david crumb

FearNoMusic review: Church of new sounds

New music ensemble's concert makes a bully pulpit for new music by Oregon composers

I have now gone to so many Fear No Music concerts at The Old Church in Southwest Portland and met so many of the same performers, composers, teachers, and classmates (some of these fields overlap) that now it really does feel just like going to church, except that the music is mostly better (as is the company) and the wine comes in adult-sized glasses. The subject of the sermon at the new music ensemble’s February 13 concert, Locally Sourced Sounds, drew an attentive congregation of new music disciples and devotees.

FearNoMusic. Photo: JasonQuigley.

The first acolyte I always spot at these shows is Jeff Winslow, composer, ArtsWatcher, and Cascadian, with his bushy white beard and his attentive, friendly eyes. Percussion guru Joel Bluestone was there too, still part of the FNM family even after retiring from the group last year. Composer, violist, and FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch was tending the famous wine bar, dispensing generous pours of Lompoc IPA—that is, when he wasn’t on stage turning pages for FNM’s executive director (and Bunch’s wife), pianist Monica Ohuchi.

Two student composers from Reed College, Yiyang Wang and Nathan Showell, rounded out a program featuring Cascadian Denis Floyd, University of Oregon’s David Crumb, and Portland State’s legendary Tomas Svoboda, the patron saint (to continue the church analogy) of Cascadia Composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed Yiyang Wang’s piano trio.

The concert opened with Wang’s Color Studies for piano trio, a perfect bit of chamber music which seemed rather too sophisticated for a college junior. Wang’s opening “Fugue in G” starts with a dark and “Shostakovichianmodal subject; cellist Nancy Ives fittingly evoked Rostropovich’s rich tone while Inés Voglar Belgique’s violin hovered sweetly above, supported by pianist Jeff Payne’s usual restrained, centered touch. Extended techniques characterized the second movement, “Steel,”with Payne plucking high glockenspielisch harmonics, strumming Cowell-esque chords, and brushing the low strings for a sound like sizzling power lines; meanwhile, Voglar Belgique and Ives passed the theme around with bouncy pizzicato glissandi. The final movement, “Racing”, used an erhu-inspired melody to pit the instruments against each other in a mad bitonal dash towards an inconclusive climax on a genuinely nutty (and well-voiced) cluster chord. If this is what Wang is capable of as an undergrad, I can’t wait to hear what she does after she finishes her studies.


Oregon music on record 2015: Contemporary classical

21st century sounds from Oregon composers and musicians

Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, and this one covers mostly contemporary music from Oregon composers. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 20122013, and 2014, or our previous entry focusing on Oregon early music ensembles.

David Schiff CD Cover ImageDavid Schiff: Chamber Music Northwest Premieres (2000-2014)
“All of my music is a form of autobiography,” writes Portland composer David Schiff in the liner notes to this new compilation. Judging by this two-disk survey compiling festival performances of five of his most recent compositions, the 70 year old composer has led a pretty fascinating musical life, and this important set chronicles the latest stretch.

The release is a product of one of Oregon’s most fruitful creative collaborations: the three-decade long partnership between Chamber Music Northwest and Schiff. Almost alone among major Oregon music institutions, CMNW has invested in its hometown’s creative potential through its frequent commissions of new music from the Reed College prof. The result is a body of chamber music that stands with any other American composer’s of the period.


Henry Kramer review: The new shall lie down with the old

Portland Piano International rising star recital links 21st and 19th century compositional adventures


Portland Piano International’s artistic director Arnaldo Cohen and executive director Ellen Bergstone Wasil should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves about now. They took a chance marrying their Rising Stars series of up-and-coming touring concert pianists with a series of twelve commissions to Oregon composers for new works inspired by classics of the repertory. As Henry Kramer’s November 15 recital showed, things are working out very well. There was a smidgen of esthetic mismatch between the new, represented by Eugene composer and University of Oregon professor of music David Crumb, and the old, represented by Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms, but it was easily smoothed over by Kramer’s extraordinary artistry.

Kramer's Portland performance took place at a car dealership. Photo: Dan Wasil.

Kramer’s Portland performance took place at a car dealership. Photo: Dan Wasil.

PPI also took a chance on the venue this time, the front showroom of south Portland’s Freeman Motor Company. That didn’t work out quite as well. It’s difficult to find and access for folks driving from downtown Portland, and it’s separated from busy Macadam Avenue by only a sidewalk and a line of apparently thick but giant windows. (Not only that, the e-mailed publicity sent us to their service department over a mile away.) Fortunately, the company put out a royal welcome to both artists and audience, and Kramer’s absorbing performances made it easy to ignore the low-level deviations from typical concert hall ambience.

Henry Kramer also performed at Portland's Terwilliger Plaza.

Henry Kramer also performed at Portland’s Terwilliger Plaza.

Chopin and Brahms were arguably the two greatest composers to live their lives entirely in the 19th century. Both were top-notch pianists, and both arduously honed their craft throughout their lives, but the similarity ends there. Chopin, an upper-class Pole who spent most of his life in France, devoted himself to piano composition, thoroughly exploring the expressive capabilities of what was then new technology and meticulously crafting works to give the illusion of improvisation. Never a strong man, he died in his 40th year from tuberculosis. Brahms was the son of a struggling musician and grew up playing piano for a pittance in the saloons of Hamburg’s waterfront. He composed in every genre of the time but opera, and while his music also often gives the illusion of artlessness, it even more often shows off his prodigious technique, so much so that the very different Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky referred to him as “that giftless bastard.” Brahms was also an avid rambler and hiker, and once nearly dragged his father to the top of a minor peak in the Alps.

Chopin may not have been much of a hiker, but his second piano sonata is as rugged a pianistic adventure as they come. Kramer powered through its difficulties with energy to spare, but also took care to, yes, pause to smell the flowers. A few stumbles in the opening section of the brutal Scherzo were forgotten as he aced the reprise. I wanted the iconic funeral march in the slow movement to be slower, more extreme, but there is the tone painting of a horse-drawn bier to consider. If you missed the performance, you can catch his Thursdays @ 3 performance on the All Classical radio website for another week, in particular his unusually beautifully nuanced performance of the spooky yet frenetic finale. There was a more uniform rush on Sunday, but it never became the incomprehensible blur favored by pianists less interested in music than showing off how fast their fingers work.

David Crumb.

David Crumb.

David Crumb’s new Nocturne began with deep bell tones and an intriguing and rather doleful harmonic ambiguity – was the key major? Minor? Was there going to be traditional harmony at all? The answer is… yes and no. There was nothing retro about it, yet Crumb seemed every bit as concerned as Chopin with the harmonic support a sustained bass gives to a singing treble. A pensive melody gradually developed, but as might be expected on the other side of the musically tumultuous 20th century, the work never split as simply into melody and accompaniment as Chopin’s nocturnes tend to. Edgier harmonies tinged more urgent filigrees as the work grew more animated, but eventually the opening mood returned to dissipate magically, floating off in a further evocation of bells. Kramer didn’t play this work from memory, but even so, it seemed to flow naturally from somewhere deep inside.  Well-judged pedaling perfectly melded ringing left hand accents with a right hand that did seem to sing.

If there were any doubts about the source of Crumb’s inspiration, they were put to rest by the following work, that exemplar of Chopin nocturnes, Op. 27 #2 in Db major. Kramer’s performance was unaffected and lyrical, exactly what the work requires. With Crumb’s more impressionistic opus still freshly in mind, I hoped Kramer would let this nocturne also float off at the end, articulating the concluding harmony with touch rather than with pedal, but he chose a simpler, traditional approach.

It’s also traditional for pianists to huff and puff their way through Brahms’ punishing Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which are as much etudes to hone keyboard technique as they are fanciful inventions on Paganini’s well-known ditty. It can even turn into a bit of a slog, but Kramer’s way with it was a revelation. (Unfortunately the only video available online, like the one above, doesn’t really do him justice – in it, he’s still more apprentice than sorcerer.) There was a great deal of athleticism, true, but the overall impression was of a work surprisingly light on its feet. His only miscalculation was plunging into the driving finale of the first half too fast and turning it into a gray avalanche of notes, the sign of a pianist not quite in control. Also, I wished that the sweeter, slower variations could have provided even more of a respite in the prevailing whirlwind. But in general all was as clear as could be, and Kramer found an amazing amount of music in what are, after all, a series of exercises. There is a lot of repetition in such a work, but he found many a poetic detail to bring out here and there, so that one rarely became impatient for the next variation. One variation requires the pianist to play glissandi in octaves with the right hand only, which the mere thought of can cause a lesser pianist’s hand to twitch in agony. Kramer’s seemed miraculously effortless.

Those glissandi are a good symbol for the entire experience. Crumb and Kramer are mavens of their respective arts who have no doubt worked like demons to achieve what they’ve achieved, yet to hear them talk, there’s nothing to it: they just do what they need to do. The result is enormously pleasing for their audience. With a payout like that, more classical presenters should follow PPI’s lead and take a chance on supporting local composers.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

New Music from Old Traditions

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


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

Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 2: Oregon interludes

Oregon composers' music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.


DUO Stephanie and Saar’s Makrokosmos Project: Magical music

Oregon musicians join acclaimed American piano pair to perform an epic masterpiece by one of America’s greatest living composers, and more contemporary music.


It is increasingly rare to be able to stuff a $20 bill into your pocket, venture out into the Portland night and enjoy a full evening of local wine, art, and music, but next Thursday, June 25, from 5-9 pm DUO Stephanie and Saar will inaugurate the first year of their festival, Makrokosmos Project, with just this sweet deal. It’s not in a traditional concert hall or theater setting. And it’s not just any kind of music, but a celebration by Pacific Northwest musicians of the 85th birthday of one of the most innovative classical composers of the 20th century. Wait, make that 21st-century, since in 2000, he grabbed a Grammy award for best contemporary classical composition (Star-Child), to go with his many other honors, including the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Echoes of Time and the River.

George Crumb’s compositions and the repertoire choices for the rest of the festival manifest the musical goal of New York-based duo pianists Stephanie Kai-Win Ho and Saar Ahuvia: to present thought-provoking, jazz and rock-influenced compositions by Americans with a strong classical background.  Nationally this scene is blowing up, with the likes of Bang on a Can, Mohammed Fairouz, Nico Muhly, Kathleen Supové, Missy Mazzoli and a million more, and Oregon’s many participants include Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic; musicians from both ensembles will perform in Makrokosmos.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer's major musical highlights.

DUO Stephanie and Saar return to Oregon with one of the summer’s major musical highlights.

With the hopes of developing the Makrokosmos Project into a yearly festival highlighting Pacific Northwest performers and composers, DUO Stephanie and Saar are tapping into Oregon’s growing love for edgy classical music. They have gathered an impressive roster of Oregon pianists to perform George Crumb’s Makrokosmos for amplified piano Volumes I and II. Deborah Cleaver, Harold Gray, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Susan Smith, and Julia Hwakyu Lee will pluck, strum, sing, moan, and yes, whistle, their way through these fantasies on the zodiac.