Angela Niederloh

Growing Voices

Founded by a pair of Oregon opera stars, VOXnorthwest Voice Studio gives young singers a recipe for success

By ANGELA ALLEN

“I’m not feeling the high note now,” says Karsten George, shaking his head while rehearsing at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall one late-May afternoon.

He’s singing a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and he isn’t quite nailing the top note. His soprano voice is starting to change. He’s 13 and just completed seventh grade at All Saints School in Portland.

“Spin, sing, spin. Take a big rest before the note, then spin, spin, spin,” says Matthew Hayward, Karsten’s voice teacher and co-founder with opera singer Angela Niederloh of Portland’s VOXnorthwest Voice Studio. (Later, Hayward explains through email that “singing is all about the breath and how we use the breath to support the sound. ‘Spin spin spin’ means moving more air at a faster rate through the vocal apparatus, and that helps with freeing the note and letting the body relax.”)

Karsten George and Matthew Hayward at VOXnorthwest Voice Studio. Photo: Angela Allen.

Hayward, a lyric baritone when he’s performing and not teaching, moves away from the piano, sits down with Karsten, and encourages him to relax and reach for notes in Sondheim’s demanding “Not While I’m Around,” which none other than a boy’s pure soprano voice on the verge of maturing can properly render. Karsten loves the song and will perform it at a concert on June 30, the culmination of an intensive classical-music performing camp for kids June 25-30 at PSU. Debuti camp grew out of VOXnorthwest Voice Studio, and several of its students, including Karsten, will participate. For the camp, three theater, dance and music faculty members will teach alongside Hayward and Niederloh.

The hour-long VOXnorthwest concert begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at PSU’s 220-seat Lincoln Hall Recital Hall, where students will present excerpts from Carmen, La Traviata, Sweeney Todd, Magic Flute, West Side Story, The Mikado, among others. There is no charge for tickets.

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‘Israel in Egypt’ review: full-blooded Handel

Oregon Repertory Singers, orchestra and soloists deliver a performance that matches the great baroque oratorio's epic scale

by BRUCE BROWNE

It’s a plague, it’s a pestilence, it’s a flood, a conflagration. Is it a Camus play, a new video game or first run science fiction flick? No, it’s the dramatic unfolding of the Old Testament of the Bible and the 290-year-old oratorio Israel in Egypt.

For George Frideric Handel, the late 1730s were a period of upheaval. He suffered and recovered from a neurological event while living in London on the up side of his forties and down side of his opera successes. But Handel dug in and evolved. He stepped back from Italian opera and, by the end of the decade, he was composing and mounting his new favorite musical genre, the oratorio, which is like opera without elaborate costumes, props, theatrical character interaction or secular subject matter. (If you’ve seen Handel’s later Messiah, you’ve seen an oratorio.) Israel in Egypt, one of his first enduring oratorios, was premiered in 1739.

Oregon Repertory Singers performed Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Portland’s First United Methodist Church. Photo: Allison Silverberg.

In the Oregon Repertory Singers‘ performance at First United Methodist Church last weekend, music director Dr. Ethan Sperry presented Israel in Egypt, as it is most often, in the two-act version created by Handel after a less than enthusiastic response to his three-act premiere. Thankfully, Handel retained the exquisitely virtuosic single and double choruses and several lovely arias presented by director Sperry, choir, orchestra and soloists.

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Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

By JEFF WINSLOW and DANIEL HEILA
Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

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Makrokosmos 2 preview: Musicians in the Midst

Piano-propelled contemporary music festival returns to Portland and Eugene

By GARY FERRINGTON

“I don’t know where to stand,” Portland composer, violist and violinist Kenji Bunch confessed to the crowd crammed into Blue Sky Gallery last June. There was after all no stage, and the audience sat in folding chairs arrayed around the downtown Portland art and photography space. Bunch finally decided to start his set of original music with pianist Monica Ohuchi by not standing at all, instead walking around the pianos as he played.

Changing the usual “rules” of classical performance is part of what made Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia’s Makrokosmos Project so successful last year, and why the New York-based duo pianists are bringing it back next week. For one thing, there’s no prescribed duration to the musical “happening” featuring work by living American composers and leading local performers; audience members are welcome to come and go, catching as few or as many of the 40 minute sets as they like.

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Kenji Bunch’s walking performance. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

Moreover, the event, whose second annual performance occurs this month in Portland and Eugene, pretty much obliterates the distinction between the performers’ stage and the audience’s space.

The project strives for “a performance atmosphere that breaks the barriers of traditional concert halls by putting the audience in an intimate space, close to the performers and the music performed,” according to Ahuvia. In a genre that’s too often distanced itself from its audience, it may seem a little crazy; no wonder this year’s theme is American Berserk.

The Makrokosmos Project, which OAW called “one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments,” again takes listeners to the acoustic edge at Blue Sky on Thursday, June 23 and then travels up river to Eugene for a festive evening at Oveissi & Co. on the 26th.

Like last year, the program begins at 5 pm with a wine social and the first of a series of short sets each about 40 minutes long.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

“This is something that we have been experiencing more and more in our own performing as classical music tries to reinvent itself in public spaces, clubs and other non-traditional venues,” Ahuvia suggests. “We hope to attract a diverse audience, some who are new to contemporary music, by giving them an option to commit to as much or as little music as they desire. A 40-minute set is something most people can handle and having some delicious food and wine helps to spark the conversation afterwards! And having tickets from $10-20 also makes it affordable.”

This year’s featured work, a 40th anniversary performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated, includes 36 variations based on the song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with text by the popular vocal group Quilapayún. The composition has been divided among a team of six pianists, which is not typically done, but seems to work well for this festival, according to pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. Despite the apparent connection between Rzewski’s famous radical composition and this year’s overheated political rhetoric, “no strong political statement was planned beyond the poignancy of ’uniting the pianists,’” Ahuvia explains. “That being said, we love the spirit of contemporary music being political and relevant to our time.”

John Adams’s six-minute American Berserk!, a title suggested by a phrase in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, resonates with earlier American piano music of Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, the composer notes. “This is a piece that we have always liked,” Ahuvia recalled, “and were happy to hear that Lydia Chung had it in her repertoire. Lydia, who we know from Baltimore and our Peabody days, had just relocated to Portland and when asking her about possible repertoire for this summer she mentioned American Berserk. We had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, and this year’s festival theme fell into place.”

Audience and performers at intermission of last year's Makrokosmos Project.

Deborah Cleaver demonstrated George Crumb’s techniques at last year’s Makrokosmos Project.

“We’ve constructed the festival with music that is super edgy, infused with virtuosity, urbanity and jazz,” Ahuvia says. “Nikolai Kapustin, Portland-based Ryan Anthony Francis and especially John Zorn’s Carny all have elements of ‘berserkness.’ There are plenty of ’berserk’ elements in the Rzewski as well.”

DUO Stephanie & Saar will open the festival with music by contemporary American composers influenced by Eastern philosophies and sounds. “Philip Glass brings both drama and meditations to Four Movements for Two Pianos,” Ahuvia notes about the minimalist pioneer whose music owes much to his 1960s work with Ravi Shankar and study of Indian music’s rhythmic structures. “Gerald Levinson’s new piece Ragamalika: Ringing Changes uses actual Indian and invented ragas infused with rigorous contemporary compositional techniques,” Ahuvia explains.

In addition to DUO Stephanie and Saar, performers include Oregon musicians Angela Niederloh (a prominent opera singer and Portland State University professor who was a classmate of Ho’s at Portland’s Wilson High School), Lydia Chung, Julia Hwakyu Lee, former Florestan Trio pianist and Portland Piano International founder and director Harold Gray, Third Angle New Music’s Susan Smith, Reed College professor Deborah Cleaver, FearNoMusic’s Jeff Payne, and Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. The Portland second set features mezzo-soprano Niederloh and Stephanie Ho in three early songs by George Crumb and selections from Jake Heggie’s Winter Roses. “The music provides a chilling, lyrical respite from the otherwise high octane music presented throughout the evening,” Ahuvia says.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb's music at last year's Makrokosmos Project. Photot: Aaron Brethorst.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb’s music at last year’s Makrokosmos Project. Photo: Aaron Brethorst.

Niederloh and Payne can’t make the Eugene show, so Alexander Schwarzkopf will play his own new composition, Perspectives (2016) instead of the Zorn piece Payne plays in Portland, and Stephanie & Saar replace Niederloh’s set with their own performance of music by Pulitzer Prize winning American composers from two generations, George Crumb (whose music they hope to program every year in the festival named after one of his major compositions) and David Lang.

“Our message to the audience,” Ahuvia says, “is to come open-minded, have a glass of wine on us, and immerse themselves in new sounds in new settings.”

Makrokosmos Project 2: American Berserk! Thursday, June 23, 5pm-10pm at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland. Sunday, June 26, 5 pm-10 pm at Oveissi and Company, 22 West Seventh Avenue, Eugene. Ticket prices are $15 advance, $20 day of show and $10 students and seniors. Tickets and more information online.

Read ArtsWatch’s interview last year with Stephanie & Saar and review of last year’s inaugural Makrokosmos Project.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Rake’s Progress review: Winning collaboration

Portland Opera's production of Stravinsky's opera makes a potent pairing with Portland Art Museum's Hockney exhibit.

by BRUCE BROWNE AND DARYL BROWNE

Arts are often at their best and have the most longevity when they are a product of collaboration. The spring productions at Portland Art Museum and Portland Opera are a win-win-win collaboration: for audiences; for both arts organizations; and for the legacy of the artists themselves, past, present and future.

 Tom Rakewell (Jonathan Boyd) and Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) in Portland Opera's The Rake's Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.


Tom Rakewell (Jonathan Boyd) and Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) in Portland Opera’s The Rake’s Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.

This all began as a half-posthumous collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and 18th century artist William Hogarth. Stravinsky viewed Hogarth’s engravings in the Chicago Art Fair in 1947, and was moved to write an opera about the story the artist portrayed. A satirist, Hogarth was a Herblock or Thomas Nast,  a kind of voyeur of the social times and mores of his place and time. His best known series of these satires is The Rake’s Progress, his middle morality tale, sandwiched between The Harlot’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode.

Stravinsky went in search of a librettist. In 1948,  he was introduced to W.H. Auden by the writer Aldous Huxley, a Hollywood neighbor. The two artists hit it off and the operatic collaboration for The Rake’s Progress began. The opera premiered in Venice in 1951, directed by Stravinsky himself.

Fourteen years later, John Cox, director of Glyndebourne Festival in England, was in search of a way to revitalize the now-popular Rake’s Progress at its eighth British production of the opera since 1953. He invited British artist David Hockney to provide set and costume design and it was this collaboration that has traveled three more decades to Portland Opera’s production this weekend.

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