MusicWatch Monthly: What flowers may come

Spring continues with MYS, PYP, FNM, PO

How ironic that I named my previous column after the opening line to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, “April is the cruellest month,” because April turned out to be pretty cruel to me. It was a month overloaded with work, hastily scheduled appointments and random things going wrong, the sorts of things that happen so infrequently they’re rarely worth thinking about until they suddenly become urgent.

Of course I don’t wish to compare my one busy month to the destruction of Europe in 1918; I just found that the line resonates with my current moment, as all great poetry resonantes across time. But now that’s hopefully over and we can move on to the brighter month ahead.

At least April ended on a high note: FearNoMusic’s headliner concert featuring Nancy Ives, Inés Voglar Belgique and Michael Roberts went live on Monday and was a brilliant performance to cap off their season. I had the pleasure of joining in the recording session as a sound engineer/assistant, so I got a bit of a sneak preview of the show. I’ll just say that Ives’ performance of Abraham’s Sons (In Memoriam:Trayvon Martin) by James Lee III is not to be missed. If you’re reading this on Thursday, you have a few more hours to catch it.

Speaking of FearNoMusic, May will end with the final concert of MYS’ season on the 29th, a collaboration with FNM’s Young Composer’s Project featuring compositions by quite talented young composers, including a series of variations on Grieg’s Peasant Song. And speaking of Voglar Belgique in particular: she’ll conduct PYP’s Young String Ensemble in a virtual “family-friendly Cushion Concert” on May 22, bright and early on a Saturday morning. The YSE will perform new music written for them by Laura Brackney, Sakari Dixon Vanderveer, Polina Nazaykinskaya, and Keyla Orozco. More info is available on PYP’s website.

April also brought us PICA’s Bloom fundraiser, which gained more and more stuff to bid on by the week. Highlights include the raffle prize of a Peleton (perfect for working off those COVID pounds and getting back in shape for the summer), a gamut of unique art experiences in Portland and abroad, and for low-bidders like myself, some cool t-shirts and sweaters. We also got to see violinist Rachel Barton Pine play Bach, Coleridge-Taylor and some traditional tunes for Friends of Chamber Music. And the NACUSA conference I mentioned last week is still ongoing, and you can catch the videos from the concerts and lectures here.

May blooms

The month of May opens with the biannual Steinway Piano Series at Portland State featuring Anton Mel in the return of a program we haven’t heard from in the last two years. Mel’s May 1 concert blooms with a “balanced, one-of-a-kind” program of Bach, Mozart, Debussy and Granados. I guess that must be one-of-a-kind to somebody, but it is still worth it to hear an internationally-renowned world-class pianist perform live in Portland–an opportunity that only comes around a few times a year.

We will soon be publishing coverage of the Oregon Symphony’s big announcements, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to talk about the announcement from another of Portland’s major classical music institutions: Portland Opera. After their recent Journeys to Justice concert (still available online) and a summer production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s Frida, the 2021-2022 season will open with Puccini’s Tosca on October 29, followed by two newer operas on more contemporary issues.

The first of those is Leslie Uyeda’s chamber opera When the Sun Comes Out, which has been called Canada’s first lesbian opera. The season concludes with the 2020 Pulitzer winner, Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five. I have also heard whisperings of the promised outdoor concerts by the Portland Opera finally materializing, though as with everything else right now we’ll just have to wait and see.

Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out premiered as part of the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver, BC in 2013. It features a libretto by poet Rachel Rose and delicate orchestration for Pierrot ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano). It got many positive reviews across the Canadian press for its initial and ensuing performances, though the critics can’t seem to decide whether the orchestration is “lush” or not. If Portland Opera’s production under the direction of Alison Moritz is anything like her past work, it will be full of striking colors and lighting. I’m also intrigued to see how she directs a work with such a small cast––perhaps she uses her stage direction and set design to explode the romance of Solana and Lilah outwards?

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To give a brief overview of the Central Park Five case: on April 19, 1989, five Black and Latino boys found themselves the main suspects for a crime they had no part in whatsoever, the rape of Trisha Meili in Central Park that evening. (It’s almost shocking how much negative energy has concentrated itself upon these few days in mid-late April––must be the transition from Aries to Taurus.) The New York City court system convicted and sentenced the five to spend the next 5-15 years in prison, using coerced confessions and the flimsiest of evidence by the prosecution. They were not exonerated until the true assailant’s confession in 2002, and it was only in 2013 that the City of New York would settle a civil suit with the five for $41 million.

This is the thematic background for Davis’s opera. Prior to becoming a successful operatic composer, Davis had an impressive career as a pianist and bandleader, accompanying experimental and free jazz legends such as Anthony Braxton, George Lewis and Wadada Leo Smith. And surely enough, jazz permeates through the soundworlds of The Central Park Five, from the looseness of rhythm to the recognizable timbres of harmon-muted brass and wild Eric Dolphy-like bass clarinet runs.

Davis’s operas are based on retellings of America’s long history of racism and violence, from the life of Malcolm X and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst to mutinies aboard slave ships and an upcoming work with his cousin Thulani Davis on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Librettist Richard Wesley is one of the preeminent African-American playwrights alive today, and teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The opera’s manifestation here in March of next year will be under the baton of Kazem Abdullah and the direction of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Nataki Garrett, making it a must-see for any opera or theater fan in the Metro area.

Third Angle’s soundwalk series continues in May, this time taking us to the International Rose Test Garden, accompanied by Sonic Blooming by Oregonian composer Crystal Cortez, who performs and records as Crystal Quartez. You can download the soundwalk audio and brochure here on May 15. If you stopped by the Portland Art Museum this February for the Winter Light (non) Festival or PICA’s distanced TBA festival last year, you’re already familiar with her work.

Cortez’s Sonic Blooming takes its musical material from two main sources: field recordings from the test garden; and biodata sonification, which translates the tiny electrical impulses from the plants in the test garden into sounds. Sonification is a highly creative process despite its seemingly scientific nature: it requires a precise definition of the parameters to be converted to sounds, as simply reading the raw data almost always yields unbearably loud noise. So I’m excited to see what Cortez does with this soundwalk, certainly one of the most inventive things happening in Portland’s experimental music scene right now.

For those of us who live in Salem, chamber music group Camerata Musica presents a concert of contemporary chamber percussion music at 1:30 on May 16, performed by Niel DePonte, Chris Whyte and Paul Owen. What stands out to me on the program is former Oregon Symphony principal percussionist DePonte’s original composition The Percussion Audition. You may recognize the rest of the trio: Whyte and Owen make up half of the Portland Percussion Group. Of course, you don’t have to be in Salem to catch their show since everything’s online now, but it’s always nice to get a reminder that there are great concerts going on outside Portland.

That same weekend, at 2pm on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16, Cascadia Composers comes off the heels of the NACUSA festival with another concert, Unite in Song. Hosted by First Prez–that brilliant church on 12th and Alder–Unite in Song premieres new works by local composers, as do all Cascadia concerts. Local advocacy group Unite Oregon, whose recent projects include a COVID-19 relief fund for immigrants and refugees and lobbying for progressive legislation in Oregon’s congress, partnered with Cascadia for the concert, and I’m excited to see how the folks at Cascadia tackle issues of justice and equality in this moment.

To top off the busy weekend, at 7 pm on the 15th Chamber Music Northwest premieres a concert video by guitarist Jason Vieaux, Eloquent & Eclectic. Vieaux’s CV as a guitarist is about as impressive as one can get, but what interests me is that he is premiering and touring the new work Four Paths of Light, composed by Pat Metheny–an imposing name in the world of modern jazz and fusion guitar. I know quite a few guitarists, and when I told them about this concert they seemed unable to contain their excitement, both at the invocation of Vieaux and Metheny’s names. Vieaux will also play his original compositions and arrangements of Bach and Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.

Natural sound and space

We probably all spend a lot of time wondering whether there’s a distinctive identity to Oregon’s musical culture. Once one extends beyond classical music, Portland has more than enough cred among the Indie crowd, with your Dandy Warhols, your Elliott Smiths, your Sleater-Kinneys, your Wipers. But Portland is a destination point for all sorts of artists and musicians, and it’s no different in classical music.

The difficult question is, where does this musical culture come from? The question concerns deep aesthetics, the sorts of things that even the most emblematic composer or most observant writer would have difficulty articulating. It is easy to quickly drift off into discussions of Debordean or Sinclairian psychogeography and dodgy claims about the fundamental essence of being, so if we ever figure out this essence of being a musician in Portland, it will be a while. For now, we can at least identify some salient features.

One I’ve noticed is a preoccupation with natural sound and space. Not for nothing did I mention Guy Debord above, a French philosopher who among other things sought to understand the influence of space and landscape on our experience and thoughts. On the other side of the Atlantic, R. Murray Schaffer approached similar questions with an emphasis on the natural environments of Canada rather than the Parisian paving stones that inspired Debord.

Many of the artists featured in Third Angle’s soundwalks–not just Crystal Cortez but Branic Howard and Loren Chasse as well–frequently incorporate field recordings and the found sounds of naturally-occurring objects. That’s just one example of how Oregon artists seem to take on similar questions. Aesthetically, I hear a more “earthy” approach to sound and composition in many Oregonians’ music, letting sounds behave and develop as themselves rather than as part of some rational system and generally avoiding the elaborate schematizing of high modernist music.

This may be true of trends in contemporary music more generally, but it does seem to be a significant departure from the sounds coming from LA and NYC. For example, big composers like Andrew Norman and David Lang tend to retain more of these modernist roots, eschewing a more modest, lyrical tone for a precision and stoicism reminiscent of Stravinsky.

Oboist and composer Dr. Catherine Lee’s new album Remote Together also evokes this earthiness. The release party on May 21 at 5pm can be found on the ExTradition Series Youtube channel, and features an interview with Lee and Robert McBride. Lee is half of the Lee/Hannafin Duo with Matt Hannafin of the ExTradition Series, and her music spans the worlds of contemporary classical and experimental music as a performer and composer for oboe, oboe d’amore and cor anglais (english horn).

Remote Together collects music written for Lee by a variety of composers, including two who also contributed to the recording as performers: synthist Matt Carlson and sound manipulator Juniana Lanning. You can hear an album preview on Lee’s Bandcamp page, and you can watch below a video for Lee and Lanning’s Silkys.

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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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