Jennifer Arnold

Mousai REMIX & Pyxis Quartet: expanded visions

45th Parallel Universe concerts feature music by Portland and African American composers

When 45th Parallel reached its 10th birthday this season, the Portland classical music organization expanded its name (to 45th Parallel Universe), its ranks, and its artistic vision, becoming a collectively run umbrella organization comprising five ensembles: two string quartets, a woodwind quartet, a percussion duo and a chamber orchestra.(See Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch story.)

mousai REMIX

The expansion produced a corresponding broadening of artistic vision, with a season packed with diverse concerts. On Friday, two 45th Parallel ensembles play back-to-back concerts embracing compositions that classical music institutions are often rightly accused of ignoring: music by African American composers, and new music responding to the concerns of here and now rather than there and then.

“Sons of the Soil”

To play classical compositions you need scores, and the lack of available scores by black composers is both a symptom of the racism that long excluded them from the classical canon, and one of many continuing obstacles to redressing that exclusion. When 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer asked Jennifer Arnold to program a concert of works by African American composers for her string quartet Mousai REMIX, her biggest challenge was obtaining music.

“In my research I realized how many string quartets by black composers were out there,” Arnold recalls, “but finding and buying them was very difficult.” (Stay tuned for Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about all the composers on the program.)

mousai REMIX violist Jennifer Arnold

The oldest composer featured on the 7 pm concert, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, wrote dozens of string quartets, but only a few were available for purchase. A renowned violin virtuoso, swordsman and military leader in his time, Bologne “was called the Black Mozart for a reason,” Arnold notes, praising his Classical era-style melodies.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasy Pieces aren’t in print, so the group is playing from a downloaded database score. “If you like (William) Walton, (Ralph) Vaughan Williams and other British Romantic music, you’ll love Coleridge-Taylor. He was highly regarded by them.”

Admirers of the folk-inspired Romantic music that the 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak wrote during his American sojourn will appreciate 20th-century American composer Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, Arnold says. She says the program’s sole contemporary composer, Daniel Bernard Roumain, is “really great at crossing genres.” His fifth string quartet, Rosa Parks, offers a mix of contemporary “electronic-sounding things played on acoustic instruments. It’s not typical classical music,” she says. “Anyone who likes a groove can relate to it.”

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45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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