Abigail Sperling is everywhere.
That’s the impression one gets from her official biography. At Linfield College in McMinnville, she’s a flute professor. She is also coordinator for winds and percussion and flute instructor at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. In Corvallis, she’s a guest lecturer at Oregon State University. She also plays, including for OSU’s Music a la Carte, for the Corvallis-based Chintimini Chamber Music Festival, and as a substitute in the Oregon Symphony.
“I have been lucky to travel for my studies and performances and be part of the amazing regional, national, and international flute community,” Sperling said. “It’s typical for someone at my career stage to be doing this sort of hustle, I think.”
However, the occasion for this feature isn’t to marvel at Sperling’s resume but to note two significant events in her professional life. She has a recital coming up next week, and it will feature some intriguing works that we’ll explore shortly.
First, let’s talk Oregon Arts Commission. Last week, the statewide nonprofit announced a batch of fellowships, and Sperling was among those who scored. She’ll receive $3,000 to commission a new piece of music for flute and piano. Taking on the task will be a Linfield colleague and composer, Andrea Reinkemeyer, an assistant professor of music composition and theory.
“When I started working at the college, she sent me a recording of her work Wrought Iron for flute and percussion,” Sperling said of Reinkemeyer. “I sat down and listened to it and was really impressed. I remember thinking, ‘Now here’s someone who really knows what she’s doing.’ I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was super cool to hear something she had written for flute.”
Sperling’s direction on the commissioned piece is for a 10-minute work with the theme of place or home. “I haven’t always lived in Oregon,” said Sperling, who lived in New Zealand for nearly 10 years, where she studied with Uwe Grodd and received her doctorate in 2016 from the University of Auckland. “We haven’t talked through all the details yet in terms of specific flute techniques or styles, but I am keen to give her a lot of leeway in writing.” Linfield Assistant Professor of Piano Johnandrew Slominski is also expected to collaborate, she added.
Sperling has commissioned works before, and she performs widely. Most recently, the 35-year-old premiered Alex Taylor’s Flute Concerto in Auckland. The New Zealand Herald was impressed: “There was no need to be daunted by Alex Taylor’s highly technical programme notes for his new Flute Concerto,” wrote William Hart, “as its charismatic soloist Abigail Sperling easily persuaded us to simply surrender to the sound.”
While her current focus is collaborating with Reinkemeyer, it’s worth noting that this will be the first piece for a larger project. Sperling intends to commission five new compositions from women composers over the next five years. She doesn’t necessarily expect the Arts Commission to fund the entire project; certainly, she’ll chase other revenue sources. But she doesn’t sound concerned. “In my experience,” she said, “once the ball is rolling on something like this, it just picks up more speed, so I’m excited to keep it moving.” Look for the premiere later this year.
In the meantime, Sperling has a recital coming up. Watercolors will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, in the Vivian A. Bull Music Center’s Delkin Recital Hall on the Linfield campus. Guest musicians will include Victoria Wolff-Zevallos on cello and Susan McDaniel on piano. The event is free and open to the public.
I asked Sperling how a recital like this comes together and about the four works that will be performed.
“My first goal in any major recital like this is to include pieces that create a balanced program,” she said. “That is, I try to pick works that both go well together and provide contrast to each other, and I like to include pieces that showcase visiting artists or guest musicians.”
The pieces are drawn from across two centuries, with the earliest and most recent separated by nearly 180 years. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, whose life straddled the 18th and 19th centuries, composed one of Sperling’s bookend pieces, Trio Op. 78, in the early 1800s. Like Mozart, Hummel was a child prodigy, and in fact studied with and lived with Mozart for a while. In his day, he was as well-known as his contemporary, Beethoven, who was a friend, occasional rival, and whose casket Hummel helped carry in 1826. For reasons too complex to get into here, The Hummel Project reports that his music fell out of fashion until the mid-1900s, when his trumpet concerto was re-discovered.
“We open with collaborative chamber music, and close with collaborative chamber music in the same instrumentation,” Sperling said. “This gives the audience a particular musical texture to start and finish the program.”
The other bookend is Phillippe Gaubert’s Trois Aquarelles. Gaubert was born into a musical family in 1879, started studying the violin but switched to the flute by age 7 and went on to make the instrument his life’s work. Starting in 1919, he headed the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra for nearly 20 years.
“The works themselves are very different,” Sperling said. “The Hummel feels like an opera in miniatures, with various characters and events, drama, darkness, celebration, and love. The whole work is a theme and set of six variations based on a Russian folk song.” Gaubert’s piece, meanwhile, “has all the nuances and colors we might expect” from the 20th-century period in which it was composed. “Think Claude Monet paintings in sonic form.”
Which brings us to the middle of the program: One of American composer Aaron Copland’s final pieces, Duo for Flute and Piano, and an unusual solo piece by French composer Yan Maresz, Circumambulation, written in 1993.
Copland, of course, is well known. His most famous works — Fanfare for the Common Man, El Salon Mexico, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring — were first performed in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1969, about the time Copland stopped composing, a group of students and friends of influential flutist William Kincaid commissioned Copland to compose the duet, which premiered in Philadelphia in 1971. Those familiar with Copland’s iconic works will undoubtedly hear his musical style in it.
“I tried to make it grateful for the performer,” Copland wrote at the time. “But no amateur could handle the Duo … it requires a good player.” Sperling says that it has elements of modernism, with its odd tonality and time signatures, and also “some of the most beautiful melodies in any flute work. It’s a study in contrasts and a joy to play.”
It’s unlikely that Circumambulation could be played by any amateur. It doesn’t just command your attention; it seizes it. I found myself comparing it to Ravel’s Bolero, only because it has an element of mounting suspense as it builds toward … something. The cultural critic Allan Bloom in the 1980s cynically remarked that Bolero is the one classical work that appeals to young people who “know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse.” But if the Ravel feels like the soundtrack to a seduction, Circumambulation feels like we’re watching the hero try to save the day while occasionally glimpsing a clock that’s ticking down to a cataclysm.
“The Maresz is another beast entirely,” Sperling said. “I heard it a year or two ago and was
immediately taken with it. It’s difficult, and uses a range of extended flute techniques, so it’s challenging in many ways. The piece is written in two parts, a top line of flourishes and exclamations and a bottom line of a pulsing, steady single note. It’s pretty wild.
“I learned and performed another challenging flute work, Cassandra’s Dream Song, in 2016,” she continued. “I thought after that piece that nothing could be more difficult, but the Maresz comes close. Circumambulation, for solo flute, provides the ultimate contrast to the other works in the program. There is unity throughout the recital, but also surprise and challenge for the audience.”
Abigail Sperling plays “Cassandra’s Dream Song” by Brian Ferneyhough.
Sperling started playing the flute in middle school when she attended Highland View (now Linus Pauling) in Corvallis. She continued in high school, studying with OSU’s Jill Pauls, then went overseas in 2004, where she received her bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Edinburgh. When she decided to attend graduate school in 2010, Sperling says it was a toss-up as to whether she’d continue with music or pursue politics. Upon encountering Professor Grodd at Aucklund, she went the way of the flute.
“It was just a great fit for me there, and Uwe is an amazing teacher,” she said. “That was really the deciding factor; I was well supported and encouraged at Auckland. I saw a pathway to a music career that might not be ‘traditional’ in that I wasn’t sure I was cut out for an orchestral career, but I enjoyed all aspects of playing and all performance and teaching opportunities.”
She’s been working at Linfield since the fall of 2017, and this will be her second faculty recital. If you plan to go, do yourself a favor and consult the campus map. Several roads lead to the music hall, and some are better than others. If you miss that and Corvallis is within reach, she’ll also play with Music a la Carte on May 3 at OSU’s Memorial Union.
One gallery, 14 photographers, and nearly 100 images
Photographic Intentions, a sprawling exhibition of nearly 100 images of all shapes, sizes, and subject matter, can be found in the Chehalem Cultural Center’s Central Gallery in Newberg. It’s a selection of work produced by Photo Club PDX, formed in January 2018 by Angela Holm, whose nocturnal cityscapes are included.
Space and time prohibits me from exploring them all, but I have to say that Darnell McAdams’ blazing black-and-white imagery of a man at work and play particularly resonated with me. Its spiritual and sensual visual poetry suggests a life rich in stories. Spectators would be wise to spend time considering the accompanying statement McAdams wrote for what he calls The Black Santa Project. He’s one of more than a dozen artists whose work is on display here. The exhibit runs through March 30.
Marcus Johnson to perform at Linfield
Jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, in the Richard and Lucille Ice Auditorium at Linfield College. The concert is free and open to the public.
Johnson is a lawyer, wine entrepreneur, NAACP Image Award nominee, Billboard-ranked jazz keyboardist, and CEO of lifestyle company FLO Brands.
According to a Linfield press release, he has released more than 18 Billboard-charted CDs, with Poetically Justified in 2009 and This Is How I Rock in 2010 both ranked as Top 20 Contemporary Jazz CDs. His music ranges from contemporary smooth jazz to pop-rock rearranged with a jazz spin to electronica.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.