Portland Taiko, Portland Baroque, collectif9: Home field advantage

Stellar local performers match the musical radiance of visiting stars

Artistic centers seem to go through phases. At the outset, they predominantly host performances by local amateurs. As more ambition and money arrive, they worshipfully import Big Names from artistic capitals, often neglecting homegrown talents who might be equally talented (and more original) in favor of the imprimatur of NYC cred — a sure sign of provincial insecurity. Sometimes, like my hometown of Austin, a city’s artistic culture develops to the extent that its local artists realize that they don’t need to move elsewhere to make vanguard art (not to mention a living), and in fact, the city becomes a magnet for others in the region and then the world.

Los Angeles's TaikoProject and Portland Taiko joined forces at the end of their joint concert, 'Sound in Motion.' Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Los Angeles’s TaikoProject and Portland Taiko joined forces in their joint concert, ‘Sound in Motion.’ Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Although some of Oregon’s artistic institutions and their insecure audiences still haven’t quite realized that many arts lovers are looking to us for inspiration than vice versa, Portland in particular and Oregon in general are reaching that third phase. A trio of autumn concerts involving both visiting and locally cultivated musicians showed the value of learning from outsiders — and also just how good our locavore music has become.

To share its fall concert at Portland’s Catlin Gabel school, the revitalized Portland Taiko invited its Los Angeles sibling, TaikoProject, to trade the desert for the deluge for its debut in Portland. I’d never seen TP perform, but from its website and press materials (and, admittedly, its LA origins), I expected slick showmanship, maybe mixing traditional taiko with pop music; after all, the group once opened for Stevie Wonder and has performed on Conan, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden’s show and other pop culture venues.

Portland Taiko performed with TaikoProject. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Portland Taiko performed with TaikoProject. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

Unlike in a baseball game, the home team batted first, opening with the splashy Ha! with a quintet of drummers soon joined by flute and violin. It gave way to the more abstract To Fly that eventually involved the full 14 member ensemble. In A Place Called Home, PT founder June Schumann intoned the names of World War II internment camps in which the government deplorably imprisoned American citizens of Japanese ancestry. PT member Zach Semke’s Oyako Don Don featured a spectacular solo on a quartet of drums, and the opening set ended with TaikoKinesis, featuring a series of solos that also involved members of TaikoProject. Resplendent in their new costumes, Portland Taiko’s impressively tight, sharply choreographed, sometimes explosive performance had the packed auditorium cheering for the home team.

Portland Taiko performed at Catlin Gabel school.

Portland Taiko performed at Catlin Gabel school.

After intermission, the visitors opened with a solo that soon turned into a comic duet, Behind the Odaiko, enhanced by the recorded voice of George Takei, the venerable former Star Trek actor and popular blogger who’s worked with the band before. After some relaxed pop influenced music, a quartet led by the superb flutist Masato Baba, TP’s artistic director, played Seiza “Constellations,” followed by the full group in its signature Expanding, featuring some dazzling, sometimes hip hop-influenced choreographed movement. Another mellow original instrumental pop number, Kodama, dedicated to animation master Hiyao Miyazaki featured solo flute, which also covered the stage reset. (Props to both bands for generously giving the audience something to enjoy while moving instruments — something too few audience-unfriendly Portland classical groups have learned. Nobody pays money to watch people move instruments.)

The show finished with a flourish in three upbeat numbers, with both groups joining forces in Here We Go Now. Afterwards, the smiling members lined the exits to thank the departing audience for coming.

LA's TaikoProject performed in Portland.

LA’s TaikoProject performed in Portland.

The concert confounded my expectations. While the LA group excelled in tight musicianship, with especially adept flute playing and some drumming by a member who clearly had extensive experience and training in rock drumming as well as taiko, its performance proved on the whole less dramatic and less entertaining than the Portlanders’, its impact diluted by the sometimes soporific atmospheric pop tunes.

By contrast, Portland Taiko’s crisp, joyous performance popped with the dance-driven energy that can engage audiences who know nothing about Japanese percussion. Both bands delivered really exciting, percussive performances on many different drums, and even if the home team acquitted itself better, the two groups complemented each other beautifully, making this one of the most enjoyable Portland Taiko shows I’ve experienced over many years.

Taiko combo.

Taiko combo.

Convivial Conversations

Two weekends later, Portland Baroque Orchestra welcomed a pair of distinguished guests — soprano Hana Blažíková and cornetto master Bruce Dickey— to join a quintet of PBO regulars for the first concert in a new series of chamber music concerts. Hosts and visitors mingled gracefully in this concert (repeated in San Diego and Vancouver BC) primarily featuring rarely heard Italian baroque music. Dickey, who’s singlehandedly sparked the revival of the long-obsolete wooden wind instrument, duetted joyfully with PBO artistic director Monica Huggett in elaborately ornamented works by Giovanni Fontana and Giacomo Carissimi, earning hearty applause for the kind of easy interplay reminiscent of a couple that’s danced together often.

Portland Baroque Orchestra performed with Bruce Dickey and Hana Blažíková.

Portland Baroque Orchestra performed with Bruce Dickey and Hana Blažíková. Photo: Jan Gates.

The strongest music, by Sigismondo D’India, featured playful exchanges between violinists Huggett and Seattle’s Tekla Cunningham. And when they sat out, in music by Nicole Corradini, musical partners Blažíková (who’s starred in recordings led by baroque eminences Masaako Suzuki and Philippe Herreweghe, among others) and Dickey took over the musical dialogue, which continued throughout the program, especially in the florid Carissimi and D’India works.

The whole concert was a series of conversations among different combinations of instruments, and even ostensibly supporting players like Seattle theorbo virtuoso Stephen Stubbs and powerful Boston-based keyboard player Michael Sponseller contributed crisp and buoyant accompaniment and occasional solos. And Dickey, the Coltrane of the Cornetto, made a persuasive case for the archaic instrument that looks like a stick of black licorice left on the edge of a picnic table and half melted in the sun, unleashing one gorgeous passage after another, sounding now as silky as Johnny Hodges, now as warm as Art Farmer, blending beautifully with the rest of the band. It was like attending a convivial dinner party bubbling with witty and fascinating exchanges — but unfortunately devoted to subjects of only passing interest. While it’s a treat to hear something other than Baroque music’s greatest hits, little of this material seemed as substantial as the performances.

At the outset of Melena ilia (Nigra sum), created for the duo by contemporary Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki, Blažíková’s voice seemed to emerge from the cornetto itself, hitting the same pitch and uncannily achieving the same texture before gradually asserting itself. Setting famous lines from the Song of Solomon, the 2015 work’s ethereal transparency evoked a wispier Arvo Part, simultaneously modern and ancient. Blažíková’s cool approach was just right, her long held notes floating over drone-like cello lines (played expertly by PBO stalwart Joanna Blendulf) and the cornetto, with each voice alternating on the melody while the other two accompanied. It’s nice to hear new music being written for these ancient instruments, both here and elsewhere, and it suited the silver-skirted Blažíková’s somewhat pallid voice, which ran cooler than the full-throated singing this music demands — it’s Italian, for Jove’s sake.

In fact, maybe because of where I was sitting, I had trouble hearing the acclaimed young Czech soprano over the spirited band’s assertive playing, except when organ and violins took a break. Her plaintiveness better suited the sacred songs than the secular ones, and worked well in weepier passages, such as in Alessandro Scarlatti’s early emo Emireno. But lines like “Whereby my great remains content in its torment” delivered far more contentment than torment; elsewhere, when she sang wanly of the “flame of love,” it burned too low. While I appreciated Blažíková’s unaffected style and ability to blend with the ensemble, I couldn’t help thinking how much more erotic (when the lyrics so insisted) and ecstatic the great baroque singer Cecilia Bartoli would have sounded in the more sensual songs.

Such earthy exuberance is one of the many qualities that makes Huggett’s own playing and leadership such an asset to Oregon music. When she’s leading the way, PBO packs the punch of a Muscle Shoals rhythm section fronted by swaggering soloist, with audience members swaying along and tapping their feet to the pulsating rhythms. Despite their congenial cooperation, once again, the home team outshone the visitors.

Collective Commitment

The only home team players in collectif9’s November “Volksmobiles” performance, sponsored by Friends of Chamber Music, were the young musicians of Bravo Youth Orchestra featured in an encore. And yet for Oregonians who want to see classical music find its way back from its self imposed 20th century exile from popular culture, the ghost of another local band seemed to haunt Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.

Members of Bravo Youth Orchestra joined collectif9 at Portland's Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Steve Billow.

Members of Bravo Youth Orchestra joined collectif9 at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Steve Billow.

“Did they give you a program?” asked bearded bassist Thibault Bertin-Mahgit from the stage before the Montreal-based nonet hit the downbeat. “We won’t play what’s in the program,” he continued. Deviating from the program is pretty much collectif9’s strategy: playing contemporary music while most ensembles recycle the same old centuries old classics, using stage lighting and amplification common in other musical contexts but resolutely eschewed by classical ensembles, etc.

In this scintillating Oregon debut performance on their first US tour, the band also departed from the Portland classical norm — underrehearsed, too often tedious performances — with their quicksilver tempo changes, dramatic dynamics, and tight, expressive playing. Collectiv9’s uninhibited stage demeanor, casual 21st century clothing (including a Brooklyn ball cap and another sporting the logo of Portland’s classical music radio station), and sheer joy in playing great music with full commitment (rather than relief at just getting through it, or fake flamboyance that fails to conceal lack of preparation) also distinguished this show. (These negatives do not apply to Portland Taiko or PBO, audience-friendly exceptions that prove the rule.) Their eagerness to break the boring mold while upholding the highest performance standards make collectif9 a model for 21st century classical music ensembles.

collectif9 TEASER (eng version) from collectif9 on Vimeo.

They had the audience clapping along to a Schnittke polka. Some members roamed the stage during one of the evening’s highlights, a hip hop heavy piece by contemporary composer/DJ Gabriel Prokofiev. They unleashed blistering intensity and stomps in another, what they called “heavy metal classical music”: an arrangement of Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. They covered pauses between songs with tight, rehearsed introductions and even some underscoring, instead of making the audience wait while they shuffled pages and scooted chairs. They transformed Bartok’s Romanian dances into a spirited hoedown, a modal John Zorn piece into relaxed swing, and even unexpectedly medleyed a Tchaikovsky waltz into a famous theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, drawing chuckles from the knowledgeable FOCM audience. On the concert’s three-movement title work, written for them by a friend, and other pieces, the group even turned their instruments into percussion, led by cellist Jeremie Cloutier Pion.

Friends of Chamber Music brought collectif9 to Portland. Photo: Steve Billow.

Friends of Chamber Music brought collectif9 to Portland. Photo: Steve Billow.

Yet while the visitors displayed some smart, appealing arrangements for their unusual ensemble and nimble, well-rehearsed playing, in some ways, the show was inferior to ARCO-PDX, the local outfit which has been similarly modernizing classical music stage presentation. Instead of fully memorizing their music, like most ARCO players do, collectif9 mostly remained confined to music stands. The acidic amplification sounded harsh and trebly, despite the presence of the group’s own sound designer, and the lighting was nothing special. While their humor and relaxed banter established a palpable connection to the audience, collectif9’s most charismatic performers couldn’t quite match ARCO’s.

ARCO's 2014 debut.

ARCO’s 2014 debut.

Not to say this wasn’t a dazzling concert — it was, and a model that more Oregon groups should emulate. But you can find similar thrills at Oregon’s own ARCO’s shows. Maybe they can be the opening act next time collectif9 returns — which I hope will be soon. Until then, we can rest assured, if not content, that some of our own finest performers can provide equal or superior musical experiences to even the most acclaimed visitors.

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