kneebody

MusicWatch Weekly: time of the season

As autumn approaches, Oregon orchestras and ensembles play seasonal sounds and more

Yes, the Zombies no doubt played their iconic 1967 hit at Monday’s show at Revolution Hall, but there’s more seasonal music in the air this week. One of those iconic Portland fall traditions is to bring the family and some blankets and marvel at the annual cyclonic return of the migratory Vaux’s Swifts to that chimney at Northwest Portland’s Chapman Elementary School. In their season-opening Song of the Swifts shows, FearNoMusic brings one of New York’s best known new music pianists, Kathleen Supové to play music that touches on themes of migration — and not just by birds.

Kathleen Supové.

Musicians and other artists have joined the response to Republican politicization of immigration, which turned human suffering into human tragedy. For the last year or so, the Portland new music ensemble has been programming contemporary classical music that squarely or obliquely addresses some of today’s most pressing social issues. This time it’s migration. Supové, who grew up in Portland, plays three world premieres (by Portland’s own Jay Derderian, her partner and well known composer Randall Woolf, and Paula Matthusen), composed for Sunday’s pop up concert, which happens a few blocks from the Chapman School chimney that has long been a gathering place for the birds, and for Portlanders who love watching them circle, cavort and finally take the plunge. The performance also features video and visual art.

Those three premieres repeat at Monday’s concert at the Old Church, which also pairs Supové with FNM musicians in migration and/or bird-related music by young Portland composer Katie Palka, the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Michi Wiancko, and Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Tomas Cotik performs with Portland Chamber Orchestra.

• As we head into fall, Portland Chamber Orchestra combines the most famous Four Seasons (Vivaldi’s familiar violin concertos) with an equally colorful 20th century successor. In The Eight Seasons, Portland State prof and Astor Piazzolla expert Tomas Cotik joins the ensemble in his fellow Argentine’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which uses Vivaldi’s model and Piazzolla’s own pulsating nuevo tango music to paint a vibrant musical portrait of his bustling hometown. The Sunday afternoon show at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel also features longtime Oregon coast resident Ernest Bloch’s moving Prayer for Cello and Strings (with more Bloch coming next week) and Edvard Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies.

• The Oregon Symphony opens its classical season Sunday with maybe the world’s starriest soprano, Renée Fleming, and it’s a credit to both that instead of the usual familiar arias, the concert presents an attractive, substantive program of 20th century classical and theater music along with Richard Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. The big news is Kevin Puts’s orchestral song cycle, Letters from Georgia, composed for Fleming in 2016. Puts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s one of the most listener friendly of contemporary classical composers, sets five letters the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her future husband Alfred Stieglitz or her close friend Anita Politzer that describe New Mexican desert beauty, her own feelings about love and music, and more. What I’ve heard would certainly appeal to Aaron Copland fans, and there’s actual Copland (tunes from his opera The Tender Land) on the program too, as well as a pair of stirring American overtures: Samuel Barber’s 1931 overture to The School for Scandal, and Leonard Bernstein’s inevitable, and irresistible, Candide overture, plus show tunes from Sting, Kander & Ebb, Meredith Willson, Stephen Sondheim, and more — that rare star program that would be almost as appealing even without the star’s celebrity name and talent.

Renée Fleming and Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar take their bows.

• While the Oregon Symphony goes mostly American, Portland Columbia Symphony trends Russian in its Friday and Sunday shows at Portland’s First United Methodist Church and Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theater. There’s yet another seasonal number, “Autumn” from Glazunov’s The Seasons, Rachmaninoff’s big second piano concerto starring Robert Henry, and a suite from Stravinsky’s enchanting The Firebird ballet score.

• Rachmaninoff takes center stage — or is that altar? — at this weekend’s Cappella Romana concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, respectively. The superb choir sings one of the 20th century’s choral masterpieces, All-Night Vigil, (sometimes called Vespers) along with psalms and hymn settings by Rachmaninoff’s Russian predecessors, placing the composer’s music in the context of a more complete Orthodox Vigil.

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Kneebody and Misteriosos: Updating the tradition

PDX Jazz Festival bands bring classic jazz approaches into the 21st century

by PATRICK McCULLEY

At the beginning of Kneebody’s February 18 PDX Jazz Festival concert, only four of the five bandmates walked out on stage at Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Saxophonist Ben Wendel announced, to the amusement of everyone, that their bassist had had to go play a gig with “some guy named John Legend.” Their solution to this challenge left drummer Nate Wood with the unenviable task of playing the bass and drums simultaneously. It was really anyone’s guess as to how this would turn out.

I’ve been listening to Kneebody since 2005, ever since that fateful day my college jazz combo instructor spent the last 15 minutes of class exposing us to new music. With its synthesized sounds, funky percussion, and electronically altered horns, sounded unlike many jazz ensembles I’d ever listened to.

Despite performing on a bleak February afternoon, the band delivered music that was dark sometimes, but never dreary, with a composite of acoustic, electric, and synthesized sounds that encroach on emotional boundaries that most jazz (or music) doesn’t often get to. The quintet — keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, electric bassist Kaveh Rastegar (kind of, see the following paragraph), saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood — opened with the first track from their new album Anti-Hero, For the Fallen. Benjamin’s dark tapestry of synthesized keyboard and fender rhodes built a foundation for horn players to weave provocative melodies and Wood to lay down driving rhythmic grooves. It soon became apparent that Wood had no problem playing drums and bass at the same time.

Wood pulled double duty with Kneebody at PDX Jazz Festival. Mark Sheldon.

Any more skepticism was soon laid to rest during their performance of Drum Battle. Written for a recent collaboration with electronic musician Daedalus, it started out light and swinging, only to transition abruptly into a complicated series of funky rhythmic patterns in 5/4, 12/8, and ¾. It was somewhere during Wood’s insane drum solo, a solo that increased in speed so much that the horn players could barely keep up when the melody re-entered, that I was stunned to realize that he was still playing the bass with just his left hand.

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Maria Schneider Orchestra and Kneebody: Many voices, one vision 

PDX Jazz Festival opening weekend bands share fondness for diverse influences. But there’s one big difference.

by ANGELA ALLEN

“I have always loved a lot of different kinds of music,” Maria Schneider said in February from her Manhattan apartment where she’s lived for decades. In her multiple Grammy-winning jazz orchestra’s music, “the colors and forms and textures come from classical, flamenco, and Brazilian influences.” They’re tied together. “I love melody,” she says. “I love tonality.”

Schneider makes her West Coast debut with her orchestra this Friday, Feb. 17 at the BiAmp PDX Jazz Festival. If PDX is her destination and New York her base, the Midwest is her heart’s home, and this tour will include heartland stops.

Maria Schneider. Photo: Dina Regine.

Minnesota is the inspiration for Schneider’s latest much acclaimed album, The Thompson Fields. She grew up on the state’s southwest prairies next to a flax plant that her father ran outside of tiny Windom. She fell in love with the wide-open landscape, which she calls “both surreal and pastoral,” and with the birds. Though the strawberry blonde (her hair naturally remains that vivid color at 56) showed promise as a piano player by eight years old, she told her second-grade teacher she wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up. She had to explain the term to her teacher and class.

Many of her songs invoke birds, including The Thompson Fields’s  “Arbiters of Evolution.” Expect to hear pieces from this sonic homage to the natural world at the Friday show. But get ready for bleaker stuff, including her brand-new “Data Lords.”

“I’ll wait till everybody gets nestled in before that one,” she says. “It’s very dark and apocalyptic. I’m quite disturbed that companies control us through their analytics. Big data is not a good thing for the world. It undermines our democracy and our own choice.”

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