Jessie Montgomery

Classical Up Close 3: Tango Plus

A pair of shows in the series of free summer outdoor concerts spotlights Black and contemporary woman composers, and some tingling tango, too

From left: Robert Taylor, Erin Furbee, and Peter Frajola get in the swing. Photo: Joe Cantrell

On a comfortably warm Thursday evening about a hundred people gathered outdoors in Portland’s Hollywood/Rose City Park neighborhood for a decidedly different show in Classical Up Close‘s June series of intimate outdoor concerts – a breezy program of tangos, a little bit of Elgar and Haydn, some Duke Ellington (including his 1931 jazz classic It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing), and some movie music by John Williams from the Harry Potter films. As eclectic as the music was, the instrumentation was just as agreeably offbeat: two violins (Erin Furbee and Peter Frajola) and a trombone (Robert Taylor).

Indeed, the joint was jumping. “I think we had about a dozen tangos,” Frajola said in a telephone conversation the next day. “Mostly they’re two to three, maybe four minutes. What we played were more dance pieces than concert tangos. And then, some Astor Piazzolla, which are concert pieces.”

Not much, of course, is written for two violins and a trombone, which meant a lot of arranging needed to be done. Taylor mostly did the arrrangements, Frajola said, and did them well. The trombone took the bass lines, Furbee played the melodies, and Frajola emulated the inner chords of the piano to cover the range of compositional sound with the particular resonances of the three instruments. As Furbee noted in the brief program notes, “We had a lot of fun putting this together!”

And after more than a year of Zoom meetings, maybe a little recording, and a lot of practicing on their own, there was something more than simply fun about the actual performing: The evening was as much of a breakthrough for the musicians as it was for the audience. After fifteen months of almost no live performances, “it was just so great to get out playing,” Frajola said. All three musicians are members of the Oregon Symphony (Frajola is associate concertmaster, Furbee is assistant concertmaster, Taylor is assistant principal trombonist), and with the symphony musicians set to gather September 1 after more than a year off for their first rehearsal of the new season, it felt like a door opening. “It’s just exhilarating to know we’re on our way back,” Frajola said. “Performing is what we do.”

With increased vaccinations and relaxed coronavirus restrictions, Thursday’s neighborhood concert felt like a door opening in a lot of ways: a recalibration of broken habits; a sense of emerging, if tenuously, from a social isolation; a reconnection with the act of gathering. “Most people in the crowd were a little closer together than a year ago,” when many of the Classical Up Close musicians performed in a series of very small porch and yard concerts, Frajola noticed. “A year ago, everyone carefully distanced.”

Is a new, or renewed, reality around the corner? “It just felt great to be in front of people,” Frajola said. “Trust me, it felt fabulous.”

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Jennifer Arnold, violist in the ensemble Mousai REMIX. Photo: Joe Cantrell

ON THE PREVIOUS EVENING on a spacious side yard in Northeast Portland’s Irvington neighborhood, a couple of miles away from the tango concert, the festival’s third concert broke away from classical music stereotypes in its own way. The program consisted of works by actual young and adventurous living composers (the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, violinist and singer Caroline Shaw’s Enre’acte; violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery’s Voodoo Dolls) and by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (String Quartet No. 1 “Cavalry”), a leading 20th century composer who, like many great Black musicians, spanned genres.

Perkinson, who was born in 1932 and died in 2004, was comfortable in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance, and classical music. He played piano for the great jazz drummer Max Roach, composed dance music for Alvin Ailey and Jerome Robbins, did arrangements for Harry Belafonte and Marvin Gaye. Shaw and Montgomery are active composer/performers who know this neck of the musical woods: Shaw’s performed with Chamber Music Northwest and the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival (see Matthew Neil Andrews’ ArtsWatch interview with her); Montgomery’s appeared with Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival (see Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch interview with her).

Wednesday evening’s concert attracted a crowd of neighborhood people and a goodly share of the city’s musical luminaries. The players were local luminaries, too: The Pyxis Quartet (violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira) and Mousai REMIX (violinists Shin-young Kwon and Emily Cole, violist Jennifer Arnold, cellist de Oliveira). The evening sounded something like America, in its roots and in its moment now.

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Classical Up Close Summer Festival 2021

The intimate concert series began June 1 and continues through June 14. You can see this year’s full Classical Up Close Festival schedule here. Coming up next:

  • Friday, June 4, 5-6 p.m.: 16306 Hilltop Road, Oregon City. Sarah Kwak, Chien Tan, Searmi Park, Ruby Chen, violin; Charles Noble, Vali Phillips, Kelly Talim, Leah Ilem, viola; Marilyn de Oliveira, Trevor Fitzpatrick, Antoinette Gan, cello; and Andy Akiho, percussion, play sextets by Brahms and Strauss, and four contemporary pieces by percussionist Akiho. Limited parking; carpooling suggested.
  • Saturday, June 5, 2-3 p.m.: 6318 S.E. Lincoln St., Portland. Rose City Brass Quintet (Joe Klause and Logan Brown, trumpets; Dan Partridge, horn; Lars Campbell, trombone; JáTtik Clark, tuba) plays music by Jennifer Higdon, Axel Jorgensen, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Joey Sellers, and Jack Gale’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite.
  • Saturday, June 5, 7-8 p.m.: 2966 N.W. Telshire Terrace, Beaverton. Emily Cole, Ruby Chen, Shin-young Kwon, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Ken Finch, cello; Karen Wagner, oboe and James Shields, clarinet, perform Bartok’s Duo for Two Violins; Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op. 10; and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 and Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.
  • Sunday, June 6, 2-3 p.m.: 4037 S.W. Iowa St., Portland. Greg Ewer, Emily Cole, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Antoinette Gan, Marilyn de Oliveira, cello; Martha Long, flute, perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major;  Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Játo; and Mozart’s Flute Quartet in G Major.

Previous stories:

MusicWatch Monthly: A vote for diversity

November concerts initiate reimagined seasons of socially distant, socially relevant new music

After a nice weekend of socially-distanced Halloween shenanigans, the beautiful blue moon and a well-earned extra hour of sleep, November is here. It took a long time, but it feels like Portland’s arts community has settled into a rhythm of live-streamed concerts and occasional outdoor performances. What I appreciate above all is that this new format allows for a bit more experimentation in repertoire as we continue to move on from the hegemony of German dudes in classical music.

We can hear that in how the classical music community expands its focus, as composers and musicians who used to be on the periphery move toward the center. Older composers are rediscovered, newer composers get more attention, and we continue to confront our long history of complicity in racism, sexism and classism in music.

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Bending genres to the world’s shape

"Classical music remains racist," composer DBR declares. His vital music breathes the air of Prince, hip-hop, Rosa Parks and Nina Simone.

In the heatwave of the Black Lives Matter movement and the thirst to hear new multicultural classical music, composer Daniel Bernard Roumain is a force to be reckoned with. 

His striking, genre-bending music will be spotlighted at this season’s third virtual Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concert on Saturday, Aug. 22, from Sokol Blosser Winery in Dayton, Oregon. His pieces include “String Quartet No. 5 (Parks),” which speaks to Civil Rights matriarch Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala.; and “Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes,” 24 works in each musical key. His compositions are programmed with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s final “String Quartet, Opus 135” and the little-known Baroque composer/nun Isabella Leonarda’s “Sonata #12” for violin and cello. Roumain served as one of three virtual composers-in-residence for this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my previous festival stories, Flights of music from a barrel room and Chamber music and a virtual toast, at Oregon Arts Watch.)

Composer DBR: “My work has always been a very small part of that big fight for justice.”

DBR, Roumain’s professional name, is “an important voice, now and in the future, and his music is stunning,” festival co-director and violinist Sasha Callahan said earlier this month. “The `Parks’ quartet we’ll be playing is fierce, bold, beautiful and full of life. It’s really evocative and distinctive” — and it includes clapping, a practice that reaches back to ancient cultures. 

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Chamber music and a virtual toast

Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, known for blending sounds and wine, pops the cork on its fifth vintage – this time, via streaming

Minus the barrel room and live applause, members of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival will play music for three August weekends at three stellar wineries (J. Christopher Wines, Archery Summit Winery and Sokol Blosser Winery) beginning Saturday, Aug. 8. Though you’ll have to savor the vintages at home in front of your computer, it’s a small sacrifice for these dedicated musicians’ performances. Longtime friends, the WVCMF string players have quarantined, masked up, and practiced outdoors before the festival begins.

In its fifth year—this is the first virtual one—the festival will showcase the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (this year marks his 250th anniversary) and the work of living American composers. Five contemporary composers’ works will be performed, including Portland composer/violist/Fear No Music artistic director Kenji Bunch’s “Four Flashbacks” for violin and cello. Several composers will appear virtually for question-and-answer periods after the concerts.

Music amid the (virtual) vineyards: Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival founders and directors Leo Eguchi and Sasha Callahan. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar

In the past, the festival has collaborated with one composer a year. Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery and Gabriela Lena Frank have been in residence. This season, Montgomery and Frank will show up again, along with Daniel Roumain (DBR), all of whom will be communicating virtually from their homes (Montgomery from New York City, Frank from northern California, DBR from Massachusetts). Festival directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi make it their mission to collaborate with BIPOC, women, unsung, and minority composers. “We deeply believe that the life and vibrancy of this art form hinges on reflecting the world we live in, with all its diverse voices and experiences,” artistic co-director Callahan says.

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Virtual Festivals

Oregon festivals keep the music spreading online and in other virus-resistant ways

Summer is festival season in Oregon music, and last month, we noted how several major Oregon summer festivals were making the transition from onstage to online. The parade continues in July and August, beginning with what’s always the major musical event of Independence Day weekend. As ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks explained in Blues Minus the Waterfront, Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival is shifting its annual July 4 show from one large stream — the bank of the Willamette River — to a mostly virtual one. The fest will stream highlights of past festivals on KOIN 6 over the air and online July 4, and on KBOO 90.7 FM and online July 4&5. But happily, the festival has also managed to safely add a live component. Instead of grooving to the blues in big, virus-friendly crowds, Blues Fest Bandwagon brings performances to select driveways, cul-de-sacs, and front porches in the Portland metro area Friday and Saturday.

Amenta Abioto performs at Pavement on July 18.

That’s not the only show to venture out to non traditional outdoor spaces for distanced live performance. On July 18, Risk/Reward Festival and Portland’s Boom Arts theater company present Pavement: pop-up performances in a public parking lot on Portland’s Central Eastside. Where? Excellent question, and to find the answer, and see and hear music by Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi, Portland Opera, and Amenta Abioto, plus some of the city’s top dance and theater artists, you’ll need a ticket. All these free streams we’ve enjoyed are a treat, but artists still need to eat and pay rent.

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Refreshing and overwhelming

An interview with composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery, performed and performing this weekend at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival

Rising-star—or risen constellation—composer Jessie Montgomery will light up Sokol Blosser Winery’s Dundee tasting room for two concerts Aug. 17 and 18, final weekend of this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. (See my Oregon Arts Watch feature story.)

Expect excitement, as well as three 2-ounce pours of Sokol Blosser vintages throughout the concert, which includes two compositions by Montgomery, Baroque composer Elisabeth–Claude Jacquet’s “Sonata for D for Violin and Cello” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132.

The program’s centerpiece, Montgomery’s 7-minute quartet Strum, is “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life,” wrote a Washington Post critic. “It sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another.”

Composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery.

Like that much-praised and much-played composition, Montgomery at 37 has the energy, talent and flourishing reputation to fuel many more years of composing, advocating for people of color, and playing the violin. She is a member of the New York-based Catalyst Quartet, a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, and recipient of numerous commissions from top chamber and dance groups. Those efforts and honors comprise a small chunk of her accomplishments, accolades and advocacies. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: Hello from Bali!

Music editor in Bali, women in wine country, classical jamming in NoPo

It seemed appropriate that practically the first thing we did in Bali—after stopping for bottled water and kretek—was stop into a beautiful restaurant featuring a thirty foot statue of Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Ganesha is traditionally invoked at the beginnings of difficult endeavors, and although none of us post-Christian U.S. Americans were religiously savvy enough to know any traditional prayers and blessings, we still took His presence at our first dinner as a good omen.

Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.
Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.

Gods and goddesses are everywhere here, along with a wild profusion of temples, statues, offerings of fruit and rice and incense, street dogs, motorbikes, delicious “warung” food carts, and music music music. I’m here with Portland’s only Balinese gamelan, Wahyu Dari Langit (“Revelation from the Skies”), and we’re here to study the traditional percussion-centric music of Indonesia. It’s been almost embarrassing to encounter groups of kids on the street playing drums and gongs with skill and grace we all agree we’ll never achieve.

But we’re still learning, and I’ll tell you all about that as we go along. I’m also still going to tell you about all the stuff I’m missing in Oregon this week and beyond. But first, I have to tell you about the mini-opera we watched shortly after arrival—a deeply entertaining, spiritually fulfilling two-hour spectacle of music and dance centered around a mythical beast known as Barong.

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