daniel heila

MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


Cascadia Composers review: Northwesterners look to the east

Oregon performers shine in Asian-influenced music by Oregon composers.

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

Northwest composers have long been influenced by the poetry, music, and culture of countries across the Pacific. “Looking East” was therefore a fitting theme for a concert hosted by the Cascadia Composers group in Eugene’s First Congregational Church on Friday, October 17th. The hour-long program of new music, organized by Eugene composer Paul Safar, featured works by Mark Vigil, Derek HealeySafar, and Tomas Svoboda.

Mitsuki Dazai performs Tomas Svoboda’s haunting Autumn on the koto.

Mitsuki Dazai performs Tomas Svoboda’s haunting Autumn on the koto.

Mitsuki Dazai introduced Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s rarely heard Autumn (Op. 110),  written between 1982–83, by noting that the late koto master Yoko Ito Gates had commissioned the composition as a solo work. Svoboda, reflecting upon the Japanese acceptance of the natural process of aging and the completion of a life cycle, chose the theme of autumn. The composition has three movements, each reflecting a different aspect of seasonal change: early, middle and late autumn. Dazai, a master of the zither-like stringed instrument, performed with skill and passion this meditative and at times vigorously complex rhythmic composition.

Watching dragonflies and butterflies skimming across the Siletz River rekindled Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s interest in Japanese music and poetry. The result of this inquisitiveness was his composition Dragonfly Idyll/Butterfly Idyil performed by Jeff Parsons (harp), Dazai (koto), Safar (piano), and Daniel Heila (alto flute). Heila’s featured performance captured the fluttering flight of these delicate creatures above the water.

Flutist Daniel Heila captures the flight of Butterfly and Dragonfly skimming the water.

Flutist Daniel Heila captures the flight of butterfly and dragonfly skimming the water.

Safar’s descriptive  Cat on a Wire featured Portland Cello Project member Kelly Quesada along with Andrew Teem (dumbek) and Ken Sokolov (zills). Quesada’s dynamic lively and spirited playing brought to life a score focused on felines in motion. Originally performed as an aerial dance at Cherry Blossom’s Cat and Bird Vaudeville Show in 2009, this was its first concertullscreen=”allowfullscreen”>

Soprano Nancy Wood’s expressive voice, dance-like hand gestures, and body movements across the stage emotionally expressed the loneliness felt in the cold of night after killing a “yellow green spider crawling on a red rose” in Safar’s Spider for soprano and piano, based on a haiku text by Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki.

The performance of former University of Oregon professor Derek Healey’s Three Songs from The Silvered Lute: a Wang Wei Song Album featured Wood with Safar (piano). The songs, “The Ravine,” “The Grove of Dark Bamboo” and “The Empty Mountain” were based on text by Wang Wei, an 8th century Chinese poet and translated by the composer. The program noted that the piano portion was influenced by Chinese instruments such as the gu zheng, Qin, yang ch’in, and the erhu. The piano effectively created an Eastern soundscape reflective of these instruments rarely heard in the west.

The title centerpiece for the evening’s concert was Safar’s The Warbler Sings, a new song cycle composed this year with text from the haiku of Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694) and performed by David Bender (trumpet and flugelhorn), Nathan Waddell (double bass), Safar (piano) and Wood (soprano), for whom the it was written. The piece engaged my need for attentive listening with haiku text such as “Pond frog plop” or “Winter downpour even the monkey needs a raincoat” combined with Safar’s acoustic plucking of the piano strings and momentary statements, sometimes abstract and at others jazz-like, by other instruments. The Warbler Sings was made possible through a 2013–14 Composer of the Year Award from the Oregon Music Teachers Association.

This was the second Cascadia Composers concert that I’ve had the opportunity to hear in Eugene. The event was well attended by 35–40 people of mixed ages and demographics who thoroughly demonstrated their appreciation for the opportunity to hear new contemporary classical music. Post-concert catered refreshments of Thai food delights and an opportunity to speak with the composers and performers added an extra sense of camaraderie to the evening’s experience.

I sense that there is an emerging new music connection between Portland and Eugene. This week, Third Angle New Music Ensemble will be performing the work of three UO-trained composers in Portland as part of its Studio Series. Early next year works by UO Composer Forum members will be featured in a Portland concert by soprano Esteli Gomez. Like the flowing waters of the Willamette, let new music bring Oregon’s cultural centers closer together.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon.

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