MusicWatch Weekly: Streams & tributaries

Electronica, Celtica, Symphonica, Jazz, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Last week, when we started talking about “living traditions,” we found that problematizing “world music” opened up the possibility that all genres are a form of tradition–a vast world of traditions within traditions, interacting with each other, ever-evolving, world without end, amen. We’ll be getting into all that in due course. For now, dear reader, we have more homework for you: another week’s worth of concerts, all geared toward your tradition-loving enjoyment and edification.

We’ll start with Japanese composer Takako Minekawa, who doesn’t make “world music.”

Minekawa is performing twice in Portland this week. She works in what we might call the Krautrock tradition: she’s spent the last thirty-odd years crafting vintage synth-laden pop music inspired by the legendary ‘70s Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra and the Robots of Düsseldorf Themselves. Minekawa performs a solo set Thursday (tonight!) at tone poem in Southeast Portland, so grab your bus pass and get moving. The next evening, she’s at the charming Leaven Community Center on Northeast Killingsworth for a quadraphonic concert presented in conjunction with Portland Community College’s Music & Sonic Arts Program.

Let’s circle back to “quadraphonic.” Music audio systems generally come in three varieties: the old-fashioned mono (one speaker channel), reigning champion stereo (left and right), and newishfangled quadraphonic (four channels). It’s one of those things you just have to experience live, and this concert gives you a chance to hear four masters at work on a “multi channel quad performance.” Minekawa joins Francisco Botello, Visible Cloaks, and Carl Stone (a student of Morton Subotnick, which is all you need to know).

Two big name duos working in adjacent traditions play Portland tonight and tomorrow. We’ll start with banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, performing at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland tonight. These virtuosi have built careers (separately and together) playing what could be broadly called “experimental Americana.” The “experimental” part of that equation is simple enough: they keep their tradition alive by pushing its compositional boundaries in progressive directions, and by infusing it with flavors from other traditions (most notably jazz and Bach; Fleck and Washburn have also done a lot of work with Indian and Chinese traditions, respectively).

It’s the “Americana” part we want to talk about. It’s not really that hard to define what we mean by “Americana”: most of the time, we mean Appalachian and other traditions of the American South, derived primarily from Irish and Scottish folk music (with massive amounts of uncredited influence coming from African musicians who were still regarded as property–and of course the banjo itself is even an African instrument).

That broad tradition is certainly what we mean when we say that Fleck and Washburn play experimental Americana. We could leave it there, really, because we all know what it means, and regardless of how you label it this concert is going to be spectacular.

But you see the problem: why should one particular American musical tradition be called “Americana” while others are labeled “Gospel” or “Native American” or “Chicano” and so on? At the very least, “Appalachian” would seem better. But the answer to our question lies in the adjacent tradition I mentioned above.

Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Canadian cellist Natalie Haas are performing thrice in Oregon this week: Thursday (tonight!) at Hood River’s Columbia Center for the Arts, Friday at Northeast Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, and Saturday at the Whiteside Theater in Corvallis. Fraser and Haas both work in the Celtic musical traditions that fed into the American traditions Fleck and Washburn are keeping alive with their experimentalism; naturally these musicians’ paths have all crossed (via two of the great Americana synthesists, Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer).

And that brings to our question: should we start calling these Celtic-American traditions? Or Appalachian traditions? Or should we just leave it alone? Here’s where we arrive at your homework, dear reader: go listen and decide for yourself!

Staying alive

Composer Terry Riley is mostly associated with two traditions: the classical minimalism he helped create in the ‘60s, and the Hindustani classical tradition he studied under Pandit Pran Nath. It’s maybe a little funny, then, that his performance with his son Gyan at Winningstad Theatre on Friday night is part of the 2020 Biamp PDX Jazz Festival–except that jazz has always been the most forgiving of traditions, with an eagerness to embrace anything that swings (and, sometimes, plenty that doesn’t). It’s an inherently syncretic tradition, which is incidentally one of the reasons it’s the best candidate for the term “Americana.” (But of course jazz already has a name it likes: “jazz”).

The entire PDX Jazz lineup exudes this plurality, from Antibalas to Zenón, and it’s all happening right now. Word is the Rileys concert is nearly sold out–don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Local Indian performing arts society Kalakendra normally produces formal concerts, chamber performances by local and touring musicians working in Indian musical traditions. This Saturday, they’re putting on a benefit show at Lake Oswego High School: Nrityotsava 2020, featuring music and dance performed by local musicians and students. Meanwhile, over at McMenamins White Eagle, Monday night’s monthly Global Folk Club get-together showcases “international folk” with various singer-songwriters, an English Pub-style singalong, and local sea-shanty duo Shanghaied on the Willamette.

Possibly you’re already mourning the recent passing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala; if so, you probably already have plans to celebrate his life at LBM’s concert at Aladdin Theater on Tuesday. If not, what are you waiting for? This is one of those traditions which, like all choral traditions, is best experienced live. You probably heard these guys for the first time on an old cassette copy of Imbongi (or maybe that was just me), but when you hear Shabalala’s sons and the next generation of LBM fill the Aladdin with their voices, I think you’re going to thank me.

If that sells out and you’ve already hired a babysitter for Tuesday, consider moving your party up to Mississippi Studios for the Mysti Kreme of Nimbus Mardi Gras Party. These folks are some of Portland’s favorite transplants: they brought their lovely Louisiana traditions with them in 2010 and haven’t stopped partying since.

Classical traditions

There are three main Old World tributary traditions feeding into our own syncretic New World classical tradition: the European opera and art song tradition, the Russian symphonic tradition, and the Viennese symphonic tradition. Add the whole Broadway/jazz connection and the other “Americana” strains we mentioned above, and you’ve got the basic American Symphonic Tradition. We’ll dig into that further when we talk about MYS, PYP, and PCSO, who have all made a laudable habit of performing works by American composers. Your homework this weekend is to pick one or more of those Old World traditions and fill your ears with them.

Representing the “opera and art song” stream, we have two late-wintry events for you. This Saturday at Cedar Hills United Church of Christ, Portland State professors Harry Baechtel and Chuck Dillard reprise their striking interpretation of Schubert’s masterful German-language song cycle Winterreise. Baritone Baechtel and pianist Dillard have a long-standing love for this work, in all its sappy traditional glory, and are known for their sensitive and endearingly faithful interpretation of Schubert’s music. What makes this show especially compelling is the black-and-white photography by local artist So-Min Kang, a sequence of images which–in conjunction with the English subtitles–provide the song cycle an extra layer of dramatic and narrative heft.

You could also approach this tradition from the other side with another PSU singer-professor, Carl Halvorson, at Tuesday afternoon’s Opera Appreciation: The Birth of the Baroque lecture in Lincoln Hall. Halvorson’s free lecture will trace the early history of opera from the Florentine Camerata through Vivaldi, whose Bajazet comes to Portland Opera next month.

Oregon Symphony’s weekend of concerts features a pair of mid-century compositions: an American violin concerto and a Russian symphony. Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak performs Gian Carlo Menotti’s lush, lyrical Concerto for Violin. The Italian-American composer is mostly known for his operas (one of which you’re missing right now), and when opera composers venture out into other media the result is almost always a peanut-butter-and-chocolate meld of complementary traditions. No doubt Kwak, quite likely the best violinist living in Portland, will do an admirable job with this semi-forgotten slice of symphonic Americana.

Representing the Russian tradition, then: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905,” which remains one of his most popular, with its epic cinematic glow and revolutionary folk songs (just to name two of the relevant Russian musical traditions). This is an orchestra that loves its Russians and really knows its way around Shostakovich’s emotionally complex soundworld, playing at least one of his moody works to perfection every season.

Here’s looking at Eugene

Senior Editor Brett Campbell still keeps a weather eye on the Eugene beat, and this week he sends word of several classical shows happening in the Emerald City.

Two of Eugene’s own best composers are teaming up for the Cascadia Composers concert “Hair Reed Hammer,” featuring their 21st century music this Saturday night at Unity of the Valley Church. Like many Northwest composers, Paul Safar is often inspired by nature, which you’ll hear in his swampy saxophone quartet Frogs at Dusk, stimulated by amphibious sounds he heard in the Mount Shasta wilderness. Emerald City Saxos, comprising some of the UO’s hottest young saxophonists, all students of saxoprof Idit Shner, will play it.

Eugene’s own ace Delgani String Quartet will perform another four-piece composition, Safar’s jazzy Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue, which also stars Safar’s partner, chanteuse Nancy Wood and sets her own poetry. Safar, a superbly sensitive and expressive pianist, will play Three Bird Intermezzi, each inspired by 20th century composers (Olivier Messiaen, Sergei Prokofiev, György Ligeti) and Northwest avians.

Daniel Heila’s music, while enriched by his own classical composition training at the University of Oregon, also draws on a quite different tradition: American roots music, a combo we’re seeing more of recently in (very different) music by Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly and other contemporary composers. Along with his contemporary classical compositions (often on flute), Heila has also played singer-guitarist-songwriter club gigs featuring classic and original folk tunes in the American roots tradition.

Those two streams, classical and folk, converge in his two new quartets (performed by Delgani and Saxos, respectively): Crooked River, Strings and Branches at the Window, Saxophones, which he describes as “based on American old-timey style fiddle tunes that I plucked out on a dime-store mandolin I bought at a consignment shop.” These compositions aim to “explode the tunes, stretch them out over time, spread out their fibers, discover their inner secrets,” Heila’s program note explains. Pianist Matthew Pavilanis will also play Heila’s Eleven Nights, inspired by a tune from the English folk song tradition of the Southern Appalachians called “The Elvin Knight.”

At the University of Oregon’s Aasen-Hull Hall on Feb. 23, more contemporary classical music emerges from the hands, or rather gloves, of Laetitia Sonami, the French-Californian electronic composer performer best known for her elbow-length “lady’s glove,” whose sensor array tracks the slightest motion of her hand and body and generates sounds accordingly.

For centuries, pervasive societal sexism prevented most women from forging musical careers. But some women were occasionally able to carve out their own creative spaces. In late 16th century Italy, music fans flocked to Ferrara to hear the famed Consort of Ladies sing florid, expressive music —with plenty of improvisation — by leading late Renaissance composers and recite poetry. This Sunday afternoon at Eugene’s United Lutheran Church, a trio of early vocal music experts from Oregon Bach Collegium sing lush sounds of Ferrara’s Three Sopranos, accompanied by harpsichordist Margret Gries and lutenist Anson Brown.

Eugene Concert Choir and friends celebrate Beethoven’s quarter-millennial birthday Sunday afternoon at Eugene’s Hult Center with a refreshingly atypical smorgasbord of the grumpy genius’s masterworks: selections from his only opera Fidelio, and only oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, plus his splendid Choral Fantasy and, OK, one certified Greatest Hit: the “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony. The choir also sings a new but related work by one of today’s hottest young choral composers: Jake Runestad’s A Silence Haunts Me, a modern poetic setting of Ludwig Van’s letter to his brothers, despairing over his encroaching deafness.

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