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MusicWatch Weekly: odd ensembles


The weather’s changing, the climate’s changing, the Congress is changing, our linens are changing (flannel sheet season FTW!) and ensembles coming through Oregon this week are changing the formula for chamber music.

• Take the combo of violin, viola, drum, and DJ. That was the setup onstage at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last year when Black Violin played a couple of shows in Portland. They’re returning there Friday, and then take the Silva Hall stage at Eugene’s Hult Center Sunday. Stay tuned for my preview tomorrow, and during the meanwhilst, read ArtsWatch’s reviews of their previous Portland shows by Matthew Andrews and Maria Choban.

The Akropolis Reed Quintet performs in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series. Photo: Tom Emerson.

• Like Black Violin, the young Akropolis Reed Quintet is also shattering instrumental stereotypes. While string quartets and piano trios are by far the most common instruments are stereotypically “classical” ensembles, they play classic and contemporary music arranged for the unique combo of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon — and it works beautifully. “Akropolis is great at balancing expressive lead playing with clear, richly textured, well-rehearsed group dynamics,” wrote Matthew Andrews in ArtsWatch after their sizzling performances at Chamber Music Northwest last year. In their Sunday afternoon concert in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music at Beall series, Akropolis plays an all-American music program of arrangements for of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, contemporary compositions by Gregory Wanamaker and John Steinmetz (a name familiar to Oregon Bach Festival audiences), and 20th century classics by Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives.

• Another windy ensemble returns to Portland’s Newmark Theatre Monday when the ever-popular Canadian Brass play their usual mix of classical, pop and other sounds on tuba, trombone, horns, and trumpets.

• Still another unusual classical ensemble joins the Eugene Symphony this Thursday. The four-time Grammy winning Chicago sextet (piano, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, violin/viola) returns with a concerto written especially for them by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize winning American composer who’s probably the closest successor to Aaron Copland. As she showed in her appearance with the ESO and Marin Alsop years ago, Higdon is one of the country’s most engaging exponents of contemporary classical music, writing accessible yet inventive music and reaching out to audiences with equal generosity. Read Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch interview with Higdon.

The rest of the orchestra’s splendid program includes one of Bach’s ever popular Brandenburg Concertos, some danceable Mozart, and Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy 1944 ballet score Fancy Free, which dazzlingly evokes midcentury New York’s cosmopolitan culture via a musical depiction of a story of three sailors on shore leave seeking romance (which Bernstein immediately revisited, sort of, in On the Town). Both Akropolis and eighth blackbird are also doing multiple community outreach and education events while they’re here.

• Last year, the ESO played another fine recent work by another top American composer (and another Alsop favorite), Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway. This Friday (at Portland’s First United Methodist Church) and Saturday (at Troutdale’s Reynolds Performing Arts Center), Portland Columbia Symphony orchestra plays the dramatic 2015 cello concerto, which won three Grammy Awards last year. Each movement evokes episodes from the author’s stories. A WWI vet heals himself through immersion in a Michigan wilderness; an American on a suicide mission to help the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War (including a tolling bell); an old fisherman struggles against wild natural forces. In the Spanish-inflected final movement, a disillusioned, Lost Generation bohemian American expat seeks inspiration from bullfighting and the famous running of the bulls. Rising star cello soloist Allison Eldredge recently won a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant, and was named by Musical America as Young Artist of the Year. The program also includes three other literary-inspired works by Erich Korngold and a Mozart overture.

• The Oregon Symphony plays it pretty straight this weekend with Ingrid Fliter soloing in Beethoven’s mighty final piano concerto and Bruckner’s Wagnerian seventh symphony, Friday at Salem’s Willamette University and Saturday-Monday at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Vocal Variables

• The week’s unusual ensembles include singers too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Calmus’s particular lineup of voices — soprano, countertenor, tenor, baritone, bass — anywhere else. The German vocal quintet may lack mezzos and altos, but they can reach a wider range of both pitches and repertoire that most others. And although Friends of Chamber Music regularly presents vocal groups like Chanticleer, it’s still a bit of a departure from their usual string quartets and piano trios. Calmus’s fascinating Sunday program at Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church is also unusual for a “classical” concert: folk songs from 17 countries (including Ireland, England, Scandinavia, Russia, Taiwan, South Africa, Ecuador and beyond) ranging from traditional settings to new arrangements made specially for these virtuosic vocalists.

• Another guest European vocal quintet joins Portland Baroque Orchestra — making another odd combo, like Eugene Symphony’s, of ensemble and orchestra — for this weekend’s An Empire Of Silver & Gold at First Baptist Church (1110 SW Taylor St.) Friday and Saturday, and Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium (3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.) Sunday afternoon. There’s also a one hour family friendly version Saturday afternoon. As often happens with PBO, the instruments are odd, too, or at least archaic by modern standards: two guitars, dulcian, violins, cello, cornetto, harp, and percussion. But no less beautiful. And the repertoire is most happily unusual even for PBO. Guest director Daniel Zuluaga found it in the archives of Latin American cathedrals. The baroque era transcended Germany, Italy, even Europe itself, and it’s a rare treat to hear this seldom performed music from the 17th and 18th centuries left by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.

• Folk songs also spice Satori Men’s Chorus’s Saturday concert at Portland’s Central Lutheran Church. Along with “Down By the Riverside,” “The Drunken Sailor” and other traditional music, the concert includes two pieces written by Portland composers for the group: Judy Rose’s Kyrie and Ken Skach-Mills’s Satori. Their silver anniversary concert includes the choir’s characteristic warm-hearted mix music from various genres.

• Another all male chorus, the 100-member Vienna Boys Choir, sings a mix of secular, sacred, folk and pop songs Friday at Bend’s Tower Theater and Saturday at Corvallis’s First United Methodist Church.

• And as we noted last week, BRAVO Youth Orchestras perform original music and screens a documentary at Portland’s Old Church Wednesday night in its “Breaking the Cage” event, featuring collaboratively created music about the experience of immigration.

BREAK THE CAGE – Collective Composition at BRAVO from Seth Truby on Vimeo.

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Jazz & More

• Bay Area composer/ multi-instrumentalist Steven Lugerner leads a standard post-bop ensemble, but for his new, other group SLUGgish Ensemble, which plays Portland’s Turn Turn Turn Wednesday night, he exchanged his usual alto sax for lower range instruments (clarinet, baritone saxophone, clarinet, flutes) and added trombone, trumpet, cello, vibes, guitar and tenor sax and more — a total of nine other musicians on SLUGgish Ensemble’s colorful new album An Eight out of Nine. The much broader musical palette produced intriguingly varied compositions often loosely based on distant memories of favorite songs.

• Portland pianist/composer Darrell Grant debuts a new duo with singer Holly Pyle Friday at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater, 1515 SW Morrison St. They’ll perform music by Blossom Dearie, Charles Mingus, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jobim, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and more, preceded by a separately ticketed workshop on collaborative creation.

• Speaking of once-lost, newly rediscovered music, as we were with PBO, this Friday’s Albina Soul Revue at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre (3000 NE Alberta St.) features underrepresented musicians of color once active in the Albina area of North & Northeast Portland performing original funk and soul music from the 1970s. Longtime Portlanders will recognize vintage stars like Shirley Nanette, Gregg Smith, Tony Ozier, and the Legendary Beyons, all of whom have performed with local, regional and even national stars. They’re also releasing a never-issued album of lost Portland souls music from that peak era. Big shout out to Albina Music Trust’s Bobby Smith for preserving this local legacy.

Live Streams

Gary Ferrington already told us all about the live music and dance performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story. Here’s his weekly round up of live streamed music for your home listening.

Live from Beall Concert Hall: UO Campus Band at 7:30pm (PST), Wednesday, November 14.

PSU Noon Concert Series: Deal with the Devil at noon (PST) Thursday, November 15. Leading American composer Neal Rolnick, Jennifer Choi and new music piano star (and Portland native) Kathleen Supové perform live electronic music.

Live From Beall Concert Hall: Piano duo Lin Hengyue and Wang Ji at 7:30pm (PST) Monday, November 19, perform a program of classical and non-traditional pieces for piano.

Live From Beall Concert Hall: University of Oregon Symphony at 7:30pm (PST), Tuesday, November 20.

Student Composition Recital: The Lewis & Clark Department of Music presents a recital of new music composed by students in the department’s composition program on Friday, November 30, 2018 at 7:30pm (PST).

Let us all know about your other recommended musical events, unusual or otherwise, in the comments section below.

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

Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for 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, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.