lisa ann marsh

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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MusicWatch Weekly: winter light

Portland State University performances highlight Oregon's music calendar

Welcome to the light edition of MusicWatch! Like everybody else, our New Years resolutions included slimming down both spending and girth. You could trim down your musical meanderings and expenses this week by confining them to the campus of Portland State University, which offers several rewarding shows, some offering free admission.

Some are part of the Portland Winter Light Festival happening around town and centered this year on the PSU campus Feb. 7-9, and including Classical Revolution PDX, Portland Opera singers, a geodesic dome, dance, vaudeville performers, and much more.

The shadows of PSU faculty musicians will be projected in the Winter Light Festival’s Ombra Musici performance

• PSU prof and violinist Tomas Cotik plays some of the most beloved Baroque hits: some of JS Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo and the Winter concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Thursday’s performance will be live streamed. Saturday’s performance is part of Cotik’s shadowy new project Ombra Musici, in which the colossal shadows of Cotik and other PSU faculty musicians will be projected on the walls of the PSU library as they play. He writes:

Ombra Musici is an example of something I like to call massive media: it’s a combination of architecture and media that together transform our perception of space…. The medium is video and sound, the moving image. These aspects add an element of change, of contingency, which serves to capture attention. Architecture that is normally consumed in a passive state of attention becomes a focal point…

Furthermore, the content of the projection mimics some of the earliest and simplest examples of the projected moving image, the shadowplay. Ombra Musici harkens back to the earliest beginnings of cinema and looks forward to a future of expressive architectural surfaces and a mass spatialization of cinema in urban environments.

Noon Thursday and 7 pm Saturday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University

Lisa Ann Marsh’s music highlights Portland’s Winter Light Festival.

• Friday’s festival show, The Light of Music, features the music of one of Portland’s most broadly appealing composers, PSU prof Lisa Ann Marsh, plus lights, night sky images, illuminated dancing, and ice instruments. Ten guest performers and five guest artists will join Marsh on stage for a retrospective of her favorite compositions.
7:30 pm Friday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University

BRAVO Youth Orchestras annual Benefit Concert at PSU’s Lincoln Hall, features a pair of Venezuelan born musicians, Oregon Symphony and FearNoMusic fiddler Inés Voglar and cuatro (four-string guitar) master Freddy Vilches, leading performances of Venezuelan music. One of the world’s greatest Irish fiddlers, Kevin Burke, joins fellow fiddler Betsy Branch in traditional Irish music, and Portland neo-soul songwriter Blossom unleashes steel drums from her native Trinidad and Tobago, accompanied by BRAVO students. The Oregon Supreme Court’s first African-American Justice, Adrienne Nelson, will speak.
4 pm Saturday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University

• Opera-heads got all excited when soprano Audrey Luna sang the highest written note (a stratospheric A) on the Metropolitan Opera stage last year. Let’s hope that striking but gimmicky feat doesn’t define her career, because her performance in the American premiere production of Thomas Adès’ new opera The Exterminating Angel as well as in the British composer’s previous The Tempest also displayed impressive vocal versatility, compelling acting skills, and eagerness to take chances on new music rather than merely repeating the usual coloratura classic roles as so many opera stars do.

Audrey Luna teaches and sings at PSU.

Oregonians should also hope that Luna’s ascent (vocal and career) doesn’t overshadow the fact that before she sang at the world’s leading opera houses (the Met, Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House, Lyric Opera of Chicago et al) and with major orchestras (Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic) Audrey Luna sang her first opera role right here at Portland State University: Pamina in The Magic Flute. The Salem native got her bachelor’s degree here in 2001 before moving on to conservatory, apprenticeships at US opera companies, and on to world renown. She’s returning to her alma mater to present a master class and sing a recital that features late Romantic music by Richard Strauss, symbolist sounds by Debussy, and American composer Samuel Barber’s ravishing, nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915, based on James Agee’s novel.
3 pm Sunday, Lincoln Recital Hall.

• Luna is also singing arias with Portland Concert Opera next Wednesday, Feb. 13 in Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark College.

• Portland Piano International recitals often happen at PSU, too, but this time, 22-year-old Italian pianist Filippo Gorini plays Bartok, Beethoven and Chopin at Resound NW, 1532 SW Jefferson St. Portland Saturday, Hood River Columbia Center for the Arts, 215 Cascade Ave, Hood River Sunday, and Providence St. Vincent Hospital, 9205 SW Barnes Rd. Portland Monday. The two PDX performances are free.

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‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure

New Portland composers' collective's debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences

Though their music differed from each other’s, Portland composers Stacey Philipps, Jennifer Wright and Lisa Ann Marsh had a lot in common. All three were accomplished members of the composers groups Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane Composers. Unlike too many 20th century classical composers, all three cared as much about what the audience experienced as what the creators wanted to express.

“We all appreciated each other’s music but also each other’s ability to make concerts engaging for audiences as well as esthetically appealing for all of us,” Philipps recalls. And they shared one more thing.

Burn After Listening’s Philipps, Marsh, Wright.

“We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

They decided to form a group called Burn After Listening. This weekend’s debut multimedia performances, Fire and Ice, promise to look nothing like a traditional classical music concert.

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Cascadia Composers reviews: Lights, poetry, music

Concerts seek meaning beyond music through complementary art forms

One of the oldest questions in music — right after “what the hell is music, anyways?” — is how music expresses meaning. We normally think of meaning as a semantic thing, something that can be explained in words and symbols. We can, of course, regard music as a kind of language…but when we think of meaning in music we normally go outside the music itself to something more overtly linguistic. Usually that means lyrics, libretti, and programmatic music based on poems or stories. We also tend to think of musical meaning as being something non- or extra-auditory — paintings, religious iconography, or the physical appearances of performers, conductors, and composers. In the past few months, Cascadia Composers has put on two concerts dealing with these strategies for meaning-making in music: one visual, one linguistic.

Visual Meaning: Desire for the Sacred

January’s Desire for the Sacred concert, hosted at Lewis & Clark College’s sylvan Agnes Flanagan Chapel, was as much light show as concert: performers on several compositions played up in the organ loft while the audience sat enveloped in the colored lights projected all over the chapel’s gorgeous modernist wooden ceiling and its Casavant organ, the world’s only circular pipe organ, its pipes suspended from the chapel’s ceiling in a dense spiral.

The organ in Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

The light show was run by Nicholas Yandell, whose music began each half of the concert. In the opening Dilate; Elucidate, slowly evolving pastels emulated the holy glow of the rising sun and reflected the yearning arpeggiations and pedal notes of the Pacific Northwest’s resident organ god, Dan Miller. After intermission, Yandell’s Hymn of Daybreak resurrected the solar theme, this time with Cheryl Young at the manuals and the sweet longing of Kurt Heichelheim’s distant horn imbuing the chapel with numinous charms.

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Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.

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Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.

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Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.

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Oregon contemporary classical music: Golden age?

Fall concerts offer an unprecedented bounty of homegrown sounds by Oregon composers

We may be entering a golden age for Oregon contemporary classical music. This past fall might have brought Oregon music lovers more new music by Oregon classical composers than any season in history. While some culturally insecure institutions and presenters cling to the old thinking that the only worthwhile new art comes from points east (Europe, New York), more and more presenters and performers are realizing that Oregon is a cultural leader, not a follower — and Oregon composers are delivering music that speaks to us here and now. Here’s a glimpse at some of them (click the links for videos of the Crazy Jane and Cascadia concerts), followed by a look ahead at many more Oregon composer shows approaching, so you can hear homegrown music for yourself.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers' fall concert.

McCulley, Petak and Olson performed at Cascadia Composers’ fall concert.

Cascadia Composers

The star of the regional composers’ organization’s fall concert, at the University of Portland’s Mago Hunt recital hall, turned out to be saxophonist Patrick McCulley, who gave an astonishingly expressive solo performance of Jack Gabel’s winding Still Dog after All These Years, and joined another Cascadia composer, Jennifer Wright, as comic narrators in Susan Alexjander’s 1990 e. e. Cummings setting Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, another brief delight that was one of my favorite pieces and performances of the night.

McCulley next teamed with pianist Benjamin Milstein in Greg Bartholomew’s protracted In the Language of Meditation, navigating its straightforward and neo-Romantic style (very different from most of the other music on the program) with equal aplomb. McCulley’s spirited alto occasionally overshadowed singer Catherine Olson’s atypically restrained delivery of Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s link clever Howl: Etiquette for Artists and Other Social Misfits. The tiny soprano’s confinement behind a music stand somewhat inhibited her often riveting theatrical chops.

Kate Petak played harp in that piece and in Greg Steinke’s One by One, using koto-like textures as she and another saxophonist, Sean Fredenburg, engaged in a kind of chase of melodic wisps. Petak also joined violist Grace Young and flutist Gail Gillespie in Homesick, which Linda Woody wrote for a concert in remembrance of the 70th anniversary of World War II. The beguiling trio of instruments, pioneered by Claude Debussy, made an effective vehicle for the nostalgic moods — by turn wistful, tranquil, and playful — that suited its original inspiration. The combo needed a little more rehearsal to capture all the beauty in the prettiest piece on the program, David Drexler’s 2012 scattered flurries, whose attractive, intricate patterned melodies demanded more precise and assertive playing than offered here.

Milstein, Olson, violinist Casey Bozell and clarinetist Christopher Cox captured the quirky charm of Gary Noland’s engagingly off-center 1994 setting of Jonathan Swift poems, Women Who Cry Apples, the musical equivalent of John Tenniel’s famous Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Bozell in turn joined in an oddball combination of accordion (Kiran Moorty) and vibraphone (Florian Conzetti) in Nicholas Yandell’s intermittently poignant Eventide’s Lament. One reason we mightn’t have heard that combo too often is that it proved hard to balance the sonorities, particularly in louder sections, but despite a couple of stalls, it was one of the more intriguing pieces on a strong program. The concert ended with the sturdiest, Michael Johanson’s potent Toccata, whose opening aggressive stuttering rhythms briefly calmed, like the eye of a hurricane passing over, before concluding with rapid fire fury.

Even with a few rough patches, this was one of the most successful and entertaining concerts I’ve heard from Cascadia Composers, offering a wider variety of musical styles than any other concert in Oregon that week. With quality of both compositions and performances steadily increasing, the group is really on a roll.

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