Benjamin britten

45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming


This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.


A tightly sprung turn of the screw

Portland Shakespeare Project's spry and stimulating stage version of Henry James's classic ghost story teases the tension in the tale

A great ghost story answers few questions. It seeps in and slithers out, raising the hair on your neck and revealing almost nothing but impressions of what may or may not have taken place.

That’s why The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s 1898 novella, is such a classic of the genre, and why not only readers, but also composers and playwrights, return to it again and again. The tale combines pinpoint writerly erudition with emotional and factual obfuscation. What really happened in those few short days at Bly House, the English country manse by the lake? Was the boy possessed? Did the ghosts exist? If evil truly was in the air, what was its source? Was the young governess a heroine, or criminally insane?

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills ...

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills …

James’s story leaves it all up in the air, where the shades of memory and overwrought imagination fly, and people have been interpreting it freely for more than a century, not only as a human puzzle but also as an artistic archetype. How can the tale be told in other ways, and still remain true to the original?

In his 1954 opera adaptation, Benjamin Britten retold it with terse and muscular music and a libretto by Myfanwy Piper that moves swiftly but fully, bringing everyone to the stage, spectral and not: Portland Opera presented a fine production of it in 2009 that was big on visual effects.


Music Review: Resonance Ensemble sings Britten, incandescently

Celebrating composer Benjamin Britten's 100th anniversary, Resonance creates a birthday high


Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten's music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten’s music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.


Benjamin Britten would be 100 years old this year, and his music seems well positioned to outlive the powerful segments of American and European musical establishments that resolutely ignored him during the heyday of 20th century modernism. He’s long been popular in his British homeland, of course, and his operas are performed more than any other composer born in the 20th century. Reflecting its creator, Britten’s music has a certain toughness and resilience that defy expectations and categorizations.

In celebration, Portland’s Resonance Ensemble presented a selection of his choral and solo vocal works a week ago last Sunday, performing for the first time in the live yet intimate ambience of Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. They dove right in with the meaty “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” on a poem written at Britten’s request by W. H. Auden. Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon gave a short, lively talk on the backstory beforehand.

Auden was deeply attracted to Britten, and seems to have taken the opportunity for one last attempt to make Britten return the interest, using all his considerable poetic ability. He wrote a series of arresting images, initially on topic but eventually casting all pretense and double meanings aside, by turns flattering, pleading, scolding, and bullying.(“… O hang the head, / Impetuous child with the tremendous brain…”). But when have those tactics ever worked? Britten was hardly unaffected—the music is some of his finest, rich with harmonic and contrapuntal color, and often intensely expressive—but his inspiration was primarily the patron saint of music, whom he had long wanted to honor with a major vocal work (not least because he was born on November 22nd, St. Cecilia’s Day). He even chopped up Auden’s poem, extracting the last quatrain of the first section to make choruses for the following two sections, to keep the focus on Cecilia and, no doubt, his own unwavering artistic purposes. He and Auden became estranged soon afterwards.

The music stands apart, not only from mid-20th century high modernism but also much of later choral practice, which has avoided that modernism so assiduously as to fall into the bland and saccharine. There is nothing bland or saccharine in this work, whose delightfully off-kilter harmonies may be inspired by Stravinsky but are much refined through Britten’s own highly individual sensibility. The easy lyricism of the individual voices and the unabashed expressivity are also worlds away from any Stravinskian model. Still, it can’t be much easier to sing.