jay derderian

Fear No Music: music of migration and more

New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development


Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.

FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.


This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.


MusicWatch Weekly: time of the season

As autumn approaches, Oregon orchestras and ensembles play seasonal sounds and more

Yes, the Zombies no doubt played their iconic 1967 hit at Monday’s show at Revolution Hall, but there’s more seasonal music in the air this week. One of those iconic Portland fall traditions is to bring the family and some blankets and marvel at the annual cyclonic return of the migratory Vaux’s Swifts to that chimney at Northwest Portland’s Chapman Elementary School. In their season-opening Song of the Swifts shows, FearNoMusic brings one of New York’s best known new music pianists, Kathleen Supové to play music that touches on themes of migration — and not just by birds.

Kathleen Supové.

Musicians and other artists have joined the response to Republican politicization of immigration, which turned human suffering into human tragedy. For the last year or so, the Portland new music ensemble has been programming contemporary classical music that squarely or obliquely addresses some of today’s most pressing social issues. This time it’s migration. Supové, who grew up in Portland, plays three world premieres (by Portland’s own Jay Derderian, her partner and well known composer Randall Woolf, and Paula Matthusen), composed for Sunday’s pop up concert, which happens a few blocks from the Chapman School chimney that has long been a gathering place for the birds, and for Portlanders who love watching them circle, cavort and finally take the plunge. The performance also features video and visual art.

Those three premieres repeat at Monday’s concert at the Old Church, which also pairs Supové with FNM musicians in migration and/or bird-related music by young Portland composer Katie Palka, the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Michi Wiancko, and Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Tomas Cotik performs with Portland Chamber Orchestra.

• As we head into fall, Portland Chamber Orchestra combines the most famous Four Seasons (Vivaldi’s familiar violin concertos) with an equally colorful 20th century successor. In The Eight Seasons, Portland State prof and Astor Piazzolla expert Tomas Cotik joins the ensemble in his fellow Argentine’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which uses Vivaldi’s model and Piazzolla’s own pulsating nuevo tango music to paint a vibrant musical portrait of his bustling hometown. The Sunday afternoon show at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel also features longtime Oregon coast resident Ernest Bloch’s moving Prayer for Cello and Strings (with more Bloch coming next week) and Edvard Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies.

• The Oregon Symphony opens its classical season Sunday with maybe the world’s starriest soprano, Renée Fleming, and it’s a credit to both that instead of the usual familiar arias, the concert presents an attractive, substantive program of 20th century classical and theater music along with Richard Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. The big news is Kevin Puts’s orchestral song cycle, Letters from Georgia, composed for Fleming in 2016. Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s one of the most listener friendly of contemporary classical composers, sets five letters the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her future husband Alfred Stieglitz or her close friend Anita Politzer that describe New Mexican desert beauty, her own feelings about love and music, and more. What I’ve heard would certainly appeal to Aaron Copland fans, and there’s actual Copland (tunes from his opera The Tender Land) on the program too, as well as a pair of stirring American overtures: Samuel Barber’s 1931 overture to The School for Scandal, and Leonard Bernstein’s inevitable, and irresistible, Candide overture, plus show tunes from Sting, Kander & Ebb, Meredith Willson, Stephen Sondheim, and more — that rare star program that would be almost as appealing even without the star’s celebrity name and talent.

Renée Fleming and Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar take their bows.

• While the Oregon Symphony goes mostly American, Portland Columbia Symphony trends Russian in its Friday and Sunday shows at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theater. There’s yet another seasonal number, “Autumn” from Glazunov’s The Seasons, Rachmaninoff’s big second piano concerto starring Robert Henry, and a suite from Stravinsky’s enchanting The Firebird ballet score.

• Rachmaninoff takes center stage — or is that altar? — at this weekend’s Cappella Romana concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, respectively. The superb choir sings one of the 20th century’s choral masterpieces, All-Night Vigil, (sometimes called Vespers) along with psalms and hymn settings by Rachmaninoff’s Russian predecessors, placing the composer’s music in the context of a more complete Orthodox Vigil.


Third Angle New Music review: Text Fatale 

“Hearing Voices” concert illuminates rocky relationships between words and music


Composers often have fraught relationships with text, unlike songwriters, who cheerfully shoulder the familial responsibility of marrying text to music, popping out song-child after song-child. Some composers emulate monks, staying as far away as possible, while others only let text into their creations as a domestic servant, forced to repeat mindlessly while the music comes and goes as it pleases. (Of course, as many a barstool debate on the subject brings up, a number of composers have fallen in love with text and become supportive songwriters too.) Then there are the bad boys and bad girls, the texts your parents / teachers warned you about. They seduce composers into dangerous, even impossible relationships.

Third Angle’s latest concert celebrating the spoken word, Hearing Voices 4.0, at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studio 2 on November 13-14, was full of such texts. Violinists Ron Blessinger and Emily Cole, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira gave committed performances of works by Portland composer Jay Derderian, Chicago composer LJ White, and recently passed Boston composer Lee Hyla. But the poets not only had the last word, they also left a trail of, if not broken hearts, at least spurned overtures.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle's Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarratt.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle’s Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarrett.

Derderian came off the most understanding lover. His nervous, atmospheric music for violin and viola duo, Frozen Smolder, deferentially framed acclaimed West Coast writer and architect Sandra Stone’s charnel house of a poem, which lavishes the same kind of richly evocative detail on scenes from the trenches of World War I that the Romantics once reserved for babbling brooks in sighing forests. Any attempt to match the poem image for image would have been melodramatic at best and futile at worst. Instead, Derderian’s music left us space for the kind of stunned response that seems the only humane one possible. Stone’s absorbing narration was underscored by a backdrop on which some of the poem’s most striking phrases were written in giant script. (The room-spanning backdrop, designed by PLACE studio, was an inspired addition, cutting off visual and acoustic dead zones and creating an intimacy missing in previous Third Angle concerts here.)

Wilder Shores, a near-sonnet sequence by Lents twin-brothers-made-good Matthew and Michael Dickman, has a different kind of poetic richness. Its idyllic images, which might be from a story of love or maybe just obsession, gradually split up and rejoin in multifarious ways, giving both depth of perspective and sheer kaleidoscopic beauty. The brothers split up the reading while stationed on either side of Blessinger and de Oliveira, who charged through a highly colorful score that seemed to incorporate about every way of getting sound out of a violin and cello anyone has ever imagined. White made the most distinctive musical statement of the night, but its relationship with the text was a stormy one, as they often seemed at odds.

Portland's Dickman brothers performed their own text at Third Angle's concert.

Portland’s Dickman brothers performed their own poetry at Third Angle’s concert.

The Dickmans also gave a refreshingly clear and well-paced reading of Allen Ginsberg’s larger-than-life, breakout poem / prayer / harangue Howl. The full quartet of musicians gave an incisive performance of Hyla’s accompanying score, and I wish the composer, who passed away last year at only 62, could have heard them — especially since the rather harum-scarum performance he (and I) heard in Portland some 20 years ago, when the piece was new, could not have been one of his happier experiences. However, the poem still blows the music out of the water. I may be a text-loving composer, but the key word is composer and for me music always comes first. Even so, I barely paid attention to Hyla’s. The overwhelming music of Ginsberg’s hypnotic rant was the baddest baddie of all, brazenly living life to its fullest with barely a nod to the distant admirer serenading its heart out. It was sweet in its way, but as the hard saying goes, ain’t never gonna happen.

Nonetheless, Third Angle is to be congratulated. Even when “things didn’t work out,” none of the relationships were boring. And while most of the works were completely new to me, it seemed the performers did all anyone could ask to put them across. We want domestic tranquility for ourselves, but its absence among others often entertains us more.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Jay Derderian.

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