linda woody

MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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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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