anton armstrong

Oregon Bach Festival: riding out the storm

Venerable music institution mounts its 49th summer festival amid leadership transition and uncertain future

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival has lately been looking a bit like a Blah-ch Festival. If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership. Happily, that’s on the way, with the festival having laid off controversial executive director Janelle McCoy and reversed her much-derided decision to institute a rotating directorship or leadership by committee (the last two years), instead of replacing the respected artistic director she railroaded out of town for never-explained reasons

This year’s program, like last year’s, was put together by an artistic committee of music faculty and other UO personnel chaired by McCoy. Her job was made no easier by university-imposed cutbacks that left the festival nearly bereft of star power and big splashy productions and commissions. Yet some highlights shine — if you know where to look.

Beyond Bach

While named after an 18th century master, the festival does provide some space for new sounds, or updates on old ones. My top recommendation for the entire festival: Portland composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s The Territory, which we reviewed here after its second Portland performance. Kudos to the festival for featuring a major recent work by a top Oregon composer. Grant and jazz ensemble perform in Soreng Theater July 12.

On July 2 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of America’s most acclaimed new music ensembles, Brooklyn Rider string quartet, plays one of the greatest of all chamber works, Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, plus five new commissions on the subject of healing written by some of today’s leading composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun.

Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Portland Cello Project has been making a classical instrument hip for over a decade. They also play Beethoven, but mostly new music, and it more often comes from hip hop, rock and other pop artists. A big draw wherever it goes in on its many tours, the ensemble returns to OBF June 29 with a program featuring music by Radiohead, John Coltrane, and more — including, of course, J.S. Bach himself. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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MusicWatch Weekly: choral confluence

Chanticleer, Cappella Romana and St. Olaf Choir headline the week in Oregon music

Vibrant voices lead this week’s Oregon music calendar, beginning with one of America’s oldest and most revered choral ensembles, St. Olaf Choir’s performance Thursday at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Friday at Eugene’s First United Methodist Church and Saturday afternoon at North Medford High School.

Anton Armstrong leads St. Olaf Choir’s 2018 tour. Photo: Flight Creative Media.

Led for 28 years by Anton Armstrong, familiar to Oregon audiences through his long tenure leading youth choirs at the Oregon Bach Festival, this year’s group sports several members from Oregon and is performing music by Portland born, Salem-based composer/educator (and St. Olaf alum) Stanford Scriven, as well as a J.S. Bach arrangement by Seattle’s John Muelheisen and Sure On This Shining Night by Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen. The program contains mostly compositions by 20th and 21st century  composers including Eric Whitacre, Robert Scholz, Rosephanye Powell, Undine Smith Moore, Moses Hogan, Jean Berger, Carolyn Jennings, Ralph Manuel, David Conte, choir founder F. Melius Christiansen, plus the  Sanctus from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and a selection from Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criola.

Choral glory continues with Chanticleer’s performances Friday at Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, and Saturday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall as part of the San Francisco ensemble’s 40th anniversary tour. This year’s program, “Heart of a Soldier,” includes songs from across the ages on the sadly perennial subject of human conflict and its consequences by Renaissance European composers William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Clement Janequin, and Guillaume Dufay through some of the finest contemporary American composers including Jennifer Higdon and Mason Bates.

Friends of Chamber Music often brings Chanticleer to Portland.

Another superb vocal ensemble, Portland’s world-renowned Cappella Romana, brings over the great French conductor Marcel Peres (who helped rescue early music from dry, scholarly performances) to lead one of the great Renaissance masterpieces, Guillaume de Machaut’s Mass of Notre Dame Saturday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sunday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church.

Pérès’s Ensemble Organum’s 1996 recording of the masterpiece by the the greatest composer/poet of the 14th century used Corsican singers versed in traditional embellishments that might resemble medieval vocal practices. Their intentionally earthier vocal textures and Peres’s emphasis on lower voices produced as much controversy as early music ever experiences — decried by devotees of later choral music’s restrained, pristine Anglican choirboy sound (which most previous recordings adopted), praised by those (like me) who cherished its folkier, emotionally expressive power. His approach should make an excellent match for Cappella’s singers (particularly its magnificent basses), themselves experienced in medieval Mediterranean vocal traditions.

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