jennifer wright

Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

Watching music at the end of the longest year

When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

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10th anniversary season-closing concert offers clues to organization’s success

by MARIA CHOBAN

Guess where I am.

A lemon yellow wading pool, aluminum bowls spin bump chime on its blue sparkly surface, kids clang big silver balls at them.

Nope, I’m not sitting in a friend’s backyard.

A drone dancing with a human robot.

Nope, I’m not at Burning Man.

A cider balanced on my belly, lying on floor pillows, watching a wizard wave Wii wands, warding off ghosts.

Nope, I’m not high.

Give up?

Photo: Luciana Pina

I was at Cascadia Composers’ All Wired Up micro-festival of electronic music at downtown Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall on the deliberately chosen date — 4/20. 

Concocted by a Western classical music consortium, I expected . . . well, what do you expect when you read “micro-festival of electronic music?” Instead, It turned out to be the funnest fringe festival I’ve attended in Portland.

We obey Cascadia’s unflappable third president, the forward-looking Ted Clifford, and four more Cascadians wielding hand percussion instruments. The Pied Percussionists lead us outdoors into the bright sun where the gamelan is set up . . .  next to the lemon yellow wading pool . . . delighting even the pedestrians strolling down SW Clay.

Gangstas of Gamelan

Cascadia Composers, with 86 members, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, thrives when breaking classical music’s archaic ‘rules’ with unconventional events and offerings. For example, All Wired Up micro-fest of electronic music included a piece for Balinese gamelan (Indonesian percussion) and no electronics: ArtsWatch editor Matthew Andrews’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

In May, I attended Cascadia’s monthly presentation (open to all) and spoke to a 30-something composer who recently moved from Dallas, Texas, ninth largest city in the US. His reason for moving to the 29th largest city? Dallas doesn’t support the ideas of burgeoning creators. When he asked a music mentor in Dallas where in Portland he should plug in, the response was Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX

How did Cascadia gain this notoriety? How did it turn a well behaved niche art enjoyed by a niche few into the rollicking frolic for young and old, newbies and insiders evidenced at All Wired Up? I’ll dust for fingerprints all over this festival. Let’s follow the clues and solve this crime.

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Cascadia Composers at ten

Saturday's tenth anniversary season-opening concert celebrates a decade of showcasing and stimulating community creativity

After Dan Brugh came back from music school, whenever he’d be back on Mount Tabor, near where he grew up, “I always wanted to play music there and bring in other composers,” the Portland composer remembers. But back then, there was no organized way for composers to make events like that happen, and showcases of original music by Northwest contemporary classical composers were rare. Then, a decade ago, a new organization arrived. And thanks to Cascadia Composers, Brugh is making that old wish a reality.

Brugh and Jennifer Wright are the main curators for this Saturday’s Caldera, the first of ten concerts in the regional composers’ organization’s 10th anniversary season — the most programs they’ve ever produced in a single year. In that decade, says founder David Bernstein, Cascadia has grown by a factor of ten — from the original eight members to 80 today — into the largest of the ten chapters in the National Association of Composers USA.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

Over the last decade, “we have given 66 different concerts with over 500 works,” primarily by Northwest composers, Bernstein says. “None of the other chapters can compare with what we’ve done.”

Saturday’s season opening concert is an overture to the group’s most ambitious season ever, and a culmination of a steady rise in quality and scope. 

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March Music Moderne preview: celebrating Debussy

Festival commemorates the creativity and influence of composer Claude Debussy with concerts of his music and new works by Oregon composers

While everyone is checking their brackets for one kind of March Madness (go Ducks!), some of us are equally excited by the return of another crazy rite of spring. March Music Moderne has been on hiatus for while, so it’s even more thrilling to welcome back one of Oregon’s most fascinating music melanges, because it spotlights music you can’t hear at other Oregon classical music concerts, primarily composers who write or wrote music in the modernist tradition. And unlike most overpriced classical music concerts, March Modness is always free, subsidized by Priest (whose wealth lies in his musical generosity rather than negotiable currency) himself.

Actually, though, this edition of MMM superficially resembles Ye Olde Classical Music in at least one way: what I call necromusicophilia, the worship of dead composers. Classical music institutions, desperately needing a news hook to provide an excuse to pay more than usual attention to composers who aren’t going to be releasing any albums of new material or embarking on tours, tend to focus on round number birthdays or, more macabrely, death days.

Claude Debussy, 1908.

For Claude Debussy, that day came exactly 100 years ago Sunday, when the French composer died of cancer during World War I as German shells exploded near his Paris home. But why would the generally mid-20th century March Music Moderne’s three concerts this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, and associated other activities this month, commemorate Debussy’s demise?

One answer may be that it was one of his groundbreaking works, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that turned MMMpresario Bob Priest onto classical music, rescuing him from rock music’s gutters and vaulting him into the palace of — nah, not really. Priest still cherishes Jimi Hendrix, Prince and other rock and pop deities. And as we’ll see, this festival includes far more new music — and by Oregon composers — than old.

But Priest is far from alone in his Debussy devotion. This isn’t the only centennial commemoration of his death happening around the world this year. There are days when he’s my favorite composer too. And it’s a sign of Debussy’s artistic significance and variety that he’s legitimately claimed as a major inspiration by many if not most composers who followed — modernist, post-mod, and otherwise, including one of Priest’s prime mentors, Olivier Messiaen. That’s how rich was his palette — from La Mer’s turbulent seascapes to Children’s Corner’s playful naivete to Pelleas and Melisande’s shadowy moods and so much more. And that’s why Debussy makes an appropriate centerpiece of a modern music festival: not just for his past accomplishments, but also for his future impact, which continues here and now.

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MusicWatch Weekly: wonder women

Music by women, young musicians, Mexican and immigrant composers highlight the week’s Oregon concerts

Our regnant political culture seems to be waging war on everyone who doesn’t belong to the long-dominant ruling class. Let’s hope it’s the last gasps. This week’s Oregon music offers life-affirming musical retaliation from those (sometimes literal) targets: young people, women, immigrants, Mexicans, and more.

Women’s voices and music were long silenced by overt or de facto oppression, but a couple of Portland concerts this weekend shows just how much female composers had — and have — to offer.

Wright, Marsh, and Philipps wrote the music for Burn After Listening’s Saturday concert.

On Saturday at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Portland composers collective Burn After Listening New Music returns for its second presentation: (Dis)connect: New Music for Challenging Times, with original compositions by three top Portland female composers. Some stars of Oregon classical music — Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet and singer Laura Beckel Thoreson — join  violist Christina Ebersohl (whom we’ll have more about next month), dancer Christina Wolken, writer Katie Boehnlein in multimedia creations by Lisa Ann Marsh, Stacey Philipps, and Jennifer Wright. You can also experience Disjecta’s current exhibition by yet another female Oregon artist, Portia Munson’s large-scale installation, Flood. And yes, Wright’s Skeleton Piano will rattle its bones.

Christina Ebersohl performs at Burn After Listening’s show.

Also on Saturday night (alas) at Northwest Dance Project and also Sunday afternoon (yay!) at The Hallowed Halls, another newish Portland ensemble, the Broken Consort, presents its second performance. Sirens, Interrupted features not only contemporary music by founder/composer/singer/social advocate/Big Mouth Emily Lau (the cantata excerpt In Praise of Menstruation), but also the premiere of Maggie Finnegan’s Assemble with Care, an autobiographical cantata of the experience of a rape victim, plus Oregon premieres of music by a pair of renowned 20th century women, Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros, one of today’s rising female composers, Kate Soper.

The Broken Consort performs music by women on Saturday and Sunday.

The concert also connects today’s female composers with a long tradition of women’s classical music, from the virtuosic vocal music by independent 13th century Spanish nuns in the Las Huelgas Codex to the pioneering works by 17th century Italy’s all-female musicians’ collective Concerto Delle Donne and more. Lau, a board member of Early Music America, was a force in Boston’s flourishing early music scene before relocating to Portland, and performers include early music and contemporary music specialists from around the nation.

Speaking of early-contemporary music combos, Seattle’s Tudor Choir commissioned another contemporary composer much influenced by folk music, much-acclaimed Philip Glass protege Nico Muhly, to create a new piece, Small Raine, which they’ll sing in concerts presented by Cappella Romana Saturday night at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, NW 18th & Couch and Sunday afternoon at Hillsboro’s St. Matthew’s Church, 475 SE 3rd Ave. The centuries-spanning program also includes English Renaissance composer John Taverner’s 16th-century Western Wind Mass, and more.

Another recommended choral concert: Portland State University’s award-winning choirs’ centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein Friday and Sunday at First United Methodist Church. Along with his masterful Chichester Psalms, the show also  features music by living composers who were heavily influenced by Bernstein, including the Northwest premieres of new works by British composer Tarik O’Regan and American composer Eric Whitacre.

The Tudor Choir performs Saturday in Portland and Sunday in Hillsboro. Photo: William Stickney Photography.

Speaking of female Oregon composers, as we were earlier, Sunday’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony concert features music by two more: MYS violinist and composer Katie Palka’s The Breathing Earth and Corvallis composer/violinist Jayanthi Joseph’s Olam. Even the main composition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-thrilling Scheherazade, celebrates a woman who used her creativity to survive. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch feature about this concert and Palka tomorrow.

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