Delgani String Quartet

Bringing light to winter’s darkness

Composer-centric Music Today Festival goes online for 2020-2021

Scene from Joanna Na’s Contemplation, MTF Concert 1. Screen capture by Gary Ferrington.
Scene from Joanne Na’s Contemplation, Music Today Festival, Concert 1. Screen capture by Gary Ferrington.

“During these unprecedented times, music and the arts have a crucial role to play in the healing process of individuals and society,” Dr. Robert Kyr, director of the Music Today Festival 2020-2021 and University of Oregon Composition Chair, told ArtsWatch as he and the Oregon Composers Forum prepare to host this year’s celebration of new music.

Since its founding in 1993 the UO School of Music and Dance’s biennial festival has been a Eugene-based event, with most performances held in the School of Music and Dance’s esteemed Beall Concert Hall. However there will be no brick-and-mortar venue for concerts this year given the social constraints the pandemic has created for all the performing arts.

Scene from Jared Knight’s I Hide Behind My Music, MTF Concert 1. Screen capture by Gary Ferrington.
Scene from Jared Knight’s I Hide Behind My Music, MTF Concert 1. Screen capture by Gary Ferrington.

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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.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

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MusicWatch Semi-Monthly: Unholy daze

Busy December needs two monthly columns: one for holiday concerts, one for everything else. Part one: music for strings, singers, and saxophones

Bah, humbug! It’s too early for Christmas music, don’t you think? Just because December is upon us, with its flakey promises of snow, doesn’t mean there isn’t a nice pile of early unholiday presents waiting. We’ve got a good dozen or two non-holiday themed concerts for you: abstract string quartets, killer guitarists and groovy saxophonists, and a visit from Oregon Symphony’s newly appointed Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (interview coming this week).

Aside from Die Hard the Musical at Funhouse Lounge (starts on the 5th, runs through January 4th) and Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (starts on the 7th, runs through the 26th), all the other fun holiday concerts start around the 13th. So we’re going to play Grinch and make you wait a week or two before telling you about all that. Take off that Mariah Carey Christmas playlist, put on MAE.SUN’s latest EP, get some Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge, and settle down for our first half of December mixtape.

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Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dance of life

From Scheharazade spinning stories to a 6-year-old spinning a galaxy, a whirl of creative energy keeps Oregon in the dance

DOES ANY LITERARY TALE DEAL MORE DIRECTLY with the power of storytelling than the story of Scheherazade? The visier’s daughter created a tapestry of words that saved her life, surviving for a thousand and one nights by spinning a string of stories so fascinating that the tyrant who had planned to kill her was compelled to grant a stay of execution night after night so she could tell the ending of each unfinished tale the following night. Scheherazade’s tale of tales fascinated the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, whose music for it in turn fascinated the late Portland choreographer Dennis Spaight, who created a ballet to it in 1990 for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Now OBT is in the midst of its first revival of Spaight’s story ballet since 1993.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s visual phantasmagoria Scheherazade. Photo: Yi Yin 

Spaight’s version of the Scheherazade tale, which was something of a Portland all-star collaboration with sets by the celebrated painter Henk Pander, costumes by the visionary theatrical designer/director Ric Young, and lighting by the masterful Peter West, is the anchor of OBT’s thirtieth anniversary season-opening program, and Martha Ullman West, in her ArtsWatch review Wit, speed, a blast from the past, declares it a “grand entertainment.” She continues: “I have never seen Scheherazade better-performed than it was on opening night, and that’s saying something.”

But Scheherazade, Ullman West stresses, is only part of the story. The OBT dancers’ performances of William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto are equally distinguished: “It’s brilliant programming, …. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry.”

Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program has three more performances, Thursday through Saturday in Keller Auditorium. After that, who knows what Scheherazade’s story-hungry tyrant might do?

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The music of our time?

Recent Delgani String Quartet concert featuring living local composers raises questions of tradition and timeliness

It would be hard to come up with a better scenario for listening to new art music than the A2 Productions concert Local Sounds, Local Stories, presented at Springfield’s Wildish Theater September 7th and 8th, featuring the Delgani String Quartet performing works of Eugene composers. Gifted performers, local composers, quality production, state-of-the-art venue–and top-notch local brew, booze, and food just a block or two in any direction. The program was well curated, with varying styles and formats, keeping the appreciative audience engaged throughout the program. A recipe for success. However, I left the venue wondering, “Why was this music written?” “Where did this music come from?” “How does it fit in the now?”

It is fair to say that most of the pieces evoked western classical musical languages from the first half of the twentieth century and earlier, all stylistically anachronistic, with one particular work speaking in a solidly mid-nineteenth century voice. Exceptions were Paul Safar’s Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue and The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet. Both used musical languages of our time: touches of pop, blues, and jazz in Safar; post-minimal textures in McQuilkin. Their general tonal language was in the western tradition. Even so, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response, the large audience had no problem with that. So, why did I?

A question posed

Having studied the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in depth and at length, I have an expectation that contemporary art music be a logical continuation–or in some cases perfectly illogical discontinuity–of this history and development, that it be cognizant of this trajectory or at least be responsive to the popular music of our time. I do not think this is an unreasonable expectation since other artistic genres exhibit a similar arc (outsider art being a notable exception). So why would a new music composer write music that does not communicate in a musical language of their time? I am not speaking of quotation but of whole cloth imitation. That is my vexing question, and it is difficult to answer. So I emailed the composers and asked them: “How do you see your music in relation to the music of our time?”

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