contemporary classical music

Composing on this side of complexity

Third Angle “Homecomings” program showcases Oregon-connected composers--but takes too few risks

By DANIEL HEILA

Contemporary classical music composers–whom we might define as “those who look to the classical canon as root”–are frequently self-conscious about the historical and perennial shortcomings of modern art music (“that which seeks to transcend the history of western music”–again, my definition). Hyper abstract structures, gratuitous dissonance, obfuscated rhythmicality, and self-indulgent conceptualism can all alienate the audience and performers–although minus the adjectives these approaches are all fertile ground when used objectively. So it is understandable that a goodly portion of the genre’s repertoire is in opposition to a perceived aesthetic toxicity.

Many composers seek to traverse the morass of complexity to access an elegant simplicity on the far side (tip of the hat to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). This journey is deceptively arduous and involves coming to terms with the very complexity to be transcended. Third Angle New Music’s concert Homecomings of October 17th and 18th, held in Studio 2 of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), evidenced varying degrees of success in this endeavor, with a program of work by composers who have come up in Oregon and then gone out into the world (or stayed local in two cases) to establish themselves in professional careers.

Percussion and audience at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Percussion and audience await Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Over the lengthy, single act evening I became aware of two prominent features of the music. One was a tendency toward reliable structures on which hung thin forms (the shape of the music that fills out the structure) which were in some cases almost anemic. The other feature was, for lack of a deeper analysis, the presence of the above-mentioned self-consciousness, perhaps what could be called risk aversion.

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Requiem, wrestling with the angels

The premiere of Sir James MacMillan's "A European Requiem" at the Oregon Bach Festival rages against the dying of the light

EUGENE – A perilous slide overcomes the Kyrie eleison, a keening, piercing swoop of sound, a lament rising above the orchestra like an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question. Lord have mercy, the words mean, and in countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s delivery they are not so much an invocation as a genuine plea.

Anyone expecting a smooth and soothing slip into the oblivion of the afterlife from Sir James MacMillan’s ambitious new requiem, which had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival here, was in for a shock. A European Requiem is less a work of solace, though it has some tender passages of relief, than a deep and fiercely felt argument about the unknowable – a lamentation not for an individual soul but for the soul of a continent, for the idea of a broad and culturally cohesive Europe, which MacMillan sees as slipping away. Great ideas, when they die, die hard: one does not lose, the music seems to say, without a struggle, and in the struggle lie the sense and passion of the thing being lost.

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athene Delene

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athena Delene

You don’t need to agree with MacMillan that an ancient idea of what Europe means is passing, or even understand the specifics of what is a rigorous historical and philosophical argument, to feel the urgency and texture of the debate in the music. A European Requiem pulls out all the stops, taking full advantage of the sonic possibilities of solo vocal lines; the festival’s very large and potent Berwick Chorus, whose members stood on rafters seemingly halfway to the sky; and the estimable festival orchestra, which undertook a rigorous forty-minute workout, especially in the percussion section. Conductor Matthew Halls, who is also the Bach Festival’s artistic director, led a splendidly well-articulated performance, pinpointing its textural shifts and vital balancing of tension and ease.

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Claire Chase: Leading from inside out

Performing this week in Portland, the flutist and contemporary classical music entrepreneur develops and nurtures new models for new music

Claire Chase often tells the story of her first teenage encounter with German-American composer Edgard Varese’s haunting 20th century classic Density 21.5. The brief, elusive solo composition for flute utterly transfixed her, setting her on a course to find more moments like that one. Its hold on her remains undiminished. “The more I live with this four minute masterpiece the more I love it,” she said in an interview with the new music magazine I Care if You Listen last year, “and the more astounded I am at how timeless it is, how it teaches me every time I play it, and how many burning questions it leaves unanswered.”

claire chase orangeMany classical musicians would have been content to just keep endlessly recycling such a favorite old chestnut, along with other hoary classics. But Chase, who grew up in Chicago and is now based in Brooklyn, wanted something more: more Densities, more transfixing moments, more timeless music, more unanswered questions.

And she was able to make that happen because, unlike so many play-what-they’re-told, stick-to-the-classics musicians, Chase is a creator. Not of compositions, but of creative opportunities. Just as George Crumb’s searing Black Angels inspired David Harrington to start Kronos Quartet, Density is Chase’s Rosebud, inspiring her to create projects and ensembles — including her well known International Contemporary Ensemble — that make more creative leaps like Varese’s possible. She’ll showcase some of the results of her latest, the hugely ambitious Density 2036 commissioning project, at two solo performances in Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series this Thursday and Friday, February 18-19, at southeast Portland’s intimate Zoomtopia studios.

The shows will feature music Chase has been commissioning from contemporary composers since 2014 in the project, which will continue with commissions each year until the centennial of Varese’s Density 21.5.  Each year, she’ll premiere a new hour long program of solo flute work commissioned that year, and tour it as she’s doing in Portland, releasing recordings annually with scores and other performance notes and materials made freely available online to flutists everywhere. Every three years, she plans to give a progressively longer cumulative performance of all the works commissioned to that point, culminating in a 24 hour marathon in 2036 that will no doubt leave her lips and lungs in need of futuristic medical treatment.

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New Music from Old Traditions

Two world premieres by David Crumb and Terry McQuilkin in Eugene reflect the past in music of today

by GARY FERRINGTON

A pair of 21st century compositions by University of Oregon faculty members premiering next week look back to 19th century music for inspiration.

Pianist Henry Kramer performs composer David Crumb’s Nocturne, in a University of Oregon Beall Hall concert on November 14. Three days later, Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet will be performed by the Delgani String Quartet at Eugene’s United Lutheran Church. Both Drs. Crumb and McQuilkin are members of the UO School of Music and Dance composition faculty.

Delgani premieres Terry McQuilkin's new string quartet.

Delgani premieres Terry McQuilkin’s new string quartet.

The Delgani String Quartet commissioned Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet specifically for its season-opening concert that also includes the first quartets by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn. The November 17 performance, titled “New Beginnings,” represents a fresh start for Delgani as they embark on their inaugural season with new violist Kimberlee Uwate.

Composer Terry McQuilkin: Photo: UO School of Music and Dance

Composer Terry McQuilkin: Photo: UO School of Music and Dance.

McQuilkin is a composer, educator, and music reviewer who in 2006 selected as the Oregon Music Teachers Association’s Composer of the Year. Fantasy, McQuilkin notes in an email message, is not a fixed form and the meaning of the word has evolved over time. For his own composition, he has been inspired by composers of the late Renaissance, as well as some from the 20th century, who have explored this inspirational form.

Invisible Light is based on the hymn tune, “Detroit,” published in the early 19th century shape-note hymnbook, A Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony. “My attraction was to the tune itself rather than to any particular text and my piece is a free-form series of variations built on the original tune – or rather fragments of the tune,” McQuilkin wrote. “In the process, the musical texture, tempo, harmonic language and style change quite a bit.”

McQuilkin suggest that readers who wish to look up “Detroit” on line will want to listen first to the tenor line that’s the main melody. “When, about one-third of the way into Invisible Light, I present the hymn in four-part harmony, I give the melody to the soprano voice — that is, the first violin, but retain, I hope, some of the straightforward, raw quality of the original.”

Night Music

David Crumb.

David Crumb.

Crumb’s Nocturne is inspired by the beautiful melodies and poignant harmonic language of Frédéric Chopin’s piano Nocturnes. “I think the challenge of undertaking a project like this was to attempt to capture something of the flavor of the Nocturnes, while not composing an actual stylistic ‘homage,’” Crumb notes in an email message. “The listener should experience this as a truly original and contemporary work, created in my own personal language. However, some elements, like the accompanimental figuration and singing melody are clearly evocative of the mood, texture, and harmony of Chopin’s music. The work has a clear tonal architecture and compound formal aspect that brings to mind certain of Chopin’s works.” Kramer will also play pieces by Chopin in his recital, which repeats on Sunday at Freeman Motor Company in Portland.

Pianist Henry Kramer.

Pianist Henry Kramer.

Crumb has received prizes, grants (including a Guggenheim Fellowship) and performances of his music around the country and released recordings on several classical new music labels. Henry Kramer’s performance of Crumb’s Nocturne is a part of the Rising Star series and commissioning project initiated by Portland Piano International to enrich the 21st century solo piano repertoire. Jeff Winslow recently reviewed the previous installment featuring music by Portland composer Michael Johanson, who along with Jack Gabel, Sarah Zipperer Gaskins, Bryan Johanson, and Greg Steinke was selected by an international committee to write music for this year’s series. PPI’s new series and the Delgani Quartet’s commitment to contemporary music are contributing to an increasing tide of  new Oregon music.

Henry Kramer plays a free concert of music by Crumb and Chopin at 6 pm November 14 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, and at 4 pm Sunday, November 15 at Freeman Motor Company, 7524 SW Macadam Avenue, Portland.

The Delgani String Quartet plays music by McQuilkin, Prokofiev and Mendelssohn at 7:30 pm November 17 at United Lutheran Church, 2230 Washington St, Eugene. Tickets are $22 in advance online and $25 at the door. Students can purchase tickets for 50% off. 

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

Skeleton Piano Dances: Emotional disconnect

Creative multimedia concert is long on virtuosity and inventiveness, short on emotional engagement

By TRISTAN BLISS

As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?

Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.

Jennnifer Wright plays her Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Studios this weekend.

Jennnifer Wright played her Skeleton piano at BodyVox Studios.

I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.

All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.

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