There are a handful of things that make a city’s musical culture feel complete. You need several symphony orchestras and large choirs, and they all have to be pretty damn good. You also need several smaller choral and instrumental ensembles overlapping with and supplementing the larger bands; ideally, these smaller units will be a little more adventurous, and probably a lot more stylish.
You need an ecosystem of local and touring bands across the various spectra of genre and heft, not just the big names and your friend’s solo noise-pop project but a solid middle-register balance of lesser-known but high-quality musical acts. This middle ground principle applies equally to rock, jazz, classical, and all the rest: the magic is in the middle.
Finally, you need a diverse assortment of music from a variety of cultures. After arriving here from the sprawling metropolis of [redacted] in 2001, I knew Portland was a Serious Musical City when I saw just how easy it is to hear Indian classical music here–to say nothing of the broad assortment of groups playing music rooted in traditions from Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Latin America, Russia, and so on. Touring acts come from all over, which is nice, but it’s the abundance of local-international musicians that’s really impressive.
We’ll talk about all of that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the Big Fish and its Favorite Bohemian.
Mahler tribute band
Oregon’s greatest, longest-running cover band–the Oregon Symphony Orchestra–has been playing the greatest hits of the last four centuries for [checks notes] 113 years. They always play the classics you know and love (Beethoven, Brahms), but they have their own favorites. They recorded a whole album of sturdy old Haydn, and almost always include his music somewhere in their season (last season, they played two of his symphonies, and Emmanuel Ax gave a stunningly fresh performance of the Piano Concerto in D Major). Those symphonies–full of surprises and mercifully brief–make for an especially enticing opening number.
Then there’s the Russians, whom the orchestra performs with bombastic glee. Over the course of the last few years, they played damn near all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies–one of them in a daring mashup with the songs of Canadian rapper Drake. Shostakovich gets his heroically gloomy music on OSO shows all the time. Last year it was his chewy cello concerto (played to perfection by Johannes Moser), and this year we get two of his symphonies: the Eleventh in February, the Eighth in May. Symphonies by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff arrive in December and January.
This Saturday through Monday at the Schnitz, the symphony plays one of their oldest chums: Viennese post-romantic-proto-modernist Gustav Mahler. His Sixth Symphony, like all his nine symphonies, is an acoustic smorgasbord: this is a composer whose native instrument was not mere orchestra but orchestra in concert hall. As a busy and highly-regarded orchestral conductor, he had his hands on the wheel of a vast musical organism capable of incomparable four-dimensional sound. It shows in his music, where counterpoint and textural harmonic shifts create long-breathed melodic structure in a thrumming sound world that fills the room–nay, the very soul–like some ancient egregore.
In other words, it’s better live. Turn off that Mahler playlist, take your earbuds out, and go hear this music as its Creator Intended.
Best foot forward
The Goodfoot Lounge on Southeast Stark (right by Baby Doll Pizza) hosts some of the smartest, grooviest music in town. There’s always something happening there, but the upcoming week’s offerings feature a pair of golden nuggets you ought to know about.
First up, Thursday night (tonight!) the Goodfoot welcomes prog trio Consider The Source. It’s a scary word, “prog.” Most of the best prog bands of the last twenty years have eschewed the term: Tool is a metal band, Radiohead is indie rock, King Gizzard is motorik psych, Cardiacs is psych punk, Secret Chiefs 3 play Pythagorean surf, Chelsea Wolfe is a folk singer, Kendrick Lamar is a rapper, Björk is a Björk.
Nonsense: these are all prog artists. It’s just that they make much better prog than most bands that call themselves prog, tepid heady crap like Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree. The only group that still wears the prog moniker proudly is demi-centenarian King Crimson–and they damn well earn it.
Anyways, CTS here fits right in that post-prog world. You can’t have a prog band without a wide array of witty riffs in weird scales and odd meters, and these dudes are all about that: music-school harmonies, jazzy scales out of the Slonimsky Thesaurus, and Turkish and Bulgarian compound rhythms all over the place (one song on their latest album explores various permutations of the extravagant meter 17/8). The main guy, Gabriel Marin, even travelled to India to study chaturangui, and–no joke–plays a double-necked guitar. Doesn’t get a whole lot proggier than that.
Saturday night, Goodfoot welcomes back Jujuba, a local Afrofunk ten-piece who performs there every couple of months, for their 17th Anniversary Afrobeat Dance Party. The band is led by a drummer (sufficient to get this writer’s interest), talking drum master Nojeem Lasisi, with a fat horn section layered over keys, guitars, and more percussion. The effect is somewhere between King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti (just to grab the two best-known African superstars): funky, dancy, chanty, jolly, and groovy as hell.
The world in our eyes
As we mentioned at the top, one of the things that gives Oregon’s music scene its credibility is the abundance of international and globally-savvy musicians that either live here (like Jujuba) or make a stop in Portland when they’re not out globe-trotting.
Oregonian arts organization Kalakendra hosts Indian classical concerts several times a year, bringing singers and instrumentalists from India and around the world to play churches and colleges around the Portland area. I’ve been to dozens of these, dear reader, and it’s always a life-changing experience. One of the best was dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar performing miracles at PCC Rock Creek a couple years ago; you can read all about that right here.
This time, the artist is from right here in Oregon: Saturday, Kalakendra hosts Portlander Kishan Patel at Southwest Portland’s First Baptist Church. Patel will be accompanied by Suresh Ramaswamy on tabla (drums) and Akhil Jobanputra on harmonium (pump organ). This sort of thing is pretty different from the more familiar sitar-based performances of Ravi Shankar et alia: Patel sings in much the same style as Bhawalkar, and that means lots of beautifully-tuned raga chanting and no doubt large helpings of virtuosic shredding on sargam, India’s solfege system and a source of endless delight to raga enthusiasts who like following the score.
Oh, and if you want to get in the spirit first, be sure to check out Art Watch contributor Angela Allen’s photographic journey across the subcontinent.
Friday night at The Old Church, Eduardo Mendonça performs his Brazil in 360 show. And you have two options Sunday night. At Revolution Hall on Southeast Stark, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band presents A Tuba to Cuba, their saucy soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. Also on Sunday, stoner-psych band 1000mods comes all the way from Greece to play the (Apparently Literally) World Famous Kenton Club in North Portland.
Women in music
This Friday in Lincoln Recital Hall, local mezzo-soprano and composer Lisa Neher lends her skills to Cascadia Composers’ fall concert, Shades of Autumn. Neher’s compositions won’t appear on this show, however–it’s the usual Cascadia grab-bag of various composers from within their 100-strong ranks, including CC stalwarts David Bernstein, Paul Safar, Greg Steinke, Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson, Stephen Lewis, Jan Mittelstaedt, and Dawn Sonntag, along with Evan Lewis and Arts Watch contributors Charles Rose and Jeff Winslow.
Saturday at The Parish of St. Mark in Northwest Portland, another of Portland’s new vocal ensembles–Nexus Vocal Ensemble, recently summoned forth from Portland State’s award-winning choral cauldron–performs Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw, an epically appropriate choice for a debut concert. Nexus’ To The Hands pairs Shaw’s choir-and-strings ode to compassion with Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Ad Manus,” a song from the Danish Baroque composer’s cantata Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima which gave Shaw’s music its inspiration and its title (“Ad Manus” is Latin for “To the hands”). Also on the program: “Would you harbor me,” composed by Ysaye Barnwell, whose “Wanting Memories,” soothed us on Resonance Ensemble’s Women Singing Women concert earlier this year.
Sunday at The Old Church, Persisting Sound presents Women in Classical Music, a celebration of female composers–including Portlander Carolyn Quick–featuring music for voices, flutes, electronics, and “beatbox flute quartet.” The concert is part of the ten-day 2019 Siren Nation Festival, a complete schedule of which can be perused right here.
And on Monday, prog composer (I mean, folk metal singer-songwriter) Chelsea Wolfe brings her American Darkness Tour to Wonder Ballroom. Wolfe has been making some of the best metal of recent years: her latest album Birth of Violence doubles down on the deliciously dark sound of 2017’s glorious Hiss Spun, delivering all the spooky vocals and nasty guitars your wicked heart so chillingly craves.
That’s all for now, O Beloved Weirdos! Bundle up, hold hands, and keep your ears on the middle.
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