nancy wood

MusicWatch Weekly: How to decide

Your guide to choosing a balanced musical diet

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey Mr. Music Editor Guy, how the [redacted] am I supposed to pick one of these million shows you’re always telling us about?” Good question, dear foul-mouthed reader. The short answer, as always, is: follow your bliss!

But you want a real answer, don’t you? Normally, you might use genre as a guideline. But genre is dead and can’t help you anymore. Instead, I have three recommended methods for picking a weekend of concerts. First: rely on institutions. Second: use this newfangled interweb thingy to listen ahead of time to whatever’s happening on whichever morning/afternoon/evening you happen to be free. Third: ask your friends!

Rely on institutions

It may sound strange to hear a certified Discordian Pope telling you to rely on institutions, since any organization stuffy enough to earn the name “institution” is pretty reliably unreliable. But Oregon is blessed with several well-established music organizations that have earned our Trust in such matters.

Two of these are Cascadia Composers and Fear No Music, both of whom celebrate contemporary “classical” music and the (usually living) composers who create it, both of whom have concerts at The Old Church in the next week (Cascadia Saturday, FNM Monday). Stay tuned for Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s FNM Hearings preview tomorrow, and he’ll have something to say about Cascadia in just a moment. For now, I’d like to tell you about two other Portland institutions with shows coming up: School of Rock and Creative Music Guild.



Cascadia Composers & Delgani Quartet: performance matters

Fall concerts show the value of prepared, skilled musicians to new music showcases

When it comes to covering music, ArtsWatch tends to focus on composition more than performance. That’s not only because two of our regular music writers are themselves composers, but also because we want to tell Oregonians the story of Oregon creativity, which is really part of the larger story of what makes us what we are here in the 21st century. It’s a main reason I created our Oregon ComposersWatch resource, to make it easier for ArtsWatch readers to hear the fruits of our homegrown musical creators. And thanks to Cascadia Composers and others, Oregon contemporary classical music is an increasingly rich bounty.

But just as there’s more to a play than a script, more to a dance than choreography, there’s more to music than a score. A couple of fall Cascadia concerts showed — in both positive and negative ways — just how important performers are to the story of Oregon originality.

Dazzling Delgani

While the preponderance of Cascadia music is created by composers living in the Portland metro area, the group’s October concerts at Eugene’s First Christian Church and southeast Portland’s Community Music Center happened to feature music written by non Portlanders and even non Oregonians. And so it was appropriate that the performers, too, hailed from beyond Portland. Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet turned in one of the finest performances I’ve ever experienced at a Cascadia concert.

Delgani String Quartet played music by Cascadia Composers in Eugene. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Some of the best Cascadia shows have relied on veteran ensembles (Portland Percussion Group, The Mousai, Choral Arts Ensemble) rather than pickup groups. That’s no surprise: you’d expect musicians that have been performing together for years to do a better job than those who might never have played together before, and who might have rehearsed together only a couple of times. The tradeoff for audiences, though: a program that features the same forces on every piece necessarily offers less instrumental variety. This one happily provided considerable stylistic variety to compensate.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


Cascadia Composers review: Northwesterners look to the east

Oregon performers shine in Asian-influenced music by Oregon composers.

Story and photos by GARY FERRINGTON

Northwest composers have long been influenced by the poetry, music, and culture of countries across the Pacific. “Looking East” was therefore a fitting theme for a concert hosted by the Cascadia Composers group in Eugene’s First Congregational Church on Friday, October 17th. The hour-long program of new music, organized by Eugene composer Paul Safar, featured works by Mark Vigil, Derek HealeySafar, and Tomas Svoboda.

Mitsuki Dazai performs Tomas Svoboda’s haunting Autumn on the koto.

Mitsuki Dazai performs Tomas Svoboda’s haunting Autumn on the koto.

Mitsuki Dazai introduced Portland composer Tomas Svoboda’s rarely heard Autumn (Op. 110),  written between 1982–83, by noting that the late koto master Yoko Ito Gates had commissioned the composition as a solo work. Svoboda, reflecting upon the Japanese acceptance of the natural process of aging and the completion of a life cycle, chose the theme of autumn. The composition has three movements, each reflecting a different aspect of seasonal change: early, middle and late autumn. Dazai, a master of the zither-like stringed instrument, performed with skill and passion this meditative and at times vigorously complex rhythmic composition.

Watching dragonflies and butterflies skimming across the Siletz River rekindled Eugene composer Mark Vigil’s interest in Japanese music and poetry. The result of this inquisitiveness was his composition Dragonfly Idyll/Butterfly Idyil performed by Jeff Parsons (harp), Dazai (koto), Safar (piano), and Daniel Heila (alto flute). Heila’s featured performance captured the fluttering flight of these delicate creatures above the water.

Flutist Daniel Heila captures the flight of Butterfly and Dragonfly skimming the water.

Flutist Daniel Heila captures the flight of butterfly and dragonfly skimming the water.

Safar’s descriptive  Cat on a Wire featured Portland Cello Project member Kelly Quesada along with Andrew Teem (dumbek) and Ken Sokolov (zills). Quesada’s dynamic lively and spirited playing brought to life a score focused on felines in motion. Originally performed as an aerial dance at Cherry Blossom’s Cat and Bird Vaudeville Show in 2009, this was its first concertullscreen=”allowfullscreen”>

Soprano Nancy Wood’s expressive voice, dance-like hand gestures, and body movements across the stage emotionally expressed the loneliness felt in the cold of night after killing a “yellow green spider crawling on a red rose” in Safar’s Spider for soprano and piano, based on a haiku text by Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki.

The performance of former University of Oregon professor Derek Healey’s Three Songs from The Silvered Lute: a Wang Wei Song Album featured Wood with Safar (piano). The songs, “The Ravine,” “The Grove of Dark Bamboo” and “The Empty Mountain” were based on text by Wang Wei, an 8th century Chinese poet and translated by the composer. The program noted that the piano portion was influenced by Chinese instruments such as the gu zheng, Qin, yang ch’in, and the erhu. The piano effectively created an Eastern soundscape reflective of these instruments rarely heard in the west.

The title centerpiece for the evening’s concert was Safar’s The Warbler Sings, a new song cycle composed this year with text from the haiku of Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694) and performed by David Bender (trumpet and flugelhorn), Nathan Waddell (double bass), Safar (piano) and Wood (soprano), for whom the it was written. The piece engaged my need for attentive listening with haiku text such as “Pond frog plop” or “Winter downpour even the monkey needs a raincoat” combined with Safar’s acoustic plucking of the piano strings and momentary statements, sometimes abstract and at others jazz-like, by other instruments. The Warbler Sings was made possible through a 2013–14 Composer of the Year Award from the Oregon Music Teachers Association.

This was the second Cascadia Composers concert that I’ve had the opportunity to hear in Eugene. The event was well attended by 35–40 people of mixed ages and demographics who thoroughly demonstrated their appreciation for the opportunity to hear new contemporary classical music. Post-concert catered refreshments of Thai food delights and an opportunity to speak with the composers and performers added an extra sense of camaraderie to the evening’s experience.

I sense that there is an emerging new music connection between Portland and Eugene. This week, Third Angle New Music Ensemble will be performing the work of three UO-trained composers in Portland as part of its Studio Series. Early next year works by UO Composer Forum members will be featured in a Portland concert by soprano Esteli Gomez. Like the flowing waters of the Willamette, let new music bring Oregon’s cultural centers closer together.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.