Marilyn de Oliveira

Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

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45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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MusicWatch Weekly: revolutionaries

Concerts celebrate 20th century geniuses

Oregon music this week features the work of a couple of revolutionaries from a century or so ago whose imagination has left its mark on the present and maybe even the future, enhanced by today’s technology. Tesla: Light, Sound, Color (Thursday-Friday Hult Center’s Soreng Theater, Eugene; Saturday, Newmark Theatre, Portland; Monday, Tower Theatre, Bend) brings the eccentric genius inventor/engineer to life via music, dance, digital imagery and even physics experiments. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch preview and Rachael Carnes’s ArtsWatch review.

This weekend’s Oregon Symphony’s concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall feature the revolutionary dance score that helped transform 20th century music, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, enhanced by digital projections.  We talked about it a lot on ArtsWatch during the centennial year. The rest of the program rocks, too —  Bartok’s fab, faux-lky second violin concerto and one of the middle-ish (but not middling) period Haydn symphonies we don’t hear often enough. His 70th was also innovative in its way, adding timpani and trumpets to the composer’s arsenal, which he would later use to great effect in other orchestral works.

Third Angle New Music’s Thursday and Friday shows at Portland’s Studio 2 @ N.E.W. shine the spotlight on cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and fellow musician family members and Oregon Symphony players in music by Portland’s own nationally renowned composer Kenji Bunch, 20th century British composer John Tavener, recent Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, and young New York phenom Andy Akiho.

Marilyn de Oliveira takes center stage at Third Angle’s concerts.

Baroque Rarities

Even without the arias and more elaborate orchestration of his famous cantatas, Bach’s half-dozen (depending on how you categorize them) surviving motets constitute some of his richest and most complex choral music. It takes exceptional singers to perform them with only one voice singing each part, which affords a wonderful intimacy and transparency, and that’s what The Ensemble of Oregon brings to three of these masterpieces Saturday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church, Eugene, and Sunday at Portland’s Old Church. This all-star team drawn from Portland’s finest choirs also sing arias from two Bach cantatas. A bonus Bach cello sonata provides an instrumental interlude.

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Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.

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45th Parallel review: Critical approach

Converting criticism into collaborative programming, concert features several generations of American composers, including contemporary Oregonians

by TERRY ROSS

If there were any doubt that music reviewers can influence the programming of classical concerts, that contention was put to rest, at least temporarily, on Wednesday night, March 29, in the latest concert of the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel. Reviewing one of the group’s earlier concerts from 2015, a young composer from Salem called Tristan Bliss (b. 1993) had attacked the program of 20th-century music as being uninterestingly composed of late Romantic pieces. Mr. Bliss went so far as to accuse Oregon composer Kenji Bunch of being merely part of a hidebound music establishment, and the ensemble as being afraid of truly new music and dedicated to consigning it to oblivion by not programming it.

45th Parallel performed Tristan Bliss’s ‘Requiem for a Tradition.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This review rankled, needless to say, and 45th Parallel leader Gregory Ewer responded angrily online. A brief brouhaha ensued, with the result that Ewer invited Bliss to collaborate in planning a 45th Parallel concert. Bliss accepted and suggested five pieces, all written in the past three years, with the exception of perennial renegade Charles Ives’s piano quintet Hallowe’en, written way back in 1906 but sounding thoroughly contemporary. Ewer added three other selections, the earliest from 1988, and voilà! A concert was born.

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