MusicWatch Weekly: a river runs through it

New music inspired by the Columbia River, Chekhov stories, homelessness, and other sources highlight this week's Oregon concerts

The biggest reasons many of us live here ultimately trace back to the rivers that course through this beautiful land. Much of Oregon’s prosperity stems from our proximity to the Columbia River and its watershed, so it’s appropriate for our artists to draw inspiration from the big river — and from the indigenous Oregonians who have so long strived to protect it. Cascadia Composers’ “Our Waters: Big River to the Pacific” concert Saturday at Portland State’s Native American Student and Community Center, 710 SW Jackson St., features works for chamber instruments and voice by Northwest composers Jack Gabel, Theresa Koon, Brent Lawrence, Liz Nedela, Dawn Sonntag and Jennifer Wright that honor the history and culture of the Columbia River watershed. The multifaceted show also includes performances by Native storytellers Ed Edmo and Will Hornyak and visual art by Bonnie Meltzer.

Another new music concert at Portland State Tuesday (Lincoln Hall Studio Theater, LH115) and the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall Monday returns to a theme that’s popped up in other recent contemporary classical shows: mixing music and theater. New York’s Elsewhere Ensemble, a theater-music group whose members hail from the USA, UK, France, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland, Japan and beyond, sports a recent Oregon arrival: newly appointed UO viola prof Arnaud Ghillebaert, who joins the distinguished ranks of Oregon new music violists that includes Kenji Bunch, Joel Belgique, Charles Noble, Sound of Late’s Andrew Stiefel and more. Various configurations converge on different projects. Chekhov Triptych, which revolves around three stories by the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, features award winning Broadway actors and a new original score for string trio composed by the ensemble’s violinist, Colin Pip Dixon.

Elsewhere Ensemble performs new music with Chekov stories Monday and Tuesday in Portland and Eugene. Photo: A. Blasberg.

Another recurring theme in recent Oregon music: tango. Not only did Eugene Opera just stage Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 tango operita, Maria de Buenos Aires, but on Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church, two of Argentina’s finest tango masters, Pablo Estigarribia & Adrian Jost join a pair of Portland tango veterans in a concert that celebrates both traditional and new tango music. Pianist Estigarribia has won awards for his performances, arrangements, and original tango compositions. Jost, who co-founded San Francisco’s Trio Garufa tango band, plays the traditional tango instrument, the bandoneón button accordion. Along with Oregon Symphony bassist Jeff Johnson and violinist Erin Furbee of Portland’s Tango Pacifico, they’ll play traditional tangos, nuevo tangos by Piazzolla, and originals. And with Portland State faculty violinist Tomas Cotik, a Piazzolla specialist, ensconced here, look for more tango treats soon.

Pablo Estigarribia and Adrian Jost perform Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.

A recurring theme I’m happy to see suspended: bring to Oregon a Famous Soloist, even one who performs or commissions new music — and assign them an over-played European Romantic perennial that they could (and sometimes seem to) play in their sleep, so often have they performed it. Thankfully that’s not the case, for once, when the great American violinist Joshua Bell & Oregon Symphony team up this weekend at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on one of 20th century America’s most delightful concertos: Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade. Inspired by, of all things, Plato’s Symposium, the violin concerto’s five movements evoke the different moods and personalities involved in each dialogue, but it’s far from academic — joyous, playful, boisterous and even inebriated.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

Even better: the show sports the world premiere of emergency shelter intake form, commissioned by the symphony from New York’s Gabriel Kahane, one of the most appealing of the rising generation of 30-something composers. It’s the final installment of the symphony’s Sounds of Home series that purports to respond to current issues here and now. In this case, the issue is homelessness, and Kahane drew on interviews with people who’d endured it. He’ll join Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, Portland singers Holcombe Waller and Holland Andrews (a/k/a Like a Villain) and Portland’s Maybelle Community Singers in the OSO performance. It’ll be played at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival in July, too.

There’s also a bit of new music on the Oregon Mozart Players Saturday concert at Beall: Chinese American composer Zhou Tian’s aptly named Joy, an exuberant short work that embodies youthful energy. The program also features Mozart’s ebullient Symphony #38, and the winners of the orchestra’s Young Soloist Competition in classics by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

Dawn Weiss performs with Portland Wind Symphony Monday at Portland State.

Speaking of star soloists, former Oregon Symphony principal flutist Dawn Weiss stars with Portland Wind Symphony in 20th century Georgian composer Otar Gordeli’s bubbly Concerto for Flute, which sounds like a confection of Gershwin and Poulenc, with maybe a dash of Khachaturian. The Monday night concert at PSU’s Lincoln Hall also features a new work: Patrick Lenz’s brash 2016 Pillar of Fire, 20th century American composer Howard Hanson’s famous “Romantic” Symphony, and arrangements of music by Charles Ives, Richard Strauss, and Edwin Goldman.

ParaTheatrical ReSearch PDX’s Fallen Monsters “intermedia performance ritual” this weekend features new music by Sylvi Alli, setting some of William Blake’s immortal Songs of Innocence and Experience. And there’s live new music at PDX Contemporary Ballet’s Friday-Sunday performances at N.E.W. Expressive Works, courtesy of Northwest Piano Trio, which along with the dance company co-commissioned and will perform Grammy-nominated composer/singer Clarice Assad’s new Iara.The program also contains one of Kenji Bunch’s coolest creations, Swing Shift. While she’s in Oregon, You can also meet Assad at a benefit Thursday at N.E.W., or catch her performing live with her famous guitarist dad Sergio next Saturday at Eugene’s The Shedd, which we’ll tell you more about next time.


Still another recurring theme on opera stages is music by Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas are staged and re-staged ad infinitum yet somehow manage to still pack ’em in. So maybe it’s no surprise that two Verdi operas are happening in our region this week. Read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch review of Seattle Opera’s Aida and a mini-review of Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, whose run ends this weekend. ArtsWatch’s Bruce Browne will have a full review next week.

Finally, if you’re interested in folk music, one of the great American folk legends, Eric Andersen, performs Friday night at Portland’s Old Church with percussionist Cheryl Prashker. Emerging from the fertile early ’60s Greenwich Village scene that spawned Bob Dylan, Dave van Ronk, Tom Paxton and the rest, Andersen went on to collaborate with fellow songwriters from Bob Weir to Townes Van Zandt to Lou Reed. His own songs have been covered by performers from Judy Collins to  Fairport Convention, Linda Ronstadt, The Grateful Dead and current singers like Gillian Welch and Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and he continues to bring them to audiences around the world.

Got more Oregon musical recommendations? Sock ‘em to us in the comments section below.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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