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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations


J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

Improvisation is part of a long tradition stretching back to humanity’s beginnings. Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Bach, among uncounted other classical composers, were renowned improvisers. You can hear one of today’s finest organists, Paul Jacobs, probably doing a bit of improv when he goes all-Bach at an OBF organ recital Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church Friday. The festival’s Berwick Academy’s Monday show at the UO’s Beall Hall features one of Mozart’s delightful Serenades, his dark, dramatic penultimate symphony, and more.

Anton Armstrong leads the Oregon Bach Festival’s Youth Choral Academy. Photo: Flight Creative Media.

Every other year, the festival’s Composers Symposium features new music by emerging composers as well as a distinguished composer in residence. This year it’s Martin Bresnick, whose wife, Lisa Moore, one of the finest pianists in the world, plays his music Saturday, while a distinguished quartet of Oregon-based musicians (FearNoMusic cellist Nancy Ives, her fellow Oregon Symphony bandmate James Shields on clarinet, UO flute virtuosa Molly Barth, in one of her last shows before departing for Tennessee) and violinist David Felberg) play new chamber music July 4-6. The Symposium’s late-night Wild Nights cafe series (running through Sunday) gives musicians the chance to improvise, and there’s much more listed at its website. All shows happen at the UO’s Aasen-Hull Hall.

Rodney Marsalis leads Philadelphia Big Brass at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Also on Saturday, Rodney Marsalis’s Philadelphia Big Brass turns the horns loose on Bach as well as music by Sousa, Bernstein, Handel, Elvis, Fats Waller, and more. Celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, the festival’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy sings the great American composer/conductor’s ebullient Chichester Psalms on Tuesday at First United Methodist Church, along with music by Kurt Weill, Bach and more. They’re also doing a free noon show at the Hult on Saturday.

Remember too that the festival also offers a wealth of free events, including informative talks about much of the music being performed this summer. Check the festival website.

As noted in David Bates’s ArtsWatch preview, the new Aquilon Music Festival continues in McMinnville, with Saturday’s faculty recital and Tuesday’s song recital. Hannah Penn and Hideki Yamaha’s Aquilon show is sold out, but you can hear the riveting mezzo soprano (a Portland Opera veteran) and Musica Maestrale master theorbist and baroque guitarist perform lustrous music from 17th century Italy, written by one of the first well-known Western female composers, Barbara Strozzi, Sunday afternoon at Portland’s First Christian Church, 1314 Park Ave. Speaking of David, check his guide to summer musical happenings in Yamhill County.

And of course, Portland’s annual blast of the blues, Waterfront Blues Festival, rolls on from Wednesday through Saturday at Waterfront Park. The Mavericks, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Dirty Revival, and so many more blues, roots, zydeco, rock, and other acts make it one of the summer’s musical highlights. Stay tuned for Joe Cantrell’s photo essays documenting this year’s bash.

What other live sounds are you tuning into on Oregon stages this week? Let our readers know in the comments section below.

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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.