eighth blackbird

MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!

Cancellations, confirmations, and quarantine playlists

Bad news, everyone! No, it’s not quite the end of the world, at least not yet–and that’s probably the scariest thing of all. It seems we never quite hit Full Disaster, and if the Great Malthusian Dieoff really is underway it’s apparently content with taking its sweet time with us. Instead of a full-blown crisis, we get a series of morally debilitating crises which drain us but don’t ever amount to much (except for the people directly impacted by these subapocalyptic crises, of course, but they’re usually poor, old, foreign, or some other shade of invisible).

Not that we’re wishing for a full-blown crisis: but our minds sure go there in a hurry, don’t they? You’ve seen all the memes by now: on some level of our social psyche we find it easier to hoard toilet paper than to wash our hands more often. We don’t like the small, rational fixes. We like to dream big, and we like to nightmare big too. We like to panic. We like to ostrich.

That, paradoxically, is why the present author has been so gratified to see the concert cancellation notices pouring in. Denial and panic are two sides of the same apocalyptic coin, a rejection of measured responses in favor of whichever easy option is more comfortable (note that neither denial nor panic require much effort). Instead, everybody’s actually talking about it, weighing options and doing their own research, grappling with their social responsibilities, and coming to their own conclusions in the old contest between “safety is job one” and “the show must go on.”

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MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: odd ensembles

Unusual instrumental and vocal aggregations descend on Oregon stages this week

The weather’s changing, the climate’s changing, the Congress is changing, our linens are changing (flannel sheet season FTW!) and ensembles coming through Oregon this week are changing the formula for chamber music.

• Take the combo of violin, viola, drum, and DJ. That was the setup onstage at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last year when Black Violin played a couple of shows in Portland. They’re returning there Friday, and then take the Silva Hall stage at Eugene’s Hult Center Sunday. Stay tuned for my preview tomorrow, and during the meanwhilst, read ArtsWatch’s reviews of their previous Portland shows by Matthew Andrews and Maria Choban.

The Akropolis Reed Quintet performs in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series. Photo: Tom Emerson.

• Like Black Violin, the young Akropolis Reed Quintet is also shattering instrumental stereotypes. While string quartets and piano trios are by far the most common instruments are stereotypically “classical” ensembles, they play classic and contemporary music arranged for the unique combo of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon — and it works beautifully. “Akropolis is great at balancing expressive lead playing with clear, richly textured, well-rehearsed group dynamics,” wrote Matthew Andrews in ArtsWatch after their sizzling performances at Chamber Music Northwest last year. In their Sunday afternoon concert in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music at Beall series, Akropolis plays an all-American music program of arrangements for of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, contemporary compositions by Gregory Wanamaker and John Steinmetz (a name familiar to Oregon Bach Festival audiences), and 20th century classics by Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives.

• Another windy ensemble returns to Portland’s Newmark Theatre Monday when the ever-popular Canadian Brass play their usual mix of classical, pop and other sounds on tuba, trombone, horns, and trumpets.

• Still another unusual classical ensemble joins the Eugene Symphony this Thursday. The four-time Grammy winning Chicago sextet (piano, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, violin/viola) returns with a concerto written especially for them by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize winning American composer who’s probably the closest successor to Aaron Copland. As she showed in her appearance with the ESO and Marin Alsop years ago, Higdon is one of the country’s most engaging exponents of contemporary classical music, writing accessible yet inventive music and reaching out to audiences with equal generosity. Read Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch interview with Higdon.

The rest of the orchestra’s splendid program includes one of Bach’s ever popular Brandenburg Concertos, some danceable Mozart, and Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy 1944 ballet score Fancy Free, which dazzlingly evokes midcentury New York’s cosmopolitan culture via a musical depiction of a story of three sailors on shore leave seeking romance (which Bernstein immediately revisited, sort of, in On the Town). Both Akropolis and eighth blackbird are also doing multiple community outreach and education events while they’re here.

• Last year, the ESO played another fine recent work by another top American composer (and another Alsop favorite), Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway. This Friday (at Portland’s First United Methodist Church) and Saturday (at Troutdale’s Reynolds Performing Arts Center), Portland Columbia Symphony orchestra plays the dramatic 2015 cello concerto, which won three Grammy Awards last year. Each movement evokes episodes from the author’s stories. A WWI vet heals himself through immersion in a Michigan wilderness; an American on a suicide mission to help the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War (including a tolling bell); an old fisherman struggles against wild natural forces. In the Spanish-inflected final movement, a disillusioned, Lost Generation bohemian American expat seeks inspiration from bullfighting and the famous running of the bulls. Rising star cello soloist Allison Eldredge recently won a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant, and was named by Musical America as Young Artist of the Year. The program also includes three other literary-inspired works by Erich Korngold and a Mozart overture.

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Jennifer Higdon: updating classical music

Prize-winning American composer, whose music will be performed this week by Eighth Blackbird and Eugene Symphony, shows how the genre can avoid obsolescence

In 2011, National Public Radio asked Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Jennifer Higdon where classical music was headed in the 21st century. In distinct contrast to her generally open-hearted music, Higdon’s answer seemed pessimistic: it almost implied that classical music might be facing obsolescence. Citing its lack of Grammy Awards interest, disappearing retail sales in both CDs and books related to the subject, dwindling audiences, upturned noses of teen potential, she painted a grim picture.

But she also pointed to a way to avoid that fate: update. Bring the genre solidly into the now. Her personal plan to update classical music (not everyone agrees just what that is, BTW) is to “continue to talk with audiences to increase comfort levels . . . and [to] write the most engaging music that I can.”

Composer Jennifer Higdon’s music highlights Eugene Symphony’s Thursday concert. Photo: J.D. Scott

Fast forward to 2018, and Higdon is still doing her part with hundreds of performances a year and recordings on more than 60 CDs. As is the ESO, which has invited Eighth Blackbird to not only perform Higdon’s concerto, but also to offer workshops, lectures, and masterclasses in both public and private events (check the schedule here). And this Thursday, her music returns (Higdon will not be present) to Eugene to demonstrate how to make classical music vital. On November 15, the Eugene Symphony Orchestra joins Chicago-based new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird in Higdon’s new concerto On a Wire, written expressly for them.

Beyond being a must-see concert, what does this kind of programming say about the future of classical music? Actually, it says a lot, and in an ArtsWatch interview, so does Higdon herself. And it’s good news.

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