45th parallel

Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

Watching music at the end of the longest year

When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

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MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

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45th Parallel’s real-time music video

An interview with Ron Blessinger

It’s such a weird thrill going to Oregon Symphony concerts, looking down into the string section with its fifty-odd neatly seated performers, and seeing 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Ron Blessinger, buried in the violins, attentively warming up his bow with the rest of the office. That’s how it goes with this orchestra: scan the rest of that string section and you’ll see local composers Nancy Ives, James Shields, and usually Kenji Bunch. Up in the back, Niel DePonte tightens cymbal stands and organizes mallets. Supergroup!

In 2018, when Blessinger took the reins of local music organization 45th Parallel (founded ten years earlier by his fellow symphony violinist Greg Ewer), he immediately expanded the relatively loose-knit group into a Universe of ensembles drawn mostly from the ranks of Oregon Symphony principal players. The Parallel Universe has exploded all Marvel crossover-like in the last season and a half, with a wide range of classical music concerts all across the Old Versus New abyss. Our personal favorite highlight (so far) was 45||’s double concert last year pairing Mousai Remix’s beautifully economical black composer history lesson with a Pyxis Quartet concert featuring new work by local composers created in collaboration with local poet Micah Fletcher.

Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Seth Nehill.
Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2019. Photo by Seth Nehill.

Tonight, 45th Parallel presents the latest result of their restless creativity: Les Boréades, an evening of French music performed on a square stage inside the PICA building, two sides open to the audience and a pair of projection screens on the others. We’ve just learned that the concert is down to standing room only, which suits this eternally peripatetic music journalist just fine. Come early for a discussion of The Frame with the concert’s visual/psychological collaborators, and wear comfy shoes for your circumambulatory musical adventure.

We spoke with Blessinger by phone; his answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On collaboration and performance space

I go way back with Brad Johnson, the lead artist. He used to be the principal of Second Story Interactive, and I did a project with him where we used existing technology to create what you could call a virtual venue. We did something similar just about 15 years ago. This time around we came up with a musical program–a survey of French music–and then we were thinking of where to perform it.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A harvest feast

Stay warm with a smorgasbord of chamber music, choral music and art songs, and orchestras aplenty

Music for chambers

This weekend, Sunday the 3rd, local cellist Diane Chaplin brings her solo show Il Violoncello Capriccioso to Weisenbloom House, a lovely little salon in Southeast Portland. The present author first encountered Chaplin in 2011, when she joined Lewis & Clark gamelan Venerable Showers of Beauty for a performance of Lou Harrison’s deliriously melodic hybrid masterpiece Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Javanese Gamelan. Chaplin spends most of her time playing with Portland Cello Project and The Unpresidented Brass Band, but she just got back from a summer in Italy and she’s ready to show off her evening of cappricios by Klengel, Piatti, and Cambini, along with Ernest Bloch’s Suite No. 3 and works by Alan Chaplin, Michal Stahel, and Aaron Minsky.

Local classical organization Friends of Chamber Music, as their name implies, specializes in inviting established chamber ensembles and soloists to perform in Portland. Last month, it was Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and you can read Katie Taylor’s take on that fine performance right here.

This month, FOCM brings the Danish String Quartet to Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall for two evenings of Bach, Beethoven, Schnittke, Shostakovich, and Webern on November 4th & 5th. Despite the lack of contemporary composers, that’s a pretty nice program: miscellaneous Bach (including a Well-Tempered Clavier arrangement done by Mozart in a fit of enthusiastic reverence) and two rather Bachish late Beethoven quartets (127 and 135) provide the traditionalist foundation; Webern’s austere and terrifying pre-serial quartet of 1905 and Schnittke’s thorny, polystilistic third quartet provide contrarian modernist counterpoint. Snuggled morbidly between them, Shosty’s moribund final quartet.

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MusicWatch Weekly: spring awakenings

As a new season arrives, concerts awaken Oregonians to stories about gender, migration, cross cultural encounters, and more

As 21st century America belatedly recognizes that gender isn’t always a binary phenomenon, artists have increasingly illuminated its fluid, spectral reality, as Oregonians have seen in recent Time Based Art Festival performances, last fall’s Contralto show by Third Angle, and more. Now comes the most produced contemporary opera in North America since its 2014 premiere. As One is inspired by the true story of its scenic designer and co-librettist. Kimberly Reed became the first commercially released transgender filmmaker with her breakthrough film Prodigal Sons, which chronicled her journey from star Montana high school quarterback to award winning film director. In this chamber opera co-created by American composer Laura Kaminsky and renowned co-librettist Mark Campbell, two singers tell the coming of age story of the fictional trans protagonist, Hannah — one playing before her gender transformation, one after. Her journey is depicted against the backdrop of Reed’s sometimes abstract, sometimes realistic imagery, projected on five screens. Stay tuned for my profile of Reed and Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.
Friday-March 30, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• More theatrical music comes from Light Opera of Portland (LOoP), whose original, romantic musical We Met in Moscow is based upon events in the lives of Ralph Bunch, a professor emeritus from Portland State University, and his wife Eleanora Andreevna, head of cybernetics at the Kremlin in the 1990s. Portland composer John Vergin did his own treatment of the story just a few months ago, and now writer/lyricist Dennis Britten and composer Kevin Lay give the musical treatment to this Oregon/Russia love story.
Friday-March 29, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

• Over the past few years, Portland classical music organizations have belatedly begun to redress the inexcusable gender imbalance on their concert programs by finally including a few works by female composers. Now, Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic does something similar for women’s words as well as music. Because Of Her, We Make Songs features musical settings (by female and male composers) of text by women poets from around the world (Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Elinor Wylie, Pulitzer Prize-winner Amy Lowell, Gabriela Mistral), including songs by the excellent Northwester composer Alex Shapiro, Ricky Ian Gordon, Florence Price, Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon, and more. Oregon’s 2019 Poetry Out Loud Champion and Runner-Up, Belise Nishimwe of St. Mary’s Academy and Nicole Coronado of Lake Oswego’s Lakeridge High School, also perform.
Monday, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.

To celebrate the Portland premiere of ‘As One’, Portland Opera commissioned award-winning photographer Gia Goodrich to create a series of portraits and interviews celebrating 11 transgender individuals in Portland’s community. Portrait from “As I Am” exhibition by Gia Goodrich.

FearNoMusic is also the house band for Cascadia Composers’s 10th anniversary concert. Until the group arrived, ambitious Northwest composers who wanted others to hear their original contemporary classical music usually had to take an academic job and hope for the occasional performance by students, or move to New York or other cultural cosmopoli. Since forming a decade ago, the organization has provided Portland and other Northwest composers showcases for their music (10 concerts this year alone, over 500 new works and 100 world premieres over a decade), networking, mutual support and info, even exchanges with composers in other countries. Now the largest and most active local group in the National Association of Composers/USA, Cascadia has become a vital part of Portland’s creative music scene. This 10th anniversary concert includes music for percussion, voice, strings, flute, and piano written by the organization’s founding composers: David Bernstein, Tomas Svoboda, Greg Steinke, Gary Noland, Jack Gabel, Dan Senn, Bonnie Miksch, and ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow, whose styles range widely across the spectrum of 21st century classical music.
Friday, Lincoln Hall Room 75, Portland State University. Streaming here.

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Orchestral Music

Today’s weapon of choice in humanity’s quest to destroy life as we know it is human-caused climate change, perpetrated by the greed of our retro-industrial complex and enabled by their lackeys in Washington and right-wing media. But before that, our preferred means of self-inflicted catastrophe was (and possibly remains) nuclear weapons. The man most responsible for turning them into potential planet killers was the anguished central figure in Pulitzer Prize winning American composer John Adams’s 2005 opera Dr. Atomic: American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who supervised the Manhattan Project that created the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Based on Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the story of a great scientist’s Faustian bargain seemed a great subject for contemporary opera by one of my favorite composers, but the overlong world premiere I saw in San Francisco failed to ignite onstage, even when choreographer Lucinda Childs sent dancers sprinting across the stage for no apparent reason in a desperate attempt to inject some action to dispel the dramatic inertia. What did work was Adams’s tense, urgent music, inspired by everything from minimalism to the science fiction movie sounds of the 1950s. He later assembled its best music into a symphony, which the Oregon Symphony performed last month, and which the Eugene Symphony plays Thursday, along with Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture and another Romantic classic, Brahms’s passionate Violin Concerto, starring rising prodigy Julian Rhee.
Thursday, Hult Center’s Silva Hall, Eugene.

See and hear “Coraline” Friday with the Oregon Symphony.

• Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, it performs Bruno Coulais’ score to Portland-based Laika Studios’ delightfully dark Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman story, Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert hall, while the film is projected on the giant screen for its tenth anniversary. On Saturday and Sunday, the orchestra then welcomes award winning singers Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the greatest singers who ever lived (and a sparkling, influential jazz pianist to boot), Nat King Cole, with some hits from his late daughter Natalie too. And the rebranded Newport Symphony Orchestra at the Ocean plays piano concertos by Clara Schumann and Sergei Prokofiev (starring Amy Yang), plus music by the taken-too-soon French composer Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy (Spring Rounds), and George Gershwin’s ever-jolly An American in Paris Saturday and Sunday at Newport Performing Arts Center.

Chamber Music

Speaking of film music, German late Romantic composer Richard Strauss wrote a whole lot more music than the familiar five-note opener used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey decades after he died. 45th Parallel Universe’s Helios Camerata plays some of his theater music (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), opera tunes arranged for string sextet (Capriccio) and a rarely heard Double concerto for clarinet and bassoon.
Thursday, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Helios Camerata plays Strauss Thursday.

• In 2017, Eugene’s Delgani Quartet played Portland composer eminence Tomas Svoboda’s blistering sixth string quartet, an homage to his idol, Dmitri Shostakovich that left the audience cheering. Ranging from bleak to ominous to tense, it fully captured the Russian composer’s spirit without resorting to mere imitation. An ideal match of magnificent music, appropriate acoustic, and committed performers, it was one of the most powerful chamber music performances I’ve heard in Oregon. They’re playing it again this weekend, along with earlier Czech music by Dvorak (his final quartet), and a dance-inspired composition by Erwin Schulhoff, whose legacy of infusing classical and Czech traditional music with jazz, Dada, and other forward looking influences was cut short when he died in the Holocaust.
Saturday, Christian Science Church, 935 High St SE, Salem, and Sunday, The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.

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‘Sons of the Soil’ preview: setting a new standard

Don't know any black classical composers? Start with these

by DAMIEN GETER

Joseph Bologne (Chevalier de Saint Georges), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. None of these composers are household names but all are finally starting to get the attention they deserve. On Friday, in celebration of Black History Month, 45th Parallel Universe presents Sons of the Soil, a concert featuring music by these black composers performed by the all female string quartet mousai REMIX. (Read ArtsWatch’s concert preview.) There is no need to compare these greats to their white counterparts, but chances are if you are a fan of some of the more established masters, you will like these folks, too.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier De Saint George (1745-1799)

For fans of: Mozart, and Haydn

Who was he: Joseph Bologne, who later in life became known as the Chevalier de Saint-George, was a contemporary of Mozart’s and rumored to be the Austrian composer’s arch nemesis. Born in the French owned Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, Joseph was the child of a planter and his wife’s young slave, who was most likely from Senegal. Joseph’s father sent him to France for his education, where he excelled in a number of areas including music (a violinist) and fencing. He became a noble fixture in France including a close friend to Marie Antoinette, but because of his African heritage, he was met with discrimination throughout his life. An advocate for ending slavery in France, he founded the Society of Friends of Black People and was a colonel of the first black legion in Europe.

Bologne penned a sizable body of compositions which included symphonies, string quartets, violin concerti, symphonie concertante, quartet concertante, and operas. Unfortunately, not many of his works survive, and even after France abolished slavery in 1794, new restrictions on black folks reemerged during Napoleon’s reign which moved Bologne’s music into a forgotten chapter of history until its recent revival.

Start with this: Ouverture, L’amant anonyme

This three-part overture (part 2, part 3) to Bologne’s surviving opera L’amant anonyme, mirrors early symphonic form. Its light textures and balanced melodies place it soundly in the Classical era and right in line with the traditions and compositional techniques of other Europeans who were composing during that time.

Also check out: George Bridgewater

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