david schiff

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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What Kind of Music Do You Listen to for Pleasure?

An interview with Portland composer David Schiff

Introduction by Matthew Neil Andrews
Interview by Charles Rose

Alongside Kenji Bunch and a handful of others, recently-retired Reed College professor David Schiff sits comfortably among Portland’s most popular composers of what we still call “classical” music. There’s a good reason for that: the New York born, longtime Oregon resident writes music that combines the best of mainstream contemporary classical (Stravinsky, Copland, Carter) with the energy and appeal of more popular genres such as minimalism (Reich, Riley), jazz (Mingus, Ellington), and even klezmer.

That makes his music catchy, exciting, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally rewarding. We also find it very telling that he’s written books about Ellington and Carter: two giants occupying complementary ends of the vast spectrum of 20th-century U.S. music. You can read Arts Watch Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s profile of Schiff right here.

David Shifrin and David Schiff onstage at CMNW’s 2016 Summer Festival.

Schiff’s also gone out of his way to make friends with some of the finest players in the daring cross-genre world he lives in, so we get to hear his music played by Regina Carter, Fear No Music, David Shifrin, and various stars from the Chamber Music Northwest company of world-class performers. This upcoming Saturday, July 6, and Monday, July 8 (both in Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, where Schiff teaches), CMNW presents the world premiere of Schiff’s Chamber Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Ensemble, commissioned for this occasion.

The concert also includes Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, and composer/pianist Daniel Schlosberg‘s arrangement of the Adagio from the second Brahms piano concerto, a task Schlosberg described as “a daunting proposition.”

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MusicWatch Monthly: Too many notes

Summer gets all sweaty, with classical and jazz festivals, operas, experimental sound art, and a bit of good old-fashioned NW gonzo punk

Garden wall at Lan Su Chinese Garden. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

La Finta Giardiniera
July 12-27, Newmark Theater
In The Penal Colony
July 26-August 10, Hampton Opera Center

It’s oddly appropriate that Portland Opera is closing its season with summer performances of Mozart and Philip Glass. Both composers are that rare breed: equally adept at performing their own chamber music, writing grand symphonies for orchestra, and collaborating on a variety of comic and tragic operas on themes both timeless and timely.

They have both also been accused, perhaps justly, of writing too many damn notes, and that’s part of why the best way to experience theatrically-inclined composers like Mozart and Glass is in their native habitat: the opera house. That’s really where their music lives best, in live performances rich with grand singing, engaging sets and costumes and lighting and the other “works” which give opera its name—plus the comedic and dramatic intimacy that is live theater’s specialty.

July 12-27, PO stages the lesser-known Mozart opera La Finta Giardiniera, in its second Portland production of the year (PSU Opera put on their own production earlier this year). Lindsay Ohse stars; Chas Rader-Shieber directs.

July 26-August 10, Jerry Mouawad (co-founder of Portland’s Imago Theatre) returns for another modern “pocket opera.” PO specializes in presenting these chamber operas by modern composers, thrilling Portland audiences recently with Laura Kaminsky’s As One and in 2017 with Mouawad’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion. Martin Bakari and Ryan Thorn star in Glass’s adaptation of the terrifying Kafka story.

Jazz and Blues

Waterfront Blues Festival
July 4-7, Waterfront Park

For over three decades, Portland’s iconic blues festival has been a hot, sweaty, messy, crowded, rite of passage. It’s such an undertaking they’ve got a handy little guide for navigating the four-day, four-stage fest sprawled across the west side of the river, wedged between the waves and the construction cranes.

Take a look at the line-up right here. If any of those musical legends and other hot-shit artists sound like you’d want to get into a sweltering, sunscreen-slathered groove with them and a thousand other vibing blues fans down on the sun-baked shore of the Willamette River—then pack yourself a bag full of bottled water, grab a big floppy sun hat, and get your ass down to the water.

Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.
Waterfront Blues Festival, July 7, 2018.

Jazz in the Garden
Tuesdays, July 16-August 20, Lan Su Chinese Garden

Across six Tuesdays this summer, Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town Portland hosts PDX Jazz’s Summer Music Series, featuring a variety of international and local artists. On July 16th, it’s Malian supergroup BKO Quintet; on July 23, Portland vibraphonist Mike Horsfall pays tribute to Cal Tjader; on July 30, erstwhile Portland saxophonist Hailey Niswanger returns from Brooklyn with her band MAE.SUN. In August, jazz and soul singer China Moses performs on the 6th, pianist Connie Han plays on the 13th, and on the 20th Bobby Torres Ensemble commemorates Woodstock.

The Territory
July 15, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College
July 16, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University

Local superstar jazz composer and pianist Darrell Grant is having a busy year, as usual. His nine-movement suite for jazz ensemble The Territory, premiered at Chamber Music Northwest in 2013, led to the formation of the “Oregon Territory Ensemble,” which has continued performing the landscape-inspired music and recorded it with Grant in 2015.

They’ll perform The Territory here twice in July, and the line-up is pure local A-list: Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, vocalist Marilyn Keller (From Maxville to Vanport), bass clarinetist Kirt Peterson, multi-instrumentalist John Nastos, trumpeter Thomas Barber, drummer Tyson Stubelek, bassist Eric Gruber, and vibraphonist Mike Horsfall.

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Celebrating Schiff

Reed College pays tribute to the veteran Portland composer and music professor, who's retiring from its faculty, in two concerts of his music this week

Famed classical clarinetist David Shifrin recently commissioned Portland composer David Schiff to write a new piece for him to play at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 summer festival. After Schiff began working on it, he asked Shifrin if he had any suggestions.

Shifrin pondered. Schiff is a legendarily versatile composer whose past work has touched on everything from jazz to French Impressionism to klezmer, so Shifrin had a vast potential palette to choose from, ranging across several centuries and cultures. “I’d like,” the clarinetist replied, “a Baroque aria.”

“I already started it,” Schiff said. “We’re on the same wavelength.”

David Schiff speaks at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival.

No wonder. Shifrin and Schiff have been partners in music since shortly after the Bronx-born composer came to Portland to teach at Reed College in 1980. The following summer, he discovered CMNW and showed some of his scores to Shifrin, who had just begun his 40-year tenure as director. He asked Schiff to adapt music from his opera Gimpel the Fool into an instrumental chamber music work, and programmed it for the 1982 festival. It’s since become Schiff’s most-performed piece.

Shifrin and other CMNW colleagues will play it again Thursday in an all-Schiff concert commemorating both Schiff’s retirement from Reed this spring after 38 years, and Shifrin’s upcoming retirement as CMNW artistic director. Reed will also honor Schiff with a Tuesday concert of his music featuring Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.

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MusicWatch Weekly: freedom songs

Socially conscious sounds highlight this week's Oregon music

In focusing on the music of the past, classical music programming has too often ignored the concerns of the present. But over the past couple years, some Portland classical music organizations have focused on issues of social and especially racial justice — none more conscientiously than the all star choir Resonance Ensemble, which devoted last season to music and poetry related to some of today’s most pressing social concerns.

Resonance Ensemble performs Sunday.

Sunday afternoon’s Hidden Voices concert continues that commendable emphasis by taking the music out of the usual concert halls and bringing it to Bethel A.M.E. Church, 5828 NE 8th Ave., Portland’s oldest continuously operating black church, and also Oregon’s only African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Composer Damien Geter sings with Resonance Ensemble. Photo: Kenton Waltz.

With help from BRAVO Youth Orchestra (Portland’s version of Venezuela’s groundbreaking El Sistema program that brings classical music training to kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it) and Derrick McDuffey and the gospel ensemble Kingdom Sound, they’ll perform the world premiere of a movement from Resonance singer (and ArtsWatch contributor) Damien Geter’s Requiem, which sets texts by African-American men killed by police, and the West Coast premiere of American Dreamers, a piece by young Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy (whose Gonzales Cantata was performed last week by Portland’s Big Mouth) that sets texts by five Americans who came to the U.S. as undocumented children. Resonance Poet in Residence S. Renee Mitchell contributes another original work.

• The 20-member Soweto Gospel Choir, which performs “Songs of the Free” Wednesday night at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, often mixes traditional and popular music from around Africa with exuberant American gospel styles and even pop music arrangements by African diasporites like Jimmy Cliff, Otis Redding and Bob Marley. Winner of top gospel music awards and Grammys, the choir has scored a world music chart-topping album, worked with members of Queen and Bono, and performed for Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Composed of some of the finest singers around Soweto and Johannesburg, its concerts present a striking visual as well as auditory experience, replete with multi colored traditional costumes, high kicking synchronized dance moves, and accompanying percussion such as the djembe drum. Even when they sing Xhosa and a half dozen other languages, the ensemble supplies English explanations of the stories behind the songs.

Portland Taiko at its fall 2016 concert. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

• Another Portland music institution whose programming has recently responded to today’s social concerts, FearNoMusic, joins Portland Taiko in music that responds to the American government’s brutal imprisonment of innocent American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. In Sunday night’s Sticks + Strings concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave., the new music group accompanies the Japanese percussion ensemble’s drummers in the premiere of Dango Jiru for taiko, flute, violin, and cello, a new work by FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch, Portland’s hottest contemporary composer, who’ll also play his haunting solo viola, Minidoka, inspired by his visit to one of those concentration camps. Portland Taiko will also perform one of their own pieces on that subject and other works.

Kenji Bunch plays his own music with Portland Taiko.

Orchestral Highlights

• Portland Baroque Orchestra’s weekend concerts at Portland’s First Baptist Church and Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium not only present some of the standards of baroque music — Vivaldi’s Op. 3 violin concertos — but also some of the Red Priest’s equally ebullient music for singer (this time, Czech soprano Hana Blažíková) and orchestra: In furore iustissimae irae, RV626 and Nulla in mundo pax, RV 630.

• Another historically informed band, Emerald Chamber Orchestra, with singers Phoebe Gildea and Trevor Cook perform J.S. Bach’s fun Peasant Cantata (featuring a farmer and a tax collector) and his famous Orchestral Suite #2 at Eugene’s Christian Science Church Auditorium at 14th and Pearl Streets.

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