dover quartet

MusicWatch Weekly: Happy accidents

Music editor misses Glass opera, amplified strings, and the end of CMNW

Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.

Music editor Matt Andrews becomes Part of the Story. Photo by Matias Brecher.

So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.

But first, a case for Mozart.

To garden or not to garden

Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)

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MusicWatch Weekly: American originals

Music by American composers warms up February’s concert calendar

When Chamber Music Northwest favorites the Dover Quartet, one of America’s hottest youngish string quartets scheduled a 2004 piece from one of America’s hottest young (then 27 year old) composers on their CMNW program, they might have known that San Francisco-based composer Mason Bates, who has a side career as a club DJ, would have his opera about Steve Jobs running up the road in Seattle the same week. But they couldn’t have known that that opera would take home a Grammy, as it did last weekend. You can probably discern a few electronica-style grooves, as well as Indonesian gamelan textures, in the pointillistic opening and closing of his quartet From Amber Frozen, which Bates says depicts “a rose-colored world as if viewed by an insect from the Jurassic, forever sealed in a crystal of dried amber on a tree.”

The Dover Quartet performs Wednesday at Portland’s Old Church. Photo: Tom Emerson.

They’ll also play Tchaikovsky’s tearjerking third quartet, which pays passionate tribute to a violinist friend who died young, and the final quartet by another Romantic composer who also died way too young — Franz Schubert. As Reed College music prof David Schiff writes, “All four movements are on a monumental scale. In the first two movements Schubert immediately places us in an emotional soundscape which becomes ever more intense as the music unfolds…. The final movement … launches an extended perpetual motion that seems constantly to seek out an unambiguous state of lost innocence….”
7:30 PM Wednesday, The Old Church, Portland.

• Everybody knows Rhapsody in Blue, which likely ranks in the top three most recognizable works of American classical music. From that famous bluesy opening clarinet solo to the brassy, danceable first section to the gorgeous, expansive finale, George Gershwin’s 1924 masterpiece pulses with immortal melodies and Jazz Age urban pep — what the composer called “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America.” Its only real problem is overfamiliarity — in concert, on film soundtracks and recordings, many of us have heard it so much that it’s probably best suited as an introduction to classical concerts, like the Eugene Symphony’s Valentine’s Day show.

Not everybody knows that seven years later, Gershwin also wrote a second Rhapsody (originally titled Rhapsody in Rivets) that many regard as superior to, if not quite as tuneful as, the first. The Eugene Symphony is bringing pianist Pallavi Mahidhara to join the orchestra in both. The concert also offers two more stirring American works from the 1930s. Samuel Barber wrote his gritty, dramatic first symphony in 1936 — the same year he composed that other best-known American classic, his Adagio for strings, originally part of a string quartet.

The recommended concert boasts still another rarely heard North American gem from that same year: Musica para Charlar (Music for Chattering) by the most fascinating of all Mexican composers, and one of the 20th century’s finest, Silvestre Revueltas. He composed it for a film about the railroad arriving in Baja California, the year after composing what the eminent classical music authority Joseph Horowitz called one of the greatest of all film scores, Redes. Like Gershwin’s rhapsodies, it’s a fun, colorful piece that chugs along on train-like rhythms.

Why so much wonderful American music? Along with leading Oregon’s Britt Festival Orchestra, guest conductor Teddy Abrams, a rising young star destined to lead one of the world’s top orchestras someday, already conducts the Louisville Orchestra, which made its reputation in the 1950s and ‘60s by commissioning new works by American composers including Duke Ellington and Lou Harrison. Abrams, a protege of San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, is extending that wonderful legacy, and with splendid concerts like this, so is the Eugene Symphony.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American landscapes

October's Oregon music schedule gets off to a Big Bang, explores American natural wonders, and welcomes a Chinese music master among other highlights

Composers from around the country are commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by writing new music inspired by American landscapes. Like so many of the rest of us here in the Northwest, members of Cascadia Composers spend lots of time enjoying our wilderness areas, but they also draw creative inspiration from it. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., includes world premieres of new works for small chamber ensembles, composed in direct response to the places protected by these landmark laws.

Part of a nationwide series of concerts, the show includes compositions by Oregonians Brent Lawrence, Christina Rusnak, and Linda Woody inspired by Oregon’s Owyhee and Deschutes Rivers, and the people and landscape of the Oregon Historical Trail, along with music by non-Oregonians inspired by Georgia’s Chattooga River, the North Country Trail (stretching from North Dakota to Vermont), Arizona and California’s Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, and a wildfire ravaged area along a Klamath River tributary.

• Portland chamber music organization 45th Parallel Universe opens its tenth season with a Big Bang, a new leader (former Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger is interim executive director), new ensembles, and a new, but not exclusive, emphasis on contemporary music. Friday’s show at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St., features no fewer than four new ensembles. Helios Camerata, its new conductor-less chamber orchestra, plays music by Britten, Haydn, Rossini, and contemporary composer Jimmy Lopez. Arcturus Quintet wind ensemble plays a quintet by 20th century American composer Elliott Carter. Gemini Project plays a percussion duo by Robert Marino. And Pyxis String Quartet (the former Third Angle String Quartet) plays a movement from a quartet by leading American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Matthew Andrews has a full preview tomorrow.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen, performs this weekend solo and with Oregon Mozart Players.

• There’s also new music on Olga Kern’s Saturday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. The dynamic Russian-American pianist soared to international acclaim after winning top prize at the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and has impressed audiences in her Portland appearances since then. Programmed by founder Harold Gray, temporarily back in charge after the departure of Portland Piano International’s most recent artistic director, the first of her October recitals features some of the usual pianistic suspects — Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Scriabin — but also a rare and most welcome PPI world premiere: James Lee III’s Window to Eternity’s Threshold.

• Another Oregon music institution not hitherto best known for new music opens its season with a concert dominated by it. Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert at the University’s of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall sports an ideal blend of classic (Haydn’s tempestuous 64th symphony) and contemporary sounds. Kevin Lau’s pounding, bounding Artemis is a musical portrait of the Greek goddess of the hunt. Daniel Schnyder’s jazzy, dramatic Concerto for Pipa expertly mixes a quintessentially Asian instrument with a Western orchestra. Zhou Tian’s upbeat Viaje (Voyage), featuring the brief return from her new Nashville home of longtime University of Oregon prof Molly Barth, one of the world’s finest flutists, reflects the Chinese-American composer’s travels in Spain. While our century’s cross-cultural interactions terrify insular souls into supporting racists and nationalists, they inspire artists to broaden their horizons and open creative new worlds to audiences.

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Nokuthula Ngwenyama: in the middle of things

Composer-violist performs new work with Dover Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest

Primal Message is “based on the idea of communicating the things we learn to communicate with each other: our intelligence, our emotions, our goodness,” its composer, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, told the audience at its Chamber Music Northwest premiere in July. A meditation on communication in the space age, the string quintet is Ngwenyama’s reflection on the Arecibo Message — which she called the “first message we sent into space, knowing what we were sending” — and Steven Johnson’s cheekily terrifying article “Greetings E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us).” Lucky us: the music was indeed intelligent, emotional, and good.

Described as “an artistic force,” the 42-year-old Ngwenyama was born in Los Angeles and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. That desert landscape inspired her Sonoran Storm, a lively viola solo I’d seen her play barefoot in Lincoln Hall at last summer’s Chamber Music Northwest, and which Ngwenyama has since expanded and recorded in a version for solo viola, string orchestra, harp & percussion.

For this year’s festival, CMNW commissioned her Primal Message for viola quintet, string quartet plus second viola — a time-honored tradition for viola-playing composers (Mozart, Dvořák, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Clarke,  Bunch) who want to write themselves into the action. As Ngwenyama later confessed, “violist composers want to get right in the middle of things.”

Nokuthula Ngwenyama performed her own music and other works at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I heard Primal Message performed twice in July, once in rehearsal and again the next day at its New@Noon world premiere, both times by the magnificent Dover Quartet, CMNW’s 2018-19 Ensemble-in-Residence, who return to Portland next month. I was moved by the music’s elegance, wit, and clarity, and above all by the fact that Ngwenyama had essentially written five solos on top of each other.

A Masterclass in Listening to New Music

I love these open rehearsals CMNW puts on in Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Classical music bears repeated, attentive listening, and the double tragedy of today’s classical music is how little we really pay attention to music in the 21st-century, and how seldom we hear a new work more than once. Open rehearsals (and CMNW’s wonderful open-secret “Encore” discounts) help with both of those, especially when the composer is present, and especially especially when the composer is right there playing with the ensemble she wrote the music for, and directing the rehearsal. Throw in a little Q&A and you’ve got what amounts to a masterclass in listening to new music.

“All four of you have such strength of conviction and musical vision,” Ngwenyama told the Dover Quartet, now in their eighth season with CMNW, during the Q&A. “As I was writing the score it was like you were there with me. Each one has brought magic to their parts that I didn’t imagine.”

The Dover Quartet and Nokuthula Ngwenyama perform her ‘Primal Message.’ Photo: Tom Emerson

Ngwenyama derived her new composition’s structure from the prime number sequence 2-3-5-7. In musical terms, that’s partly a matter of rhythms and rhythmic harmonies (also known as polyrhythms) and partly a matter of intervals and interval groupings (also known as scales). In practice this meant a more or less Harrisonian-Reichian rhythmic and melodic pandiatonicism, shimmery tone clusters and triads expanding out from the beats of overlapping rhythmic waves, all five instruments taking turns on that universal pentatonic scale (the Human Song, again, always).

Heart of Melody

Balancing all that was the heart: a wistful, yearningly ascendant, suitably science fictional  melody that weaves its way all through Primal Message. Ngwenyama calls it “Il Cuore”—Italian for “The Heart”—saying, “there is a certain sort of ecstasy to the melody, all the hopes, dreams, and passions of humanity.”

This oh-so-human melodic sense pulses through Ngwenyama’s work and especially chamber music like Primal Message: there’s melody everywhere! Not just that heart theme and the pentatonic profusion, but all through the duos and trios in the contrapuntal inner voices. At one point in the rehearsal, Dover violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Ngwenyama went over this one tiny wisp of pizzicato in the first viola part, just a snippet of melody really, little more than a motive—and it was gorgeous. It was stuck in my head all day after the rehearsal and again after the next day’s performance. One little ear worm in a tumbling compost bin of fertile melodies.

Primal Message also turned out to have a lot of subito moments, quick dynamic turns bringing the various melodies to the foreground, all well executed by the quintet. Still: “we have to hold back a little—we have to really hold that dolce quality,” she said. Ngwenyama spent a fair amount of rehearsal time dialing in these balancing acts. With so much melody going on, it’s important that the whole ensemble be able to feel and hear and understand which character has center stage at any given moment, a typical issue for string quartets ever since the holy trinity (Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven) kicked the medium into polyphonic overdrive.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Photo: Mark Morgan

I sat down in the Kaul green room after this summer’s premiere and asked Ngwenyama about Primal Message, the composing life, and the future of classical music. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On Becoming a Composer

As a youngster, I was always encouraged to compose more. But it was finding the time to compose, and when you’re a kid it takes a certain type of discipline to be able to sit. As an adult too. To be committed to that idea that it will take that much time to make it clear for your colleagues, that they will be able to understand it—and not just that your colleagues in the now, but your colleagues in the future whom you will not know, who will hopefully be able to read what you are leaving. That kind of drive came in adulthood.

There were songs and things I was really committed to and wanted to write down, so I wrote them down and I sketched them with tape and staff paper. And I have all those sketches, and I did develop some of them, but I never developed them for anything beyond me. I felt like I had to write, but I didn’t feel like I had to write for anyone.

That was actually a really liberating thing. Plus I was performing and getting to play all this other incredible music, and I kept that writing for me until someone got wind that I was still writing and was like, “we’d like to commission you to do something.” I started getting commissions, and I was like “oh, ok, then I better really start working on this because other people really want it.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: community spirit

Musical highlights around Oregon this week

This week’s Oregon music highlights feature several concerts devoted to bringing communities together and celebrating various heritages that help make up the larger community that we all belong to. Please add your suggested music events in the comments section below.

Leyla McCalla performs at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall Saturday.

“In a Landscape”
Portland pianist Hunter Noack has embarked on a second September series of outdoor performances around Oregon. (Read my ArtsWatch story about the first one.) This time, he’s put a nine-foot Steinway on a trailer, and is toting it to eastern Oregon. He’s also bringing wireless headphones to distribute to listeners so they can experience the music without alfresco acoustical limitations, and various guest artists, from singer and former Miss America Katie Harman Ebner, Pink Martini founder/pianist Thomas Lauderdale and members of various Oregon orchestras. Check the website for who’s playing what and where and other details on individual performances through September 30.
Wednesday, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, 22267 OR Highway 86, Baker City; Thursday, Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, 47106 Wildhorse Blvd. Pendleton.

Eugene Symphony
The orchestra performs a recent work by contemporary Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas, and Joyce Yang solos in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 before the orchestra unless that pinnacle of Russian Romanticism, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Music for Everyone Day
A wide variety of musicians, including the Woolen Men, Skull Diver, Ashi, JoJoScott and more, supply the tunes in this free, family-friendly four hour celebration.
Friday, Portland City Hall.

The Gondoliers
Light Opera of Portland’s latest Gilbert & Sullivan show.
Friday-Sunday, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

The Dover Quartet performs in Ashland. Photo:Tom Emerson.

Dover Quartet
The Chamber Music Northwest favorites return to Oregon to play quartets by contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour, Tchaikovsky, and Bartók.
Friday, Southern Oregon University Recital Hall, Ashland.

The Broken Consort
One of the most potentially exciting additions to Oregon’s music scene, this early music ensemble recently relocated from Boston and New York to Portland. Their repertoire ranges far beyond the too-limited scope of the state’s other historically informed performers, including new music (they just recorded an album of originals by leader and singer Emily Lau), and this concert focuses on American baroque music. Yes, there was such a thing. People were making music in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. The eight musicians, who hail from Portland, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond, sing and play music written in the New England colonies (by composers like the great William Billings and Francis Hopkinson), in Spanish colonial America, shape note hymns, and even 19th century songs by Stephen Foster. But they’ll also perform music for ngoni, the instrument brought by African slaves, Native American chants and more, including the west coast premiere of Douglas Buchanan’s 2016 Green Field of Amerikay. It’s the fall’s most fascinating concert.
Saturday, Nordia House, and Sunday, The Hallowed Halls, Portland.

Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival
The fifth annual celebration of a true Oregon original and legendary Native American jazz saxophonist includes Tracy Lee Nelson, Winona LaDuke, Gary Ogan, and more. And if you’re interested in Pepper’s life and work, check out Organic Listening Club’s latest edition at Artists Repertory Theater on October 17.
Saturday, Parkrose High School, Portland.

Taiko Together
If you live outside Japan and enjoy the stirring sounds of Japanese percussion music, or just like whacking on big drums,  Portland is the place to be. This concert brings together all four of the city’s taiko ensembles — Portland Taiko, Takohachi, En Taiko, and Unit Souzou — in a celebration of some of the world’s most, ah, striking sounds. It’s a fine opportunity to sample the different varieties available too, from youth-oriented classes to traditional tunes to folk dance to new music and more.
Saturday, P.C.C. Sylvania, Performing Arts Center.

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

The Vanport Mosaic and Maxville Heritage
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s fascinating new project kicks off with a free performance featuring music performed by singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Ezra Weiss, featuring Weiss’s song with lyrics by Renee Mitchell, inspired by the story of Maxville. This afternoon discussion event includes presentations about Maxville and Vanport, followed by a talk with the artistic creators, who are hoping to receive input from the community itself for this important multimedia community history project.
Saturday, Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave, Portland.

Leyla McCalla
Former Carolina Chocolate Drop cellist/singer/guitarist/banjoist Leyla McCalla’s music draws on her Haitian heritage as well as the Creole, Cajun, jazz and French influences that still simmer in and around her New Orleans home. McCalla’s covers of traditional song and sometimes poignant, sometimes danceable, expertly crafted original music reflect the vitality of the many rich folk traditions she’s assimilated.
Saturday, Old Church Concert Hall, Portland.

OneBeat
Organized by NYC’s Bang on a Can new music collective and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the four-year-old OneBeat program brings young (age 19-35) musicians from around the world to collaboratively create original music, play it on tour, lead workshops with local young audiences, and “develop strategies for arts-based social engagement” when they return to their home countries. This year’s fellows include South African vocalist Nonku Phiri; Aisaana Omorova, a komuz (traditional three-stringed strummed instrument) player from Kyrgyzstan; Chicago-based producer Elijah Jamal; and Belorussian producer and singer Natalia Kuznetskaya. The program has come to Sisters, Portland and elsewhere around the nation in years past; see it now before our current rulers find out about this effort to increase intercultural understanding.
Saturday, The Belfry, Sisters.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

Ambitious theater and music performance reveals an inspired composer, but an uninspired story

by JEFF WINSLOW and BRETT CAMPBELL

Editor’s note: Chamber Music Northwest’s new production,  “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld,” received its premiere at this summer’s festival before going on tour. ArtsWatch sent two writers to cover it, one from a musical perspective, the other a theatrical one. They came away with different impressions.

Even at the height of his fame, Johannes Brahms was an unusually private person. He rarely made public statements aside from his music, and towards the end of his life he burned piles of letters his family and closest friends had sent him over the years, even asking for his own letters back. (This was long before copiers, let alone e-mail.) In contrast, his rival, composer and dramatist Richard Wagner, left a torrent of text about his life and ideas, including some the world could have happily done without. Still, Brahms’s life had its portentous if not operatic moments.

The Dover Quartet joined actor Jack Gilpin, clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet joined clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

One moment music lovers can be especially grateful for was his meeting with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1891, shortly after the composer had decided to retire. He was so taken with Mühlfeld’s artistry that he began calling him Miss Clarinet (Fräulein Klarinette), possibly in wistful memory of times spent squiring various attractive young female singers around Viennese society. That artistry got Brahms composing again, not only writing four meaty chamber works featuring clarinet, but also no fewer than 20 piano solo works, many that would become audience favorites.

No car chases or vampires in sight, but this story of creative renewal is pretty dramatic as classical composers’ lives go, and it was probably irresistible to David Shifrin, who is not only Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director but also an internationally renowned clarinetist. CMNW teamed with playwright Harry Clark, actor Jack Gilpin, and director Troy Hollar to create a cross between a concert and a play, a one-man show with live music. As a composer who’s been in awe of Brahms for 40 years, I found it fascinating, although I naturally focused much more on its music than its modest drama.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: Unspoiled by success

Where does a composer go after reaching the peak of popularity? Two concerts trace Beethoven's path from excellence to exploration

by JEFF WINSLOW

Ludwig van Beethoven’s extraordinary fame rests mostly on works he wrote in his mid- to late 30s. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you probably know parts of his third (“Heroic”) and fifth (da-da-da-DAH) symphonies. If you are, you undoubtedly know his “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, his violin concerto, and his last two piano concertos. String quartet lovers have his three “Razumovsky” quartets, informally named after the generous patron who commissioned them. They’re the only string quartets in the pantheon, but they fully measure up to their fellow icons.

The Dover Quartet played Beethoven at Reed College. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Dover Quartet played Beethoven at Reed College. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Dover Quartet, Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project Artists just a few years ago, have since catapulted themselves toward a different pantheon after sweeping the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning First Prize and all three Special Prizes. Who better to bring Portland audiences Beethoven’s mid period string quartet masterpieces, as they did at CMNW’s July 11 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium? They showed such mastery that even a critic could just relax and luxuriate in Beethoven’s endlessly inventive music.

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