katie palka

Price’s compelling musical world

Metropolitan Youth Symphony debuts Florence Price in Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Europe

By DAMIEN GETER

“I have two handicaps—those of sex and race,” wrote American composer Florence Price to Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. “I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.”

Composer Florence Price.

In 1943, Price, who was trying to get more of her orchestral music performed, wrote Koussevitzky, a champion of promising American composers. As a result of winning the Rodman Wanamaker Competition in 1932, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor garnered the attention of Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who premiered the work in June 1933–making it the first piece by an African American woman to be played by a major symphony orchestra.

On May 21, 86 years after that performance, Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony (MYS) debuted what was believed to be the West Coast premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 on a program that also featured her Dances in the Canebrakes, orchestrated by William Grant Still.

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Music Notes: transitions & triumphs

Summer roundup of recent news in Oregon classical and jazz music

Oregon’s leading classical music public radio station All Classical Portland has launched a brand-new second radio network, for children. The International Children’s Arts Network (ICAN) is a 24-hour radio service and, the station announcement says, is the first of its kind in the US. Designed for young listeners, the network features music, poems, and literature from around the world, locally produced and curated by All Classical Portland. “ICAN provides an audio destination where kids can be inspired to listen, dance, color outside the lines, and create their own adventures,” ICAN Program Manager Sarah Zwinklis said in a press release. “Much of the content on the network will be presented by children – we believe in the power of these young voices.” Listen online at allclassical.org/ican or through an HD Radio.

The station also operates a free arts journalism mentorship program that selects three high school age (ages 15-18) students from Oregon & SW Washington to be Youth Roving Reporters each year. From September – June, they’ll learn how to use recording equipment in the field, attend two arts events, conduct interviews with artistic leaders or performers, and learn to produce their interviews for radio broadcast. As ArtsWatch has previously reported, it also operates JOY: an Artist in Residence program, which includes a young artist residency.

Laurels & Shekels

• Speaking of All Classical Portland, Metropolitan Youth Symphony presented the station its 2019 Musical Hero Award in April. The station’s On Deck with Young Musicians program has featured dozens of MYS musicians in performances and interviews with All Classical Portland host and producer Christa Wessel.

• The Oregon Symphony presented its 2019 Schnitzer Wonder Award to Mariachi Una Voz of the Hillsboro School District. Launched in 2010 and including strings, brass, and singing, the group’s mission is to promote cultural understanding and community unity through music education and performance. Participation is free and open to all Hillsboro middle- and high-school students. It has performed on more than 100 school and community events, performing in venues as diverse as the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts theaters, the Moda Center, major regional cultural festivals, and schools, libraries and hospitals.

“Every child who wishes to learn to play a musical instrument should have the opportunity,” said founder and manager Dan Bosshardt in a press release. “The students that find their way to our group have inspiring personal stories. They have very supportive families that often do not have the financial means to provide transportation, instruments, lessons, or private instruction.”

• ArtsWatch congratulates a pair of Portland choral music leaders who just scored major national awards from Chorus America. Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon won the 2019 Botto Award named after Chanticleer founder Louis Botto. She “has captained a bold organizational shift—from its original mission exploring links between music, art, poetry, and theatre, to a new focus exclusively on presenting concerts that promote meaningful social change.”

Katherine FitzGibbon leading Resonance Ensemble

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Classical music programs largely consist of endlessly recycled old classics by composers who are (a) European, (b) male, and (c) white. Florence Price is (e) none of the above. The 20th century African American composer does, however, abide by that other common requirement for appearing on classical programs — she’s (d) — dead. 

But today, Price’s music is, against all odds, coming back to life, including Tuesday when Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs one of her symphonies. What’s more, Price’s resurrection is inspiring today’s young composers to create new music, and the concert features some of that, too — including a world premiere just composed by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays music of Florence Price, Katie Palka and more Tuesday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price studied music at the prestigious New England Conservatory and went on to write hundreds of compositions. Premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor was the first symphony by an African-American woman ever to be performed by a major American orchestra. (Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch story about Price and other neglected African American composers.)

But Price’s music, like that of so many composers of color in her time, was ignored by most orchestras and seldom played after her death in 1953. When one of her former homes was remodeled in 2009, the attic yielded dozens of unpublished scores, and ignited an ongoing rediscovery of her music.  

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MusicWatch Monthly: the darkling buds of May

Encore shows, season closers, and kickoff concerts showcase visuals, Dutch virtuosi, Japanese drums, and women composers

There’s an old Oregon saying: “April showers bring May showers.” Our famously persnickety springs tend to veer from warm noon-times of glorious blooming sunshine to those long desperate afternoons of deep drizzling gloom that have our S.A.D. souls begging the gods, “when will you make an end?”

Fitting, then, that our Curated Concert Spread for May includes so much rich, loamy music. From fresh rain and frolicking flowers to ominous thunder and deadly lightning, here’s a sample of what’s happening in your merry, mournful town this May.

Weill, Auerbach, Price: Music for Orchestras

Oregon Symphony Orchestra
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra puts on a few different types of concerts, and they end their season with three contrasting varieties spread across the month like a field full of wildflowers and mushrooms.

May 4, Norman Huynh conducts the OSO and guest choirs from Portland State University in a live performance of the award-winning score from Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, the music deftly synchronized to the movie, projected on a giant screen above the orchestra. Unlike similar concerts with thoroughly cinematic scores (Star Wars, Batman), this concert doubles as a simple Mozart feast—including more than a little bit of that glorious Requiem, which PSU’s choirs performed in its entirety earlier this year. The music is all ages but the film is rated R, so know your kids or leave ‘em at home.

PEER GYNT from Studio Moto on Vimeo.

May 11-13, Carlos Kalmar conducts Edvard Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt score with visualizations by designer Alexander Polzin. This is the third concert of OSO’s popular SoundSight Series, which brings together visual artists and musicians for delightfully polysensory shows. Previous concerts have featured animation, projection mapping, and all kinds of puppetry. Also on the program: Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, featuring soprano Jane Archibald.

OSO closes its season with a Mahler symphony, the deceptively pretty first, sometimes called the “Titan (it’s the one with the minor-key Freres Jacques). The three concerts May 18-20 also reprise Kurt Weill‘s satirical ballet chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, with Pink Martini chanteuse Storm Large in the double lead role originated by Lotte Lenya (Anna I and Anna II) and vocal quartet Hudson Shad as The Family. The Mahler symphony is nice and springy—like all Mahler, it’s lusciously orchestrated and therefore absolutely essential Schnitz-listening—but it’s the Weill that’s bringing us in out of the rainshine.

Storm Large rejoins the Oregon Symphony with Hudson Shad in ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ Photo: John Rudoff.

That vocal quartet is a funny case and deserves a special mention. Hudson Shad is, among other things, a cadre of Seven Deadly Sins specialists who got together specifically to perform this macabre deliciousness with Marianne Faithfull way back in antediluvian 1989, eventually recording it with her in 1997. These four guys have now been singing this music together for three decades. Listeners familiar with Weill from his Threepenny Opera can expect more of the composer’s iconic, sardonic cabaret sound. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of what we can expect from Large.

Auerbach and Martinů
May 5
Portland Youth Philharmonic, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
PYP routinely handles new and difficult music that belies the age of its membership—think of it not as a group of highly skilled young musicians but as a 95-year-old symphony orchestra playing with vigor, courage, curiosity, and a deep emotional heft rivaling its more grown-up professional counterparts. They earned points with OAW by being one of the only groups in town to celebrate the Bernstein centennial with something other than West Side Story and Candide for the umpteenth time, opting instead to perform Lenny’s first symphony to perfection with Laura Beckel Thoreson in March. (Points also to PSU choirs for their magnificent Chichester Psalms and to Eugene Symphony for performing Bernstein’s second symphony, both last year; there’s also this).

Their season closer features PYP alum Max Blair performing Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů‘s 1955 sunny little Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and the West Coast premiere of contemporary Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 1 “Chimera.”

You’ll enjoy the Martinů concerto, sure but you’re really going to thank us for Auerbach, whose music is exactly the right kind of fresh. It’s punchy and agitated, modernistically morbid, bristlingly bombastic, colorfully dissonant, heroically wistful, and melodically profuse—which, to my ear, places her about halfway between Khachaturian and Elfman.

America’s Florence
May 21
Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
Classical music lovers continue waking up to music by U.S. composers of the present and past, and one of the best of the rising old stars is Florence Beatrice Price, the first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious symphonic composer. Following the 2009 discovery of dozens of lost Price scores (discussed here by local singer and Arts Watch correspondent Damien Geter), the classical world has been abuzz over this much-needed new entry into the early U.S. canon, finding ample space for her among the Beaches and Seegerses and Iveses. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s concert preview.

MYS—like PYP a fearless and curious band—performs Price’s tasty first symphony and her Americana-as-apple-pie Dances in the Canebrakes, along with the homage Letter to Florence Price, composed by MYS alum Katie Palka, one of the stars of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project (read Charles Rose’s interview with Palka and three other YCP composers right here). MYS will also give the West Coast Premieres of two works by a pair of eleven-year-old composers, participants in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Initiative: Harlem Shake by Camryn Cowan and Boogie Down Uptown by Jordan Millar.

Japan, Netherlands, Florida: Transnational Chamber Musics

“Her Light Escape”
Spire Duo, May 4, Portland house concert.
Superb Eugene soprano Emma Rose Lynn and pianist Andrew T. Pham performing settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost and more by 20th and 21st century composers composers such as André Previn, Dominick Argento (both of whom died this year), Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, and others.

Portland Taiko rejoins FearNoMusic. Photo: Rich Iwasaki.

Japanarama: The Ongoing Influence of Japanese Culture
May 6
Fear No Music, The Old Church, Portland
Fear No Music’s husband-and-wife leadership team—Artistic Director Kenji Bunch and Executive Director Monica Ohuchi—have spent the past five years making FNM the best kind of Portland hybrid: a classical ensemble with unimpeachable performance credentials, a love for local and contemporary composers, and a mature sense of social justice and responsibility.

This season’s theme, “Worldwide Welcome,” invites international musics and musicians into downtown Portland’s Old Church, and this concert’s special guest is the beloved percussion ensemble Portland Taiko, a jolly and entertaining crew who have collaborated with Bunch on previous concerts and will likely be audible across the river. The Japanese drums—many of them gigantic—were originally designed for communications between villages and within armies, providing a nice counterpoint to Bunch’s quiet, reflective music.

Kendrick Scott Oracle
May 6, Jack London Revue, Portland
After earning his reputation as one of the finest jazz drummers of his generation in his decade anchoring Terence Blanchard’s superb ‘00’s band, Kendrick Scott formed his own band, Oracle, to showcase his considerable compositional chops. He scored a coveted record contract with sainted jazz label Blue Note, which just released one of the best jazz albums of the year so far. A Wall Becomes a Bridge beautifully blends varied textures: Jahi Sundance’s turntable, Mike Moreno’s fluid guitar, John Ellis’s various woodwinds (flute, bass clarinet, horn) and bassist Derrick Hodge’s wordless vocals, plus some vocal samples. Add Scott’s inventive drumming and Tyler Eigsti’s bright electric and acoustic keyboards, and it adds up to a forward-looking amalgam of ‘70s fusion, a dash of modern hip hop, and lyrical contemporary jazz that can charm fans of everyone from Pat Metheny to Scott’s fellow Houston natives Jason Moran and Robert Glasper.

Classical Musicians of Holland bring Portland a Dutch treat.

“Classical Musicians of Holland”
May 7
Portland Dutch Society, The Old Church
We here at Oregon Arts Watch have an almost jingoistic attitude toward classical music: local composers, local performers, local poets, local rainstorms. We’re locavores and we’re not ashamed of it. Some might even call us musical terroirists. But we do occasionally get wind of travelling shows blowing in under the radar, something to remind us life beyond the Willamette Valley.

On May 7, Portland Dutch Society hosts three young musicians, the most recent winners of Holland’s Prinses Christina Concours (Princess Christina Competition): violinist Yente Lottman, trombonist Niels Jacobs, and pianist-composer Maxim Heijmerink. The concert program features a lot of pretty familiar stuff—Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin—and it will all no doubt be played superbly (we’re especially excited to hear that delicate Rachmaninoff vocalise on trombone). But this concert’s blossoms are the works by less-known composers: Alexandre Guilmant, Joseph Jongen, Peter Kiesewetter, and Heijmerink himself.

Mozart’s Clarinet
Delgani String Quartet
May 12 & 14, Temple Beth Israel, Eugene
May 18, Christian Science Church, Salem
May 19, The Old Church, Portland
Maybe you just can’t wait until June to hear Mozart’s clarinet quintet at Chamber Music Northwest’s opening night. Or maybe you just want to hear UO clarinet professor Wonkak Kim play the foundational work with a basset clarinet and an amazing regional string quartet. Delgani also hails from Eugene, and we’ve admired the spry, sensitive quartet ever since hearing them pair György Ligeti’s first string quartet with Lou Harrison’s early last year at Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival (another worthy out-of-towner that gusted through Portland and blew most of us away).

But it’s not Mozart’s quintet (Brahms’s is better) or Kim’s basset clarinet that interests us. No, what we really want is to hear something—anything—by the criminally underappreciated Florida-based composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose miraculous Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet was our personal “best-in-show” of CMNW 2017.

One Heart: Music for Voices

Lost | Found
Big Mouth Society
May 3, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Avenue, Portland
The ensemble founded and led by early music specialist and singer Emily Lau also has big talent, and big ears. This show includes vocal and instrumental chamber music by anonymous 14th-century Sephardic Jewish women, 15th century Burgundian master of melody Guillaume de Binchois, 16th century choral music paragon Palestrina, 17th century Italian pioneer Claudio Monteverdi (one of the first Baroque and opera composers), the greatest composer of the 18th century (J.S. Bach), 19th century Brit Edward Elgar, contemporary American composers Emma Lou Diemer and Eric Whitacre, and even Lau herself.

Portland State University’s Queer Opera Project returns May 7. Photo: Byisabel.

Queer Opera Kickoff Concert
May 7
PSU Queer Opera, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland
Last year, PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard introduced us to Queer Opera with two of the season’s most entertaining recitals (three, if you count Poulenc’s Les mamelles, which was the best show this exhausted reviewer attended all year). This is what we had to say about Queer Opera’s debut concerts at the time.

QO is a summer program, so they kick off their season just as other groups are ending theirs. On May 7th, community members join PSU students and faculty in a concert featuring some of the songs that thrilled us last year, along with selections from West Side Story and Jake Heggie’s song cycle Here and Gone, sung by Daniel Mobbs and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter.

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Young Composers Project: sound of the future

A conversation with emerging Oregon composers featured on upcoming FearNoMusic concert

Interview by CHARLES ROSE

This state is just crawling with composers, though you might not know it if you only go to Oregon Symphony and Third Angle concerts—just to arbitrarily pick on a pair of robust local organizations with rather different ideas of what constitutes classical music and rather similar habits in regards to living local music. Both groups have been justly lauded for programming contemporary composers—inviting faraway folks like Gabriel Kahane and Gabriela Lena Frank to perform and discuss their work—and both deserve credit for occasionally performing music by locals like Kenji Bunch and Branic Howard. A handful of local classical organizations do better—recent efforts by 45th Parallel come to mind—while Cascadia Composers and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble feature basically nothing but locals.

But when it comes to commissioning and developing a vital ecosystem of local composers in the classical tradition, it’s hard to beat Fear No Music. FNM puts on an extraordinary all-local-composers concert every year, and even has its own composer development program: the Young Composers Project, headed by FNM co-founder Jeff Payne.

FearNoMusic pianist and YCP director Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

In March, we gathered Payne and four YCP students as part of a series of “oval table” discussions: six different conversations, featuring over 20 local musicians, all on the theme “the future of classical music.” We engineered these oval tables for the second issue of Subito—the student journal of Portland State’s School of Music and Theater (out in May)—and we’ll be running the whole series here on Oregon Arts Watch this summer. Stay tuned for conversations with Bonnie Miksch, Jeff Winslow, Jennifer Arnold, and more.

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Fear No Music: music of migration and more

New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.

FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.

FearNoMusic

This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony preview: song of the earth

Portland orchestra's 'Arabian Nights' concert features a new, environment-focused composition by nationally acclaimed young Oregon composer Katie Palka

When most people see their first ballet, they’re transfixed by the action onstage. But when almost-three-year-old Katie Palka went to her first Nutcracker, her dad took her down to see the orchestra pit. “I saw the violins at intermission and said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” she remembers. “‘I want to do that!’

Now 17, Palka did indeed become a violinist. She’s even performing Sunday in Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s “Arabian Nights” concert. But music has become an even bigger part of her life. Palka is an award winning composer, and one of the pieces MYS performs Sunday is one that she wrote herself.

Raul Gomez conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony Sunday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Later, after her fiddle teacher taught her how to use Sibelius composition software, Palka began to transcribe and arrange music she liked, such as the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and to compose her own. By the time Palka reached eighth grade, her violin teacher realized she needed formal instruction in composition. She recommended one of Oregon’s — and America’s — finest composers, Kenji Bunch, who immediately noticed a couple of distinctive qualities.

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