michael gordon

Music Notes

Awards, arrivals and departures in Oregon music including Third Angle New Music, All Classical Portland, Britt Festival, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and more

• This Saturday, March 3, Portland musicians and fans of long time radio host Robert McBride will gather to celebrate the All Classical Portland announcer and composer’s retirement from the airwaves in a live concert that you can hear over the air on Saturday night at 8 pm and via the internet for the next two weeks by clicking on the Listen button at the station’s website.

Robert McBride

It’s the former Oregon Public Broadcasting music director’s last time outing Club Mod, the fascinating  weekly show devoted primarily to modernist music of the 20th and 21st centuries. The concert features Fear No Music, Portland Percussion Group, March Music Moderne and additional local musicians performing works by Eve Beglarian, Claude Debussy, Tom Johnson, Libby Larsen, Witold Lutoslawski, Terry Riley, Ned Rorem, Toru Takemitsu, Somei Satoh and of course McBride, who earned a degree in music composition, himself.

Noted the press release: “Robert’s legacy at the station includes holding a regular air shift in prime time for all 17 years, founding and producing Club Mod (All Classical’s weekly Saturday night program dedicated to modern music), hosting the weekly live broadcast series Thursdays @ Three, contributing to original programs Played in Oregon and Northwest Previews, and regularly leading pre-concert conversations with Music Director Carlos Kalmar before Oregon Symphony concerts.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: bellying up to the barre

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

So a terrific dancer walks into a barre and decides to write down what she sees and feels and does. Six years after Gavin Larsen retired from Oregon Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer and mainstay of the company’s halcyon years, dance followers in Portland still marvel at the memory of her energy and grace onstage. She was “a superb, elegantly balanced, dramatically engaged dancer,” as I wrote about her 2009 performance in Josie Moseley’s Hold My Hand at Conduit.

You could pretty much say that about her writing, too: after all, writing is its own form of performance. Larsen has forged a new career as a writer and a teacher since leaving OBT, publishing in publications as diverse as Dance Magazine and The Threepenny Review. She’s contributed to Oregon ArtsWatch, too, training her perceptions on the role of ballet masters in the 20th century, the legacy of the late studio pianist Robert Huffman, and the path to stardom of Northwest Dance Project’s Ching Ching Wong, among other stories.

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Starting Sunday, Larsen’s writing for ArtsWatch will get more personal. That’s the day we’ll begin publishing Everyday Ballerina: The Shaping of a Dancer, a twelve-part daily series of reminiscences and turning points that pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Just a taste of the style you can look forward to, from Gavin’s recollections of performing in The Rite of Spring: “Some people sweat a lot more than others, and even those who are not heavy sweaters begin to pour and drip as soon as extreme exertion is finished and they are slowly, stealthily, creeping and crawling and oozing their way across the stage to become part of a huge, undulating, slimy mass of dancers twister-ing themselves into the towering pile of limbs we called the Human Monolith.”

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“Natural History” world premiere at Crater Lake dazzles all the senses

Composer Michael Gordon's piece bows amid the stunning natural beauty and history that inspired it.

For a first visit to Crater Lake National Park, things couldn’t have turned out much better. For years I had been urging my family to visit this hallowed Oregon landmark, and finally my wife, my daughter, and I had opted for a Southern Oregon getaway that would include a visit to it. Little did we know we would also be treated to a musical performance that combined natural beauty and cultural sophistication in a particularly Oregonian fashion.

While researching our planned trip, I noticed a warning that Crater Lake’s West Rim Drive would be closed for part of Friday, July 29, the day we had intended to drive up. For a moment, I was annoyed, until I read the reason for the closure: the world premiere of New York-based composer Michael Gordon’s “Natural History,” to be performed at the place that inspired it for an invite-only audience. I’m no classical music fanatic, but this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pulling the sort of strings one can pull when one writes for a non-profit arts journalism website (there are perks!), I arranged to have our names added to the guest list.

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

Driving from Ashland, we arrived in the nick of time, about five minutes before the scheduled start of the performance and with two dogs in tow. Near the edge of the crater’s rim, at The Watchman Overlook, several dozen folding chairs arranged in a semicircle supported a rapt crowd. In the center of them sat four members of the Klamath Tribes, members of the Britt Orchestra, and a 50-member choir. Following introductions and a benediction by the Klamath Tribal Elders, music director Teddy Abrams led the performers in a sublime realization of Gordon’s creation.

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Songs from the wood: Third Angle’s ‘Timber’

Percussionists coax big sounds from unlikely sources.

Mallets in hands, the six musicians stood onstage, arrayed around a hexagon of wooden plank of varying length. One started to play, rapping a persistent pattern on the plank in front of him with one mallet, another on the plank next to him with the other. The sound, surprisingly rich, echoed through Alberta Rose Theatre, and the pattern soon flitted around the hexagon, with each member (four from New York’s Mantra Percussion, two from Portland’s Third Angle New Music) in turn picking it up and passing it along, rippling around like a wave across a pond.

During the next hour, playing continuously, the musicians’ bodies swayed to the main beat as the individual interlocking patterns grew more complex, volume rose and fell, at one point halting entirely, then resumed, until the whole theater seemed to reverberate with a rich variety of tones and rhythms—all generated by twelve hands and six planks.

Members of Third Angle New Music and Mantra Percussion played the planks in Michael Gordon's Timber. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

Members of Third Angle New Music and Mantra Percussion played the planks in Michael Gordon’s Timber. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The single, hour-long piece that comprised the entire program in Friday night’s opening concert in Third Angle’s 2014-15 season, eschewed or de-emphasized two of music’s most familiar traditional qualities, melody and harmony—which consequently cast the aural spotlight on others, especially rhythm and timbre (that is, the sonic quality of the instrument itself). It also contributes to the work’s double entendre title, Timber.

That’s a typical strategy in the classic pulse minimalist music that originated in the 1960s and ‘70s: less is more. But if New York composer Michael Gordon’s 2009 composition didn’t achieve the depth and richness of its most obvious predecessors, such as American composer Steve Reich’s 1970s minimalist classic Drumming, it did provide, for most of the journey, an often mesmerizing sonic experience unlike any other we’re likely to hear this year.

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