george gianopoulos

The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement

by TRISTAN BLISS

… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.

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