Jennifer Higdon

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: Look before you leap day

A weekend of concerts and a Portland Weird undectet

Fry Day

As usual, we’d like to start by bringing you last minute news of a few shows happening tonight, tonight, tonight. As you read this, Mike Dillon and Band are packing up their road bags, leaving Eugene (where they played at Whirled Pies last night), and trekking up I-5 to Portland, where they’ll head straight down to the Jack London Revue subterraenan social club for an evening of what we can only call “gonzo punk jazz.”

See, from a technique perspective these dudes are all basically just avant-garde jazz musicians (bandleader Dillon is in wide demand as a vibraphonist and all-around killer percussionist), but–like so many others over this last half-century of escalating strangeness–they’ve found the grittiest, truest expression of both “avant-garde” and “jazz” not in the relatively staid traditional world of characters like Henry Threadgill and Branford Marsalis (who are, of course, total badasses and not to be trifled with except for purposes of this strained comparison), but instead have seen the true face of “jazz” and “avant-garde” in the wooly realm of punk, metal, and other folk musicks of the rough and ragged variety. If that’s your bag, dear reader, get on it!

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Oregon Music 2018: looking outward

Socially engaged sounds, multimedia productions, and other trends in 2018 Oregon music

Last year’s music roundup first looked homeward. ArtsWatch’s 2017 music coverage focused, as we have from the outset, on our state’s creative culture: music conceived and composed in Oregon. We touched a lot of other bases, too of course, and homegrown music remained a touchstone our 2018 coverage and this recap.

But as with other Oregon artists this year, Oregon music increasingly gazed outward — and often askance — at our nation’s continuing descent into turmoil, division, lies, and political corruption, starting right at the top and oozing down. Therefore, so did much of our music coverage. So we’ll start with what ArtsWatch’s David Bates called…

“Socially Engaged” sounds

Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic and choir Resonance Ensemble devoted entire seasons to contemporary classical music that responds to today’s social issues.

Resonance Ensemble preview: questions of faith
Choral organization’s ‘Souls’ concert is part of a season-long musical exploration of timely social concerns
Brett Campbell, February 23

‘Bodies’ review: Pride is a verb
Resonance Ensemble’s Pride Week concert commemorates LGBTQIA community’s struggles and celebrates its creativity.
Matthew Andrews, August 14

Resonance Ensemble

Resonance Ensemble: amplifying ‘Hidden Voices’
Vocal ensemble’s collaborative concert features musical responses to experiences marked by racism and resistance.
Matthew Andrews, November 17

Fear No Music: music of migration and more
New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development.
Matthew Andrews, December 10

New music ensemble Fear No Music

Other classical music organizations also presented issue-oriented new music.

Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs
Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers
Matthew Andrews, January 9

Lawrence Brownlee preview: a journey
In a Friends of Chamber Music recital, the celebrated tenor sings a Romantic classic and a new, timely composition about America’s most pressing crisis
Damien Geter, April 2

Shredding it at “Pass the Mic” camp.

Portland Meets Portland
The innovative “Pass the Mic” summer music camp pairing music pros and young refugees and immigrants will give a free concert Friday.
Friderike Heuer, July 14

David Ludwig: telling the earth’s story through music
Composer’s Chamber Music Northwest commission inspired by ancient Earth, threat of extinction from human-caused climate change.
Matthew Andrews, July 27

Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit
Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, ’emergency shelter intake form’ humanizes homelessness.
Interview by Matthew Andrews, August 28

Multimedia

Besides addressing today’s social issues, another trend among some classical music organizations in 2018 was updating their presentations by augmenting music with other art forms such as theater, literature, visual arts, and more. At ArtsWatch, we try to provide constructive feedback on how these often experimental productions worked, so we can help risk-taking artists move forward into unexplored territories — without leaving the audience behind.

Fin de Cinema’s “Beauty and the Beast”: spirit of discovery
Latest mix of classic film and Portland contemporary music captures Cocteau creation’s mix of beauty and grit.
Douglas Detrick, January 23

Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Cappella PYP, Portland State choirs, and In Mulieribus perform Richard Einhorn’s ‘Voices of Light’ during a screening of Dreyer’s film Friday.

‘Voices of Light’ preview: trial by fire
Camerata PYP, In Mulieribus, Portland State University choirs perform Richard Einhorn’s popular oratorio ‘Voices of Light’ with Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’
Brett Campbell, January 25

“Tesla” lab report
Harmonic Laboratory’s ambitious experimental multimedia performance produces mixed results.
Brett Campbell, February 6

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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

by DANIEL HEILA

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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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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