MusicWatch Weekly: American landscapes

October's Oregon music schedule gets off to a Big Bang, explores American natural wonders, and welcomes a Chinese music master among other highlights

Composers from around the country are commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by writing new music inspired by American landscapes. Like so many of the rest of us here in the Northwest, members of Cascadia Composers spend lots of time enjoying our wilderness areas, but they also draw creative inspiration from it. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., includes world premieres of new works for small chamber ensembles, composed in direct response to the places protected by these landmark laws.

Part of a nationwide series of concerts, the show includes compositions by Oregonians Brent Lawrence, Christina Rusnak, and Linda Woody inspired by Oregon’s Owyhee and Deschutes Rivers, and the people and landscape of the Oregon Historical Trail, along with music by non-Oregonians inspired by Georgia’s Chattooga River, the North Country Trail (stretching from North Dakota to Vermont), Arizona and California’s Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, and a wildfire ravaged area along a Klamath River tributary.

• Portland chamber music organization 45th Parallel Universe opens its tenth season with a Big Bang, a new leader (former Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger is interim executive director), new ensembles, and a new, but not exclusive, emphasis on contemporary music. Friday’s show at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St., features no fewer than four new ensembles. Helios Camerata, its new conductor-less chamber orchestra, plays music by Britten, Haydn, Rossini, and contemporary composer Jimmy Lopez. Arcturus Quintet wind ensemble plays a quintet by 20th century American composer Elliott Carter. Gemini Project plays a percussion duo by Robert Marino. And Pyxis String Quartet (the former Third Angle String Quartet) plays a movement from a quartet by leading American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Matthew Andrews has a full preview tomorrow.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen, performs this weekend solo and with Oregon Mozart Players.

• There’s also new music on Olga Kern’s Saturday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. The dynamic Russian-American pianist soared to international acclaim after winning top prize at the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and has impressed audiences in her Portland appearances since then. Programmed by founder Harold Gray, temporarily back in charge after the departure of Portland Piano International’s most recent artistic director, the first of her October recitals features some of the usual pianistic suspects — Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Scriabin — but also a rare and most welcome PPI world premiere: James Lee III’s Window to Eternity’s Threshold.

• Another Oregon music institution not hitherto best known for new music opens its season with a concert dominated by it. Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert at the University’s of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall sports an ideal blend of classic (Haydn’s tempestuous 64th symphony) and contemporary sounds. Kevin Lau’s pounding, bounding Artemis is a musical portrait of the Greek goddess of the hunt. Daniel Schnyder’s jazzy, dramatic Concerto for Pipa expertly mixes a quintessentially Asian instrument with a Western orchestra. Zhou Tian’s upbeat Viaje (Voyage), featuring the brief return from her new Nashville home of longtime University of Oregon prof Molly Barth, one of the world’s finest flutists, reflects the Chinese-American composer’s travels in Spain. While our century’s cross-cultural interactions terrify insular souls into supporting racists and nationalists, they inspire artists to broaden their horizons and open creative new worlds to audiences.

• The two pipa pieces star Min Xiao-Fen, the Jimi Hendrix of the banjo-like Chinese lute. The next afternoon, she returns to Beall for a solo performance in the UO’s fascinating World Music Series. One of the most charismatic musicians I’ve ever seen (in an explosive, furious 2013 Third Angle performance at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden), she grew up in musical Nanjing family, hearing, playing and singing both Chinese and Western classical music, then joined a traditional music orchestra, and fronted a pop band (sax, electric guitar, drums) in Chinese clubs. Shortly after moving to New York in 1996 — one of those dangerous immigrants!— she was improvising and recording with avant-jazzers John Zorn, the late Randy Weston and Derek Bailey. In solo performances, with her Blue Pipa trio, and with orchestras around the country, Min’s gone on to play music by American jazz legends, by Chinese American composers like Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long and Tan Dun, even Appalachian standards and Gershwin.

• It’s not just immigrants who contribute to America. Another apparently unwelcome by our rulers, too, have created enduring music while visiting here. Chamber Music Northwest opens its fall season Friday at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall with its 2018-19 Artists-in-Residence, the Dover Quartet, playing a splendid concert of American music not written by Americans, led by Dvořák’s ever-popular “American” quartet, along with string quartets by English visitor Benjamin Britten and Béla Bartók’s 1927 third quartet.

Chamber Music Northwest brings back the Dover Quartet.

• For years, J.S. Bach earned much of his living (and that of his bountiful brood) by writing more than 200 cantatas, stories set to music for voices and instruments. You tend to hear those featuring choirs in choral concerts, but his gorgeous cantatas for a single voice and instruments are rarer recital fare, making The Ensemble’s Sunday concert at Portland’s First Christian Church even more valuable than usual — especially when those voices belong to three of Oregon’s very finest singers, sopranos Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers and alto Laura Beckel Thoreson.

• Speaking of fab female musicians, in this moment of women fighting unfair obstacles on every front, it’s a special treat to see this year’s Oregon Coast Jazz Party devoted to female composers and improvisers. From Friday-Sunday at Newport Performing Arts Center, you can hear superb players like violinist Regina Carter, pianist/composer Helen Sung, Portland pianist Kerry Politzer, and other jazz masters from Oregon and beyond.

• Gary Ferrington’s streaming pick of the week: Portland State University’s free and open to the public Noon Concert Series Thursday features “World Flutes & Low Flutes, Drums & Strings,” performed in PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall and viewed by live stream on PSU’s Facebook page.

• We started off with nature music, so let’s finish the same way. Check out last spring’s concert of nature-inspired music by composers from Oregon and beyond, performed by Oregon Symphony musicians, who’ll also be joining the rest of the band this weekend to play Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Star Trek Beyond along with the movie. Stay tuned for more on the show from ArtsWatch’s Matthew Andrews.

Let our readers know about other highlights of this week’s Oregon musical landscape in the comments section below.

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