been a highlight of Resonance concerts since her serendipitous first appearance in 2017. Here she is in 2018:

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Also on board from prior seasons are several composers, some of them also performers, almost all of them Oregonians: Kenji Bunch, Cecille Elliott, Joe Kye, Kimberley R. Osberg, Judy A. Rose (having a busy weekend), and Freddie Vilches (read James Bash’s recent profile here).

Yowza! And that’s not even close to all of it. Did we mention that Madeline Ross and Onry will both be singing? Or that Adam Eccleston will be there with his flute? Or–yeah, we’re gonna let this cat out of the bag–that the Season 16 announcement includes the names “Danni Lee” and “Caroline Shaw” (aka Ringdown)? How about this: after the concert, the featured composers will all gather with the Notorious KFG and Resonance guest conductor Shohei Kobayashi for what the press release describes as “Our largest post-concert panel yet!”

All of that is at 7:30 pm, June 8, at Winningstad Theatre in Beautiful Downtown Portland. Tickets and more information available here and here.

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Oregon Symphony ends their season with one of Classical Music’s Greatest Hits: Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, sometime’s derided or flattered (take your pick) as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 in C minor. The parallels with Old Ludwig Van are clear enough–according to legend, Brahms opined that ”any ass can see that!” (fair)–but two things stand out. One is the latter composer’s superior melodic gift–and we say this as a listener who personally prefers LvB. The other is how beautifully the Brahms approach to symphonic writing bookends an era that began with Beethoven’s first three symphonies. The way that Brahms composing in the 1870s sounds richer and more expansive than Beethoven composing in the 1820s reminds this listener, more or less, of the relationship between Diana Ross in the 1970s and Beyoncé in the 2020s.

Two compositions, utterly different, complete the program. In the “concerto” spot, Ciranda das Sete Notas, a concerto for bassoon composed by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and performed by OSO principal bassoonist Carin Miller (read James Bash’s profile right here). In the “overture” spot, Gabriella Smith’s One. You may remember Smith’s string quartet Carrot Revolution from Chamber Music Northwest 2017, and you can get a little sample of her Lou Harrisonesque One right here:

Oregon Symphony performs Brahms, Villa-Lobos, and Gabriella Smith June 8-10 at The Schnitz in Downtown Portland. More information and tickets right here.

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Feast of all

You’ll hear more about this summer’s festivals–CMNW, Oregon Bach Festival, et alia–soon enough. For today, we’d like to leave you with two that start up right away, here at the hottish inception of June. First up: Britt Music & Arts Festival, which starts with a neighborhood kickoff party in Jacksonville on June 7.

“Jacksonville, Jacksonville…” you’re muttering to yourself. “Is that in Oregon or California?” Yes! It’s in the magical, mystical State of Jefferson–it’s in the part of Jefferson that is technically, legally in Oregon, but the area is ecologically and spiritually and culturally its own thing altogether. Case in point: the lineup for this kickoff party, titled “The Hill Is Where The Heart Is.” Katie Pruitt is a queer Nashville-based singer-songwriter from Atlanta who admires Brandi Carlisle, and all of that is clearly audible in her lush and poppy Americana songcraft. 

Glitterfox, meanwhile, is a typical New Portland Band–and we do mean that as a compliment. From the Britt website: “The four-piece band’s songwriters and front persons, married couple Solange Igoa and Andrea Walker, have always channeled their personal struggles as well as experiences as queer, neurodiverse individuals into their songwriting. Bassist Eric Stalker and drummer Blaine Heinonen bring a love of Americana, grunge, and dance music into the mix.” They sound like this:

And then there’s Elbow Room Taiko, a Southern Oregon group led by dancer, choreographer, and yoga instructor Suzee Grilley. That looks and sounds like this:

The next night, it’s The Most Portland Band Of All Time: Pink Martini. You all know their story, don’t you? They play on June 8. And, since Glitterfox will be in town anyways, they’re opening.

There’s a wide variety of other pop artists all across the several months of Britt: Judy Collins this month, Willie Nelson next month, Keanu Reeves in September. You get the idea. Let’s move on to the orchestra stuff, featuring the Britt Festival Orchestra.

The BFO is between music directors following the departure of the beloved Teddy Abrams; for this summer’s festival, they’re bringing back Peter Bay (who led the orchestra from 1993 to 2012) and welcoming Alexandra Arrieche. Read more about all that here.

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Highlights of the June run of BFO concerts include: pianist Gabriela Montero performing Grieg’s piano concerto (June 13); Geneva Lewis performing Beethoven’s violin concerto on a program that includes the slightly-lesser-known-but-lovely-as-hell-and-oh-so-relevant-right-now Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Ukrainian” of Tchaikovsky (June 15); two nights of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, a live screening with music by John Williams, The Greatest American Composer Of All Time (June 20 and 21); violinist Alex Gonzalez performing music by a very different American film composer, John Corigliano’s The Red Violin, alongside Mahler’s gorgeously summery Symphony No. 1 in D major “Titan,” aka “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony,” aka “Beethoven’s Fourteenth” (June 22); cellist Joshua Roman performing yet another slice of cinematica, Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger Concerto (June 27); and a whole bunch of tango and Piazzolla (June 29).

Britt Music & Arts Festival runs from June through October. More information, tickets, and complete event listings can be found at the festival website.

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We leave you for now with not exactly a festival, but a roving concert series: Hunter Noack’s In A Landscape, in which the pianist perversely trucks a grand piano out to remote locations like Wine Down Ranch in Prineville (June 12), John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (June 13), Alvord Desert (June 15), Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (June 16), and so on. The man is clearly insane to do this, and we love him for it. Brett Campbell has been following the IAL story since the beginning, and you can start your reading journey here.

In A Landscape happens all over Oregon and beyond, starting this month. More information and tickets are available here.

Hunter Noack in Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.
Hunter Noack in Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.

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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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