big mouth society

I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

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Covideo

Oregon music organizations respond to corona culture cancel with livestreaming

On Wednesday, March 11, Cappella Romana executive director Mark Powell faced a tough decision. The Portland vocal ensemble had a performance scheduled for that Saturday. But the coronavirus now threatened all concerts. Gov. Kate Brown had just prohibited public gatherings of greater than 250 people, half the attendance the group was expecting. And with the virus spreading and responses racing, even that might change. But the group had already rehearsed its performance of Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy, singers from around the country had already arrived to join the Portland-based performers, 500 seats had already been sold, and the venue, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, couldn’t add a second performance if they wanted to split the audience in half.

Powell called his counterpart at Portland Baroque Orchestra (where he also used to work), which also had a concert coming up that weekend. “I was just going to call you,” PBO’s executive director Abigail McKee replied. With news arriving of concert cancellations around the country, the orchestra had just decided to livestream their Friday performance and had secured portable video equipment and a videographer. Would Cappella Romana like to use them for their Saturday show?

Powell leapt at the offer, canceling Saturday’s live performance. PBO in turn made the same offer to yet another Portland music group, Big Mouth Society, for its Sunday afternoon concert. All three wound up livestreaming their shows for the first time, and all declared the unexpected streaming experiment a resounding success. A week later, Portland taiko/dance ensemble Unit Souzou also livestreamed a show, by which time circumstances had changed in this rapidly evolving crisis.

With other Portland performing arts organizations also now planning to livestream events during the crisis, this month’s streaming experiments offer lessons pertinent long after 2020’s virus crisis and Great Culture Cancel have passed.

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Open Wide

Big Mouth Society embraces inclusivity, high artistic standards, and socially engaged art

A shipwreck brought musician Emily Lau to Portland. It didn’t happen in Oregon but off the Italian coast, where in 2012 the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground, capsized and killed 32 people. Lau was on her honeymoon, and though she and her husband weren’t injured, the Mediterranean disaster changed her life. A virtuoso musician and composer, the perfectionist Hong Kong native was then stressing out trying to make it in Boston’s highly competitive early music scene.

Big Mouth’s Emily Lan.

“I’m a classical musician, and my whole life I’ve been trying to… perfect something,” she told CBS News at the time. “And fear comes with being a perfectionist. And I think the emotional take for me, after being almost dead, was that I don’t have to be so scared any more.”

Seeing dead bodies and wondering for hours whether they’d survive clarified Lau’s priorities. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Radioactive glowing disk returns to Oregon!

Summer arrives, with festivals, season closers and sun

Caution: Radioactive glowing disk has returned to Oregon’s skies! Remember your sunscreen! Remember your sunscreen! Message repeats.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1911, oil on canvas, 14.9 x 25.5 feet, University of Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons

Five weeks and one day

There’s an old zen saying: you should meditate 20 minutes every day unless you’re too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour every day.

Two festivals of contemporary classical music hit Portland this month, and if you’re too busy for one you should make time for the other. Chamber Music Northwest starts June 24 and stretches well into July, with local and international musicians performing everything from tons of Mozart to a bunch of stuff by contemporary composers. Meanwhile on June 27 Makrokosmos, now in its fifth year, crams a similar density of breadth and excellence in a one-day festival of Takemitsu, Crumb, and other modernist composers.

“Makrokosmos Project V: Black Angels”
June 27
Vestas Building

Bicoastal pianists DUO Stephanie & Saar present the best value in Portland’s contemporary music scene: Makrokosmos Project, a one-day mini-festival which has evolved into an annual feat of endurance for Portland new music nuts. This year, local pianists join Ho and Ahuvia to present the complete piano music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, spread across two of the evening’s four segments, along with other piano works by John Luther Adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Olivier Messiaen. The mini-fest ends with the Pyxis Quartet’s performance of George Crumb’s gorgeously nightmare-inducing Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land” for electric string quartet (you read that right). One ticket gets you a five-hour mini-festival with free cheese and wine. Hard to beat.

Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival: Week One
June 24 – 30
Kaul Auditorium at Reed College
Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University
Alberta Rose Theater

Clarinetist extraordinaire David Shifrin ends his nearly four-decade run as CMNW Artistic Director with an opening week full of clarinets. No fewer than 27 all-star clarinetists perform two centuries of clarinet music ranging from Mozart—the first great composer to write for the instrument—to new works by Libby Larsen and Michele Mangani.

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MusicWatch Weekly: across the ages

Concerts span the centuries from Renaissance to 21st century sounds

Oregonians today are lucky to be able to hear live performances of music from several centuries, not just the narrow 150 year swath of Central European music that once dominated classical concerts. This week’s concert schedule includes music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and contemporary eras—- sometimes in the same show.

Big Mouth’s Emily Lau

Big Mouth Society  has added a wonderful, welcome wild card to Oregon music. Headed by accomplished early music performer Emily Lau, the group combines theater, performance art, Renaissance, Baroque and contemporary music, and modern social concerns into singular shows that transcend standard concert format. In King of Monster Island: A Wild Memoir, Lau and another nationally renowned early musician, Tina Chancey, use viol solos, medieval music by Guillaume de Machaut, Irish hornpipes, Bosnian Sephardic tangos, “as well as juvenilia, parody, satire and a shameless reworking of tunes by Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Tom Lehrer and Flory Jagoda” to tell an eventful autobiographical tale.
Friday & Saturday, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Ave. Portland.

• Another ensemble that mingles ancient and modern, Dreamers’ Circus, came together, as so many happy combinations do, in a pub. Jazz pianist Nikolaj Busk had repaired to a Copenhagen bar after a concert and spotted a fiddler (Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen) and Swedish cittern (a Renaissance lute) player, Ale Carr, jamming on traditional Danish tunes. Busk joined on in the bar’s piano, and over the next decade, the trio found itself not only winning folk music awards but also working with classical music bands like Copenhagen Philharmonic and the renowned Danish String Quartet — Sorenson’s other band. His classical background, Busk’s jazz influence and Carr’s long roots in traditional folk music give the band a unique and musically vibrant place in the folk music world, as evidenced by the fact that this show is presented by Portland’s venerable classical organization Friends of Chamber Music.

Along with “classical” piano and violin, they’re liable to bust out accordion, cittern, kokle, ukulele, stomp board, clog fiddle and synthesizers. Their splendid new Rooftop Sessions album shows the band at its best. Here’s a clip of them performing with another great Swedish band, Väsen, which performs at The Shedd in Eugene next Wednesday, April 10. Read Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch feature about their previous Oregon visit.
Sunday, The Old Church, Portland.

• Despite their name, the Tallis Scholars are far from musty or academic. Long recognized as one of the world’s finest choirs, the award-winning singers make sacred Renaissance music come alive with transparent, soaring performances that move today’s listeners. Over four decades, they’ve toured the world many times over, and won loyal audiences in previous Portland performances. This one is a greatest hits of Renaissance choral music, including Gregorio Allegri’s famous Miserere, and church classics by Josquin Des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Cristóbal de Morales.
Sunday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, Portland.

• In Guitarology, the latest concert in the valuable (yet free of charge!) Celebration Works Series, Portland Guitar Duo also crosses the centuries in music, tracing the development of the guitar over half a millennium of music on a collection of historic lutes and guitars.
Friday, First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder, Portland.

Monica Huggett plays French music with Portland Baroque Orchestra musicians.

Baroque

• The most familiar Baroque music is either Italian (Vivaldi, Corelli) or German (Bach, Handel). But 18th century French music has its own elegance and charm. In Leclair, Rameau, and the Age of Enlightenment, Portland Baroque Orchestra’s new chamber music series brings two superstars of Baroque music, guest harpsichordist Byron Schenkman and PBO artistic director and violinist Monica Huggett, to join veteran PBO viola da gamba master Joanna Blendulf and violinist Toma Iliev, in graceful, spirited sounds by François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and tragically short-lived Jean-Marie Leclair.
Saturday, First Baptist Church, 1110 S.W. Taylor St. Portland.

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