Brooklyn Rider

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. 


Brooklyn Rider & Kayhan Kalhor review: unchanging aesthetic

Poorly programmed contemporary music concert's strong opening and closing numbers can't compensate for a sagging middle


Beloved, do not let me be discouraged closed the first half of Brooklyn Rider and kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor‘s concert at Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center with the exact same highly digestible aesthetic it opened on. The May 24 program’s unchanging syrupy aesthetic left my mind to wander to the harsh life of the Himalayan mountain goat. I imagined David Attenborough so gracefully narrating the subsistence existence or brutal death which certainly lay ahead for my little goat. That is to say, Beloved and the concert’s unchanging aesthetic was that of music written to serve a function subservient to another medium, such as nature visuals.

The problem was: there was no other medium. Just a poorly programmed show with so much filler that my ears were deadened before I could enjoy the few compositions I would have otherwise appreciated.

Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: Reza Maleki.

I had attempted to spare myself this fate by researching BR to make sure I was part of the target audience. I perused their website and listened to their 2017 release of Philip Glass’s String Quartets 6 & 7. Now admittedly, I didn’t seek out Brooklyn Rider’s music with Kalhor or Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen’s compositions, both included in this particular show. But the signs seemed promising: A recent release of new music from a composer I enjoy (if not necessarily those specific works); a review hailing them as the “future of chamber music” (Strings magazine 2010); Kronos Quartet being considered a “similar artist” on their Spotify page, possibly for their release of Glass quartets; a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette description that called them “four classical musicians performing with the energy of young rock stars jamming on their guitars, a Beethoven-goes-indie foray into making classical music accessible but also celebrating why it was good in the first place.”

But Brooklyn Rider’s marketed image didn’t align with the actual programmatic flatlining I experienced. It’s true that Brooklyn Rider is accessible and “why it was good in the first place” is subjective, but there was no “rockstar” energy emanating from the stage. A “rockstar” implies a larger-than-life persona, a personality that seems irresistibly engaging, and the energy to sell that image so effectively the audience believes it’s who you really are. A “rockstar” knows they are not just performing separate musical pieces, but that a concert is one singular performance from the moment you step on stage to the moment the curtain drops, and if you’re not holding the audience’s attention, you’re losing it.


Chamber music crossovers: Anti-Genrefication activists

Ensembles win broader audiences by embracing wider range of music

“Crossover” is a dirty word in classical music. To some old-guardians, the c-word implies some kind of sell out or dilution of the purity of great music. Although many of us are still willing to pay a considerable sum to sit quietly and watch a few musicians play music from previous centuries (music now easily available at home with a click) on a stage for a couple hours, chamber music presenters and performers are increasingly enhancing/diluting (depending on your point of view) the “classic” chamber music experience with other kinds of music and even non musical elements — theater, visual art, video, and more.

Chamber Music Northwest and/or Portland5 (the city’s performing arts center) this year have brought Black Violin (classical meets hip hop), Frye Street Quartet (classical meets climate change), 2Cellos (classical meets hair gel), Igudesman & Joo (classical meets comedy) to town. Local musicians like Darrell Grant, Portland Cello Project and ARCO-PDX cross classical with jazz, pop, and rock-show presentation, respectively.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music's Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music started its Not So Classic series in the 1999-2000 season because “we felt there were no many chamber ensembles out there that didn’t fit into the traditional string quartet/piano trio programming on our Classic Series,” executive director Pat Zagelow told ArtsWatch via email. “And since our Classic Series has a strong subscriber base and people are quite happy with that programming as it is, rather than change that around or just add to it, we started a separate series that would allow us to offer some different instrumentation and/or different chamber music programming … [from] contemporary groups like eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet and So Percussion to jazz-influenced groups like Turtle Island String Quartet to unusual quartets like the Rastrelli Cello Quartet and Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, eclectic instrumentation like Quartetto Gelato, and groups that take ‘traditional’ chamber music and shake it up, like Red Priest, or groups that focus on non-traditional repertoire, like the Dali Quartet and their Latin-American program.”

Though the series started at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, “we really think these concerts are better experienced in a more intimate setting, which is what has drawn us to [downtown Portland’s 300-seat] The Old Church recently,” Zagelow explains. “The recent renovation with wood flooring on the stage and better lighting and sound makes it an even better option.”

As hoped, “the audience for Not So Classic concerts is younger and more diverse than for our Classic Series,” Zagelow wrote. You can hear a recent crossover — between Chinese traditional and contemporary classical music — for the next couple weeks on Portland All Classical Radio’s Played in Oregon program, featuring the Shanghai Quartet and pipa virtuosa Wu Man playing music by Tan Dun and more.

Last month saw a flurry of crossover shows in Portland that mixed classical music — or at least “classical” instruments, and they leave me hopeful about the future of chamber music.


Portland Jazz Fetival

Portland jazz legend Thara Memory conducts the Artfully Miles orchestra at Portland Jazz Festival. Credit: Fran Kaufman

The big music news of the weekend — which turned into one of those can’t miss culture maven events that spring up in Portland every few months — was unquestionably Friday night’s FearNoMusic tribute to the 20th century’s most influential composer and perhaps cultural figure, John Cage. FNM and various guest musicians from Portland State University and even Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar, Portland Opera associate conductor Robert Ainsley, and other top area musicians performed 11 of Cage’s provocative works in various spaces of Portland’s spectacular new YU art center. We’ll have much more to say about this dizzying event — and its subject — soon.

Cage’s influence might be detectable in the next most interesting performance — it’s not precisely a conventional concert — of the weekend. On Sunday, Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral collects two of the Northwest’s finest vocal ensembles, In Mulieribus and Cappella Romana, along with alt classical stars Portland Cello Project (whose new album has been announced for May Day, with release parties in April), koto virtuosa Mitsuki Dazai, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, and musicians from Portland Baroque Orchestra, the Oregon Symphony and more to sing, read and play music and words by composers such as Hildegard of Bingen and J.S. Bach and poets including W.H. Auden. Trinity’s recently arrived music director engaged guest artistic director Stephen Marc Beaudoin to devise lighting effects to turn the grand cathedral into an installation space, and (as in the Cage extravaganza), musicians will perform in different parts of the venue.


Brooklyn Rider

Last Saturday, Oregonian classical music writer James McQuillen and OAW’s Brett Campbell attended Brooklyn Rider’s concert at Reed College presented by Friends of Chamber Music. OAW grand panjandrum Barry Johnson invited the pair to immortalize one of their occasional post-concert discussions in an e-mail exchange. Here’s the result. Arts journalists often find that our ideas develop more cogently in conversation, but normally readers see only the final product. We’d love to know whether OAW readers find this form of coverage as useful and fun as we did, because we might do it again in future — and in events where the participants disagree more than happened this time.

James McQuillen: So, before we get to the performance, the first thing that struck me about Brooklyn Rider was the marketing. It seems peculiar that a hip, genre-defying quartet is treated as such a novelty nearly forty years after the formation of Kronos, especially since Kronos has been very active all that time, and other quartets—the Soldier String Quartet, Ethel—have followed in some sense in their wake. Brooklyn Rider can’t be held responsible for their press, of course, but they certainly promote the image. That said, their particular blend of original compositions, new music and core quartet repertoire is distinctive.

Brett Campbell: Yes, exactly. As a West Coaster, I’m always a little amused when NYC ‘discovers’ something that’s been going on out here since the early ’70s. It’s just another in a long line of West-to-East innovations I’ve written about before . Let’s not forget that the world music pioneer and “ultramodernist” composer Henry Cowell was from the Bay Area, John Cage was from LA (and conceived many of his major innovations in SF and Seattle) and Merce Cunningham from Centralia, Washington. They all became famous in New York, but that’s because it was, well, New York. Their trail blazing attitudes were cultivated out here, and if they’d received support from arts institutions and audiences here, maybe they would have stayed. Kronos’s David Harrington was born right here in Portland and grew up in Seattle (where he started Kronos) before becoming a San Francisco institution. Many composers regarded as quintessential East Coasters actually hail from out this way, including David Lang, the Pulitzer prize-winning founder of Bang on a Can, who grew up in LA and studied with Harrison at Stanford.

Despite the media cluelessness (and I just had to correct a New York Times story from Berkeley yesterday that claimed that San Francisco became a new music innovator in the ’50s — two generations after Cowell was doing big new music concerts there), the young East Coast musicians do understand this. When I interviewed the Brooklyn Rider founders  recently for another story about their other band, the Knights, they and So Percussion and others all properly genuflect before the Kronos legacy and cite them as primary inspiration. I’d say the Brooklyns are Riding Kronos’s coattails, but I can’t see those guys wearing tails.

But as you say, unlike BR, Kronos wouldn’t play original music by band members, and they wouldn’t play Beethoven. About the farthest back they’d go is Bartok, I imagine, unless you count their arrangements of Perotin et al. on the Early Music CD some years back.