Deborah Cleaver

Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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Makrokosmos Project review: Tag-teaming a piano classic

Some of Oregon's finest classical pianists join forces to perform Rzewski's revolutionary piano masterpiece

by TERRY ROSS

If you think you have to leave Oregon to hear really first-rate piano playing, you should have been at Portland Piano Company on the evening of November 13, when a team of six Oregon residents collaborated with New York City duo Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia to play the living daylights out of some extremely challenging contemporary music.

Stephanie & Saar

Stephanie & Saar

Stephanie & Saar (their official performing name) got things underway on nested 10-foot concert grands (a Fazioli and a Steinway) with two pieces by Timo Andres, a young composer from Brooklyn, from his larger work Shy and Mighty, written in 2007. Mr. Andres, only 31 years old, is an extremely prolific composer with enviable commissions to his name, well worth keeping an eye on. The first selection, “Antennae,” seven minutes long, starts off as motoric minimalism, switches to angular gestures played fortissimo (really loud) and returns to minimalism at the end.

In the nine-minute second piece, “How can I live in your world of ideas?,” Mr. Ahuvia played drone-like figures while Ms. Ho (musically) commented freely. The musical language throughout is mainly tonal but wildly eclectic, full of energy and showy effects. “How can I live” ends with a series of quiet arpeggios preceding chords played simultaneously on both pianos. Stephanie & Saar were lively, engaging performers, and their ensemble playing impeccable.

The stage was now well set for the main offering of the evening: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, an hour-long essay for solo piano by Frederic Rzewski (pronounced ZHEFF-skee). This rarely performed piece had been originally scheduled last June as the first concert in a series called the Makrokosmos Project, but illness forced a cancellation. Now, with the original six players all recovered, Rzewski’s music could finally take center stage.

And center stage, at Portland Piano, consisted of a small room holding the two giant pianos and about 40 audience members in folding chairs. This setup, along with some acoustical tile in the ceiling and a carpeted floor, proved ideal for listening to piano music. In a bare room without the tiles and carpet, the sound would have been too much, but as it was, one could appreciate the muscularity of the instruments (and the players) without being blown out of the room.

This is important, because in The People Unitedthe composer has made every effort to explore the resources of the piano. One critic, commenting on Rzewski’s playing, remarked that “he is furthermore a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument.”

“Huge boulders” there were aplenty at Portland Piano, but also the most delicate (and quiet) traceries of arpeggios and myriad other effects. After an initial statement of the affecting melody, the six players present 36 variations on the tune, in groups of six. According to Rzewski, these groups represent “simple events, rhythms, melodies, counterpoints, harmonies, and combinations of all of these.” In fact, all of the groups contain variations of “all of these,” with a great deal made of contrasts in tempo and volume.

Alexander Schwarzkopf played Rzewski.

Alexander Schwarzkopf played Rzewski.

 

It’s tempting to think that enjoying the piece depends on hearing it performed live under such ideal conditions, but although the live performance underlines the piece’s power and intelligence, The People United can stand on its own as a masterpiece. Based on a melody written by Chilean songwriter Sergio Ortega in 1969 during the brief and ill-fated days of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government soon deposed by a CIA-backed military coup, it takes its place in the political ferment of its time. But it maintains its power through musical means, irrespective of politics.

To this listener, The People United achieves its climax in the fourth set of variations, “counterpoints.” The score abounds in encouragement: “with energy,” “relentless, uncompromising,” “as fast as possible.” The set emerges as by far the most virtuosic of the six. Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf threw himself into the cauldron and gave a stunning, magnetic performance.

Also outstanding were University of Portland and Portland State University instructor Julie Hwakyu Lee in the first section, Korean native and local teacher Lydia Chungwong Chung in the second, and Lewis & Clark College professor (and Third Angle New Music pianist) Susan DeWitt Smith in the third (“melodies”), which offers a sort of mid-point summation. PSU emeritus prof Harold Gray (who formerly led the Florestan Trio and Portland Piano International) played the fifth and longest set (“harmonies”) with feeling, and Reed College instructor Deborah Cleaver gave us the final set, including an optional cadenza of her own devising, during which she once yelled out and, later, sang a wordless note.

These exclamations proved a fittingly ebullient ending to a superbly played concert.

The pianists take their bows at Portland Piano Company.

The pianists take their bows at Portland Piano Company.

The next concert in the Makrokosmos series will be on June 29, 2017. REICHMOKOSMOS! will be a celebration of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, featuring music of Reich and others.

Recommended recordings

• Andres, Shy and Mighty, David Kaplan, piano, 2010 (Nonesuch 522413).
• Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Marc-André Hamelin, piano, 1998 (Hyperion CVDA67077).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

By JEFF WINSLOW and DANIEL HEILA
Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

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Makrokosmos 2 preview: Musicians in the Midst

Piano-propelled contemporary music festival returns to Portland and Eugene

By GARY FERRINGTON

“I don’t know where to stand,” Portland composer, violist and violinist Kenji Bunch confessed to the crowd crammed into Blue Sky Gallery last June. There was after all no stage, and the audience sat in folding chairs arrayed around the downtown Portland art and photography space. Bunch finally decided to start his set of original music with pianist Monica Ohuchi by not standing at all, instead walking around the pianos as he played.

Changing the usual “rules” of classical performance is part of what made Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia’s Makrokosmos Project so successful last year, and why the New York-based duo pianists are bringing it back next week. For one thing, there’s no prescribed duration to the musical “happening” featuring work by living American composers and leading local performers; audience members are welcome to come and go, catching as few or as many of the 40 minute sets as they like.

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Kenji Bunch’s walking performance. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

Moreover, the event, whose second annual performance occurs this month in Portland and Eugene, pretty much obliterates the distinction between the performers’ stage and the audience’s space.

The project strives for “a performance atmosphere that breaks the barriers of traditional concert halls by putting the audience in an intimate space, close to the performers and the music performed,” according to Ahuvia. In a genre that’s too often distanced itself from its audience, it may seem a little crazy; no wonder this year’s theme is American Berserk.

The Makrokosmos Project, which OAW called “one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments,” again takes listeners to the acoustic edge at Blue Sky on Thursday, June 23 and then travels up river to Eugene for a festive evening at Oveissi & Co. on the 26th.

Like last year, the program begins at 5 pm with a wine social and the first of a series of short sets each about 40 minutes long.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

“This is something that we have been experiencing more and more in our own performing as classical music tries to reinvent itself in public spaces, clubs and other non-traditional venues,” Ahuvia suggests. “We hope to attract a diverse audience, some who are new to contemporary music, by giving them an option to commit to as much or as little music as they desire. A 40-minute set is something most people can handle and having some delicious food and wine helps to spark the conversation afterwards! And having tickets from $10-20 also makes it affordable.”

This year’s featured work, a 40th anniversary performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated, includes 36 variations based on the song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with text by the popular vocal group Quilapayún. The composition has been divided among a team of six pianists, which is not typically done, but seems to work well for this festival, according to pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. Despite the apparent connection between Rzewski’s famous radical composition and this year’s overheated political rhetoric, “no strong political statement was planned beyond the poignancy of ’uniting the pianists,’” Ahuvia explains. “That being said, we love the spirit of contemporary music being political and relevant to our time.”

John Adams’s six-minute American Berserk!, a title suggested by a phrase in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, resonates with earlier American piano music of Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, the composer notes. “This is a piece that we have always liked,” Ahuvia recalled, “and were happy to hear that Lydia Chung had it in her repertoire. Lydia, who we know from Baltimore and our Peabody days, had just relocated to Portland and when asking her about possible repertoire for this summer she mentioned American Berserk. We had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, and this year’s festival theme fell into place.”

Audience and performers at intermission of last year's Makrokosmos Project.

Deborah Cleaver demonstrated George Crumb’s techniques at last year’s Makrokosmos Project.

“We’ve constructed the festival with music that is super edgy, infused with virtuosity, urbanity and jazz,” Ahuvia says. “Nikolai Kapustin, Portland-based Ryan Anthony Francis and especially John Zorn’s Carny all have elements of ‘berserkness.’ There are plenty of ’berserk’ elements in the Rzewski as well.”

DUO Stephanie & Saar will open the festival with music by contemporary American composers influenced by Eastern philosophies and sounds. “Philip Glass brings both drama and meditations to Four Movements for Two Pianos,” Ahuvia notes about the minimalist pioneer whose music owes much to his 1960s work with Ravi Shankar and study of Indian music’s rhythmic structures. “Gerald Levinson’s new piece Ragamalika: Ringing Changes uses actual Indian and invented ragas infused with rigorous contemporary compositional techniques,” Ahuvia explains.

In addition to DUO Stephanie and Saar, performers include Oregon musicians Angela Niederloh (a prominent opera singer and Portland State University professor who was a classmate of Ho’s at Portland’s Wilson High School), Lydia Chung, Julia Hwakyu Lee, former Florestan Trio pianist and Portland Piano International founder and director Harold Gray, Third Angle New Music’s Susan Smith, Reed College professor Deborah Cleaver, FearNoMusic’s Jeff Payne, and Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. The Portland second set features mezzo-soprano Niederloh and Stephanie Ho in three early songs by George Crumb and selections from Jake Heggie’s Winter Roses. “The music provides a chilling, lyrical respite from the otherwise high octane music presented throughout the evening,” Ahuvia says.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb's music at last year's Makrokosmos Project. Photot: Aaron Brethorst.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb’s music at last year’s Makrokosmos Project. Photo: Aaron Brethorst.

Niederloh and Payne can’t make the Eugene show, so Alexander Schwarzkopf will play his own new composition, Perspectives (2016) instead of the Zorn piece Payne plays in Portland, and Stephanie & Saar replace Niederloh’s set with their own performance of music by Pulitzer Prize winning American composers from two generations, George Crumb (whose music they hope to program every year in the festival named after one of his major compositions) and David Lang.

“Our message to the audience,” Ahuvia says, “is to come open-minded, have a glass of wine on us, and immerse themselves in new sounds in new settings.”

Makrokosmos Project 2: American Berserk! Thursday, June 23, 5pm-10pm at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland. Sunday, June 26, 5 pm-10 pm at Oveissi and Company, 22 West Seventh Avenue, Eugene. Ticket prices are $15 advance, $20 day of show and $10 students and seniors. Tickets and more information online.

Read ArtsWatch’s interview last year with Stephanie & Saar and review of last year’s inaugural Makrokosmos Project.

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.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.