John Adams

MusicWatch Weekly: Federale February

Indian classical, Super Bach Sunday, and a chat with Collin Hegna

Normally we like to contain all our monthly previews in one tidy column. But since February starts this weekend, we’d like to tell you all about the first stretch of Februarial concerts now–and we’ll tell you about the rest of the month next week. We’ll start with local supergroup Federale, playing with local “desert surf” act Plastic Cactus at Polaris Hall this Saturday.

This crafty, vintagey septet is among Portland’s greatest musical treasures, and last year they released one of 2019’s best albums, No Justice. We gushed thusly about it in our year end album guide:

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

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MusicWatch Weekly: jazz tributes

PDX Jazz Festival leads this week's Oregon music highlights

Today’s jazz is often about tributes to yesterday’s jazz, especially the post-bop through fusion music of the late 1950s through the ‘70s. It’s easy to understand why — that music is a pinnacle of human artistic achievement that still delights millions of us daily and nightly. But many of us worry that the worship of the old can crowd out development of the new, as happened for a century in classical music, which is still in recovery. Granted, unlike classical music, jazz by its nature is always new, encouraging musicians to update whatever they’re playing every time they take the stage. But as rock climbers know, it can be harder to really take the leap into the next phase of your art form when you’re still clutching the old approaches with one hand.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Thanks in part to the 80th anniversary of the revered Blue Note record label, plenty of worthy tributes ennoble the 2019 BIAMP PDX Jazz Festival. Fortunately its curators, chiefly artistic director Don Lucoff, have included some of today’s forward looking jazz artists too…

• … beginning with tonight’s opening concert featuring Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah at Portland’s Star Theater. The young composer/ trumpeter/ improviser/ producer/ instrument designer is one of the century’s most musically ambitious artists in any field. Scion of one of New Orleans’s most renowned musical families, he builds on jazz traditions and wins awards for his virtuosity, but looks forward artistically. His “Stretch Music” embraces a wide variety of artistic influences while remaining musically accessible to broad audiences. Scott’s landmark 2017 Centennial Trilogy addressed many of our most pressing social issues (anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism, demagoguery, gender bias) while still swinging, and he’s also contributed enormous amounts of work and creativity to youth education and other worthy causes, scored films, worked with musicians as varied as Thom Yorke, Prince, and McCoy Tyner, founded a music festival, and more. He’s a major part of jazz’s future.

The rest of the first week offers an impressively wide range of the varied music we foolishly try to lump into a single four-letter word: fine singers like Kendra Shank (who also plays a Broadway House concert in Eugene Sunday) and Veronica Swift (with fab pianist Benny Green), venerated masters like Pharoah Sanders, Harold Mabern and Patrice Rushen, rising stars including Aaron Diehl Trio, top current acts the Bad Plus, Steve Turre and Ralph Peterson, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (named after a holy shrine of the music) and so much more.

For all the starry national names though, maybe the most valuable part of the festival is the showcase it offers local jazz musicians who offer comparable, sometimes superior performances year round. Many of those shows are free, and the first week’s constellation of local stars shines particularly bright. Check it all out.

Chamber Music

Long before jazz emerged, a mythical Greek dude strummed a mean lyre. The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician who pursued his lost love to hell and almost all the way back, has been told and retold in songs, operas, musicals and more through the centuries. But it’s never been told like this. In Orpheus Unsung, a multimedia concert presented by Third Angle New Music couple of contemporary classical music stars team up to evoke the Orpheus story as a “wordless opera” with only electric guitar and drums.

One time California rocker turned Princeton prof and composer Steven Mackey has done as much as anyone to organically integrate electric guitar into contemporary classical music, while composer/drummer Jason Treuting’s band So Percussion is the country’s leading percussion ensemble, collaborating with everyone from Steve Reich to Matmos. Using multi-media visuals, looping and effects pedals, gongs, and other percussion, along with guitar and drum kit, they incorporate influences from classical to post-rock to various experimental genres to tell a story almost as old as music itself.
Wednesday and Thursday. Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St.

Other notable chamber music events:

Portland Baroque Orchestra (really an ensemble this time, with lutenist John Lenti and violinist Monica Huggett, string ensemble and soprano Arwen Myers) play and sing wonderful English music by Locke, Purcell and Blow Friday at First Baptist Church.

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Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.

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