musica maestrale

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: spring awakenings

As a new season arrives, concerts awaken Oregonians to stories about gender, migration, cross cultural encounters, and more

As 21st century America belatedly recognizes that gender isn’t always a binary phenomenon, artists have increasingly illuminated its fluid, spectral reality, as Oregonians have seen in recent Time Based Art Festival performances, last fall’s Contralto show by Third Angle, and more. Now comes the most produced contemporary opera in North America since its 2014 premiere. As One is inspired by the true story of its scenic designer and co-librettist. Kimberly Reed became the first commercially released transgender filmmaker with her breakthrough film Prodigal Sons, which chronicled her journey from star Montana high school quarterback to award winning film director. In this chamber opera co-created by American composer Laura Kaminsky and renowned co-librettist Mark Campbell, two singers tell the coming of age story of the fictional trans protagonist, Hannah — one playing before her gender transformation, one after. Her journey is depicted against the backdrop of Reed’s sometimes abstract, sometimes realistic imagery, projected on five screens. Stay tuned for my profile of Reed and Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.
Friday-March 30, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• More theatrical music comes from Light Opera of Portland (LOoP), whose original, romantic musical We Met in Moscow is based upon events in the lives of Ralph Bunch, a professor emeritus from Portland State University, and his wife Eleanora Andreevna, head of cybernetics at the Kremlin in the 1990s. Portland composer John Vergin did his own treatment of the story just a few months ago, and now writer/lyricist Dennis Britten and composer Kevin Lay give the musical treatment to this Oregon/Russia love story.
Friday-March 29, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

• Over the past few years, Portland classical music organizations have belatedly begun to redress the inexcusable gender imbalance on their concert programs by finally including a few works by female composers. Now, Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic does something similar for women’s words as well as music. Because Of Her, We Make Songs features musical settings (by female and male composers) of text by women poets from around the world (Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Elinor Wylie, Pulitzer Prize-winner Amy Lowell, Gabriela Mistral), including songs by the excellent Northwester composer Alex Shapiro, Ricky Ian Gordon, Florence Price, Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon, and more. Oregon’s 2019 Poetry Out Loud Champion and Runner-Up, Belise Nishimwe of St. Mary’s Academy and Nicole Coronado of Lake Oswego’s Lakeridge High School, also perform.
Monday, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.

To celebrate the Portland premiere of ‘As One’, Portland Opera commissioned award-winning photographer Gia Goodrich to create a series of portraits and interviews celebrating 11 transgender individuals in Portland’s community. Portrait from “As I Am” exhibition by Gia Goodrich.

FearNoMusic is also the house band for Cascadia Composers’s 10th anniversary concert. Until the group arrived, ambitious Northwest composers who wanted others to hear their original contemporary classical music usually had to take an academic job and hope for the occasional performance by students, or move to New York or other cultural cosmopoli. Since forming a decade ago, the organization has provided Portland and other Northwest composers showcases for their music (10 concerts this year alone, over 500 new works and 100 world premieres over a decade), networking, mutual support and info, even exchanges with composers in other countries. Now the largest and most active local group in the National Association of Composers/USA, Cascadia has become a vital part of Portland’s creative music scene. This 10th anniversary concert includes music for percussion, voice, strings, flute, and piano written by the organization’s founding composers: David Bernstein, Tomas Svoboda, Greg Steinke, Gary Noland, Jack Gabel, Dan Senn, Bonnie Miksch, and ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow, whose styles range widely across the spectrum of 21st century classical music.
Friday, Lincoln Hall Room 75, Portland State University. Streaming here.

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Orchestral Music

Today’s weapon of choice in humanity’s quest to destroy life as we know it is human-caused climate change, perpetrated by the greed of our retro-industrial complex and enabled by their lackeys in Washington and right-wing media. But before that, our preferred means of self-inflicted catastrophe was (and possibly remains) nuclear weapons. The man most responsible for turning them into potential planet killers was the anguished central figure in Pulitzer Prize winning American composer John Adams’s 2005 opera Dr. Atomic: American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who supervised the Manhattan Project that created the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Based on Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the story of a great scientist’s Faustian bargain seemed a great subject for contemporary opera by one of my favorite composers, but the overlong world premiere I saw in San Francisco failed to ignite onstage, even when choreographer Lucinda Childs sent dancers sprinting across the stage for no apparent reason in a desperate attempt to inject some action to dispel the dramatic inertia. What did work was Adams’s tense, urgent music, inspired by everything from minimalism to the science fiction movie sounds of the 1950s. He later assembled its best music into a symphony, which the Oregon Symphony performed last month, and which the Eugene Symphony plays Thursday, along with Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture and another Romantic classic, Brahms’s passionate Violin Concerto, starring rising prodigy Julian Rhee.
Thursday, Hult Center’s Silva Hall, Eugene.

See and hear “Coraline” Friday with the Oregon Symphony.

• Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, it performs Bruno Coulais’ score to Portland-based Laika Studios’ delightfully dark Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman story, Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert hall, while the film is projected on the giant screen for its tenth anniversary. On Saturday and Sunday, the orchestra then welcomes award winning singers Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the greatest singers who ever lived (and a sparkling, influential jazz pianist to boot), Nat King Cole, with some hits from his late daughter Natalie too. And the rebranded Newport Symphony Orchestra at the Ocean plays piano concertos by Clara Schumann and Sergei Prokofiev (starring Amy Yang), plus music by the taken-too-soon French composer Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy (Spring Rounds), and George Gershwin’s ever-jolly An American in Paris Saturday and Sunday at Newport Performing Arts Center.

Chamber Music

Speaking of film music, German late Romantic composer Richard Strauss wrote a whole lot more music than the familiar five-note opener used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey decades after he died. 45th Parallel Universe’s Helios Camerata plays some of his theater music (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), opera tunes arranged for string sextet (Capriccio) and a rarely heard Double concerto for clarinet and bassoon.
Thursday, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Helios Camerata plays Strauss Thursday.

• In 2017, Eugene’s Delgani Quartet played Portland composer eminence Tomas Svoboda’s blistering sixth string quartet, an homage to his idol, Dmitri Shostakovich that left the audience cheering. Ranging from bleak to ominous to tense, it fully captured the Russian composer’s spirit without resorting to mere imitation. An ideal match of magnificent music, appropriate acoustic, and committed performers, it was one of the most powerful chamber music performances I’ve heard in Oregon. They’re playing it again this weekend, along with earlier Czech music by Dvorak (his final quartet), and a dance-inspired composition by Erwin Schulhoff, whose legacy of infusing classical and Czech traditional music with jazz, Dada, and other forward looking influences was cut short when he died in the Holocaust.
Saturday, Christian Science Church, 935 High St SE, Salem, and Sunday, The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: spanning the centuries

Music ranging from the Renaissance to today highlights Oregon performances this week

Pick a century, and there’s an Oregon concert to suit your taste this week. Working backward from contemporary to ancient, Saturday’s southeast Portland house concert by Ashland based duo Caballito Negro features flutist Tessa Brinckman and percussionist Terry Longshore playing music by David Lang, the West Coast premiere of rising American composer Wally Gunn’s Bare White Bones, a charming composition for toy piano and percussion by Christopher Adler, and new pieces by Brinckman and Longshore themselves that variously involve Baroque flute, hybrid flute, tabla, waterphone, and various electronic doodads.

Caballito Negro performs Saturday night in Portland.

Chamber Music Amici’s Monday concert at The Shedd presents a welcome mix of new and old sounds, by composers of African heritage. The excellent Eugene ensemble performs American composer Jonathan Bailey Holland’s 2016 String Quartet No. 2, Forged Sanctuaries, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, whose mission is endangered today by our current rulers catering to greedy private interests. Holland has also addressed current topics like Black Lives Matter in other works. The enticing program also includes music by one of the finest 20th century American composers, William Grant Still’s lovely Lyric Quartette. And the band also plays a pair of chamber works by 18th century rock star Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, the first composer of African ancestry to rock the classical world. Also a dashing fencer, soldier, violinist, conductor and more, his fascinating story and music are finally being rediscovered, but it’s a rare treat to hear his chamber music hereabouts.

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MusicWatch Weekly: pianos aplenty

There’s also organ music, choral music, string ensembles and a couple orchestras’ worth of fine young classical players and more on Oregon stages this week

Portland’s most welcome frequent contemporary classical guests, DUO Stephanie & Saar, return for a pair of entirely different shows, bringing plenty of piano-playing colleagues with them; Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Star flashes across the keyboard; and two of jazz’s most forward looking pianists, Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson, bring their trios to town, the former celebrating still another great pianist/composer, Thelonious Monk.

Stephanie & Saar perform twice in Portland.

DUO Stephanie and Saar
The renowned New York based piano duo visit Portland, Stephanie Ho’s hometown, frequently. This time, they perform J.S. Bach’s final work, the massive keyboard monument to counterpoint, The Art of Fugue, which they recently recorded. The next night, they join some of Portland’s finest pianists (from Third Angle, FearNoMusic, and local universities) to reprise some of the “greatest hits” from the three annual installments of their Makrokosmos concerts, including music by the greatest living American composers (Steve Reich, George Crumb, John Adams) and more.
Wednesday, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College, and Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd. Portland.

Allison Au Quartet
One of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz stars, saxophonist/composer Allison Au’s melodic original jazz just garnered the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy award for best jazz album for her second release, Forest Grove. Unfortunately, they’re not actually playing it in Forest Grove, but you can hear them in Portland and Eugene.
Wednesday, Jo Bar and Rotisserie, Portland and Thursday, Jazz Station, Eugene.

Jerry Douglas Band 
Even if you’ve never heard of Jerry Douglas, you’ve almost certainly heard his dobro, a guitar augmented by a metal plate and amplifying cone that makes a distinctive twangy sound. A Nashville studio regular who’s played on over 1500 recordings, he’s transcended the  boundaries between bluegrass, country, rock, jazz, pop – even contemporary classical. Along the way, Douglas has garnered dozens of awards, including a baker’s dozen Grammies and a Musician of the Year award from the Country Music Association; added zing to albums by Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, Earl Scruggs, Bill Frisell, Phish, and dozens of other stars; played in bands with Ricky Skaggs and in Alison Krauss’s Union Station. He’s an American music legend and always worth catching with his own band.
Thursday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland.

Makrokosmos Project
With duo pianists Stephanie & Saar in town to play Bach (see above) and no doubt visit family, why not celebrate the third anniversary of its valuable Makrokosmos project (which ArtsWatch has covered extensively — type the word into the search field above) by reprising some of the three epic extravaganzas’ greatest hits by some of America’s greatest 20th century composers: Steve Reichʼs Six Pianos, John Adamsʼs Hallelujah Junction, George Crumbʼs Makrokosmos I and II and more, including works by Oregonians like Alexander Schwarzkopfʼs Recycled Wheels. Performers in this free concert include Susan Smith, Deborah Cleaver, Julia Lee, Monica Ohuchi, Jeff Payne, Schwarzkopf and DUO Stephanie & Saar.
Thursday, Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd, Portland.

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Musica Maestrale review: Brilliance amid the darkness

Portland early music ensemble rekindles the late music of French Baroque composer Francois Couperin

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

In some quarters of our fair state, the name “coup”erin might be thought to evoke a new Peugeot convertible, or perhaps slang for a pigeon’s prison. Doubtless, the name is not on the top of the list at KGON, or even 89.9. We just don’t know much about Francois Couperin, a composer who, as a member of a prominent musical family, was a dominant figure in French music for the latter part of the 17th century. and into the 18th. But last Friday evening at Portland’s First Christian Church, ah…we were enveloped in the aura of Couperin’s brilliance.

Presented by Musica Maestrale, directed by Hideki Yamaya, and featuring two wonderful Portland sopranos, with the expert accompaniment of the theorbo and viola da gamba, this was a brilliant exposition of the later music of a great French Baroque composer.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

Musica Maestrale played Couperin in Portland.

They were a matched set, these two women. Sounding like womb-mates, the twinned voices of Catherine van der Salm and Arwen Myers were cloned air streams — soaring above the small but appreciative audience in the sanctuary.

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“Dido & Aeneas” review: Sweet musical treat

The Ensemble gives a rich, tasty performance of Henry Purcell's operatic masterpiece

by BRUCE BROWNE

Damn chocolates! We might have had another decade or two of Henry Purcell, had he not indulged in recently unloaded chocolates from a ship’s hold, in 1695. Note that there are other theories about the great English Baroque composer’s demise, and this hypothesis may be full of nougat, but it makes a good story.

One of Great Britain’s grand masters of composition, Purcell was revered by Benjamin Britten, who arranged several of Purcell’s works and, most famously, wove one of Purcell’s incidental themes into his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s themes (most notably “Dido’s Lament”) appear in film scores, most recently croaked by Timothy Spall in the recent film Mr. Turner.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

The Ensemble performed Dido & Aeneas in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Corbett Niedfeldt.

At any rate, he did perish in his mid-thirties and bequeathed to us a luxurious mosaic of music: odes, primarily to St. Cecilia, anthems, catches/rounds (many quite obscenely composed for his Men’s Club in London), semi-operas and the lone opera, Dido in Aeneas, the first great English opera, which we heard performed by The Ensemble of Oregon on Sunday afternoon, January 24, at First Christian Church in Portland. (The Portland vocal ensemble, composed of singers from some of the city’s top choirs, also performed it in Eugene the previous night.) Sometimes called the “first English opera” (energetically debated now in favor of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and a few others), Dido is a wealth of Purcellian invention, a true child of its time.

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Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.

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