MusicWatch Semi-Monthly: Unholy daze

Busy December needs two monthly columns: one for holiday concerts, one for everything else. Part one: music for strings, singers, and saxophones

Bah, humbug! It’s too early for Christmas music, don’t you think? Just because December is upon us, with its flakey promises of snow, doesn’t mean there isn’t a nice pile of early unholiday presents waiting. We’ve got a good dozen or two non-holiday themed concerts for you: abstract string quartets, killer guitarists and groovy saxophonists, and a visit from Oregon Symphony’s newly appointed Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (interview coming this week).

Aside from Die Hard the Musical at Funhouse Lounge (starts on the 5th, runs through January 4th) and Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (starts on the 7th, runs through the 26th), all the other fun holiday concerts start around the 13th. So we’re going to play Grinch and make you wait a week or two before telling you about all that. Take off that Mariah Carey Christmas playlist, put on MAE.SUN’s latest EP, get some Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge, and settle down for our first half of December mixtape.

This week: strings and songs

Okay, you get to open one present early: Portland Gay Men’s Chorus just can’t wait to show their holiday spirit with The Most Wonderful Season at Newmark Theatre this Friday through Sunday. The concert packs a lot in, celebrating “Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, and the New Year,” and presumably that’s why they’ve scheduled the concert so early in the season. Happy holidays, dear reader.

Three string quartets are performing a wide cross-section of the classical through modern repertoire in the coming week. Tonight and tomorrow at Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall, the award-winning Takács Quartet puts on a two-night program balancing Mozart’s atavistic “Dissonance” quartet and Mendelssohn’s moody A minor quartet with Bartok’s spectral third and terrifying sixth quartets. Beethoven’s eerie Op. 18, No. 6 and heroic third Rasumovsky round out the mix.

Also in Lincoln Performance Hall, on the 8th the Miro Quartet plays all three of Beethoven’s gorgeous “Rasumovksy” quartets. The trio of middle-era quartets, composed in collusion with a Russian nobleman in a typically Ludwiggy quid pro quo, remain standing as some of the deaf bastard’s sweetest compositions. Or, if you prefer your composers to be living as well as legendary, you might enjoy diving into the works of contemporary Oregonian composer Tomáš Svoboda, whose string quartets are being performed by Delgani String Quartet in Portland and Eugene this weekend.

Here to tell you all about Svoboda and Delgani is Senior Editor Brett Campbell:

Among classical composers based in Oregon today, maybe four are likely to make it in the music history books. One of them, Portland’s Tomáš Svoboda, turns 80 this month, and Delgani String Quartet celebrates with a concert featuring three of his stirring string quartets. A terrific pianist and chamber musician for many years, Svoboda left a major mark on Oregon music during his long teaching career at Portland State University commencing in 1970, mentoring many of Oregon’s finest musicians and composers.

His music has been performed all over the world, including premieres by the Oregon Symphony, Eugene Symphony, and Portland Youth Philharmonic. Influenced by 20th century composers like Shostakovich, Svoboda’s music sounds as vital today as it did when he wrote it, especially in the able hands of the Delganis, whose 2017 performance of his sixth quartet remains one of the most thrilling chamber music experiences I’ve ever heard in person.

They’ll play it along with his 10th and 12th quartets Friday, December 6 at Eugene’s Tsunami Books and Saturday, December 7 at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall, and any fan of Oregon music, classical music and especially Oregon classical music should be there.

It’s no surprise that the Oregon Symphony is pairing Russian film composer Sergei Prokofiev with Brooklyn-based songwriter Gabriel Kahane on this weekend’s concerts: the latter composer, whom OSO recently hired as Creative Chair, has often cited the former as an influence on his deceptively poppy art songs. His emergency shelter intake form for vocal trio and orchestra stunned Portland audiences last year, and the OSO welcomes him to his new position with performances of his Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from The Book of Travellers and “Empire Liquor Mart” from The Ambassador.

Even without Kahane, this would be a lovely concert: this orchestra is especially adept at tackling the emotional complexity of Russian composers from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich (this is why I want them to play more Elfman), and they’re sure to deliver more of the same with Prokofiev’s hearty Fifth Symphony–the majestic apex of the mercurial composer’s cinematic radiance.

Local opera miniaturization specialists Opera To Go are doing their thing with a 50-minute version of La bohème on two Saturdays this month: 1-2 p.m. on the 7th and 14th pm at Hampton Opera Center. The production is “designed specifically for 7th through 12th grades,” so this might make a good complement for older kids who’ve already seen The Nutcracker a few years running.

This week, continued: purple cellos, zepparella, and fourth-wave feminism

Madame Gandhi, performing this Thursday at Doug Fir Lounge, describes herself as an “electrofeminist singer, percussionist and activist.” There’s really no way words can do justice to the way she enacts that intersection in her performances. Thank gods the internet is here to help:

Then on Friday night, just across the Burnside Bridge at Dante’s, Californian Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella comes to the land of the ice and snow to play with Portland metal weirdos Devilbots. Across the river again, on Sunday at Revolution Hall you can hear a different kind of tribute band: Purple Reign, Portland Cello Project’s homage to the music of Prince.

The show features PCP’s usual complement of cellos and rhythm section, plus guests Saeeda Wright and Tyrone Hendrix. Saturday’s performance is already sold out, but you can still hop on the Sunday treign.

Before we get into the rest of the first half of the month, Mr. Campbell has a couple of concerts in Eugene to tell you about:

Oregon Mozart Players’ annual Baroque Candlelight Concert has long been of Eugene’s most enchanting holiday traditions. This year’s edition Friday and Saturday at First Christian Church features a pair of sparkling Vivaldi concertos (including a spectacular one for dueling trumpets), plus an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s famous keyboard classic, the Goldberg Variations, for strings, and more.

At Byrdsong Consort’s free show at Eugene Public Library at 6 pm Saturday features a very different flavor of Baroque music by Music by less well known (but still compelling) composers William Brade, John Playford, Turlough O’Carolan and others, plus traditional carols, all performed on period instruments (harpsichord, viols, recorder, violin, flute, voice) by historically informed musicians.

Jass and other popular musicks

Next week, Creative Music Guild brings guitarist-composer Ava Mendoza to town for two shows. On the 10th, she performs with local guitar icon Mike Gamble’s trio at No Fun on Southeast Hawthorne. On the 11th, up at Turn Turn Turn on North Killingsworth, Mendoza performs a solo set. Idaho synthwaver trio Magic Sword does two nights at Doug Fir on the 11th and 13th, and local Chicha surf band Grupo Masato turns up their reverby guitars at Goodfoot on the 19th.

As always, it’s the saxophones that have us most excited this month. Local progfunk outfit Mars Retrieval Unit returns to Goodfoot on Thursday the 12th, and if you missed Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra in Vancouver you can catch the retro big band at the Village Ballroom in Northeast Portland on the 20th. And right near the end of the month, on the 27th, psychedelic cumbia big band Orquestra Pacifico Tropical headlines Mississippi Studios.

But it’s thoughts of Moon Hooch that are keeping us warm this December. The busking Brooklyn trio has spent the last half-decade evolving nicely, expanding on their original stripped down core of low saxes and funky drums to include vocals and electronics without ever losing their glitchy dancehall sax nerd edge. We’ve been following them for years now, having first heard them open for fellow Brooklynites They Might Be Giants in 2013, and every new album has brought new revelations from the inquisitive virtuosi.

Their last Portland appearance, a shreddy shindig at Wonder Ballroom this March, showed a restless band that never tires of getting better (this concert also introduced us to local bizarro kult Kulululu). Moon Hooch returns to Portland this month for two shows at Doug Fir, sharing the stage with two other characteristically weird Portland bands. Saturday’s your only chance to hear !mindparade, whose psychpoppy charms first enchanted us at–you guessed it–a Kulululu show at Doug Fir. And on both nights you’ll get polyrhythmic rock from Human Ottoman, who has the audacity to be comprised of electric vibraphone, cello, bass, and “drum solos that scholars are still struggling to understand.” You’ve got two chances to witness this screwy spectacle for yourself dear reader–don’t miss out.

On the 22nd, the present author will get to enjoy a different new discovery: erstwhile Portlander Hailey Niswanger has lived in Brooklyn herself these last few years, and we’ve always regretted missing out on the saxophonist-composer when she lived in town. Lucky for us, Niswanger still brings her sax and her flute and her band back to Portland every now and then. Her electrojazz sextet MAE.SUN plays Doug Fir on the 22nd, celebrating the release of their latest EP, Vol. 2: Into The Flow.

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