Nicole Buetti

Living Traditions, Part One: American symphonica

Keeping the American orchestra alive with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A couple years back, during the Bernstein Centennial, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner said something that stuck with us: “if American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will.” He meant it, too; that concert, with a deeply moving performance of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony as its centerpiece, was one of only two really worthwhile Bernstein concerts that season (the other was PSU Chamber Choir’s Chichester Psalms). Jeremiah soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, plus superb performances of Jacob Avshalomov’s The Taking of T’ung Kuan and Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (with dazzling solo cello from Kira Wang), only sweetened the deal.

We’ve noticed that PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra all do their fair share to keep the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland. In fact, from an aesthetic point of view they often do better than bigger institutions like the Oregon Symphony. (The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the contrasting American composer relations of the conservative but modern-friendly Portland Opera and the living-composer-obsessed Opera Theater Oregon–which is, to be fair, co-directed by a living, local, American composer).

This month, all three orchestras have concerts that enrich and enliven the American Symphonic Tradition: PYP and MYS this weekend, PCSO the following. We’ve been to most of these three orchestras’ recent concerts, and each one was a perfectly flawed contribution to the tradition’s vitality. That is, they were enjoyable as symphonic concerts and laudable as concerts of music by American composers, but each made (lucky for this music critic) a few critical mistakes.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

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MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A harvest feast

Stay warm with a smorgasbord of chamber music, choral music and art songs, and orchestras aplenty

Music for chambers

This weekend, Sunday the 3rd, local cellist Diane Chaplin brings her solo show Il Violoncello Capriccioso to Weisenbloom House, a lovely little salon in Southeast Portland. The present author first encountered Chaplin in 2011, when she joined Lewis & Clark gamelan Venerable Showers of Beauty for a performance of Lou Harrison’s deliriously melodic hybrid masterpiece Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Javanese Gamelan. Chaplin spends most of her time playing with Portland Cello Project and The Unpresidented Brass Band, but she just got back from a summer in Italy and she’s ready to show off her evening of cappricios by Klengel, Piatti, and Cambini, along with Ernest Bloch’s Suite No. 3 and works by Alan Chaplin, Michal Stahel, and Aaron Minsky.

Local classical organization Friends of Chamber Music, as their name implies, specializes in inviting established chamber ensembles and soloists to perform in Portland. Last month, it was Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and you can read Katie Taylor’s take on that fine performance right here.

This month, FOCM brings the Danish String Quartet to Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall for two evenings of Bach, Beethoven, Schnittke, Shostakovich, and Webern on November 4th & 5th. Despite the lack of contemporary composers, that’s a pretty nice program: miscellaneous Bach (including a Well-Tempered Clavier arrangement done by Mozart in a fit of enthusiastic reverence) and two rather Bachish late Beethoven quartets (127 and 135) provide the traditionalist foundation; Webern’s austere and terrifying pre-serial quartet of 1905 and Schnittke’s thorny, polystilistic third quartet provide contrarian modernist counterpoint. Snuggled morbidly between them, Shosty’s moribund final quartet.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Radioactive glowing disk returns to Oregon!

Summer arrives, with festivals, season closers and sun

Caution: Radioactive glowing disk has returned to Oregon’s skies! Remember your sunscreen! Remember your sunscreen! Message repeats.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1911, oil on canvas, 14.9 x 25.5 feet, University of Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons

Five weeks and one day

There’s an old zen saying: you should meditate 20 minutes every day unless you’re too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour every day.

Two festivals of contemporary classical music hit Portland this month, and if you’re too busy for one you should make time for the other. Chamber Music Northwest starts June 24 and stretches well into July, with local and international musicians performing everything from tons of Mozart to a bunch of stuff by contemporary composers. Meanwhile on June 27 Makrokosmos, now in its fifth year, crams a similar density of breadth and excellence in a one-day festival of Takemitsu, Crumb, and other modernist composers.

“Makrokosmos Project V: Black Angels”
June 27
Vestas Building

Bicoastal pianists DUO Stephanie & Saar present the best value in Portland’s contemporary music scene: Makrokosmos Project, a one-day mini-festival which has evolved into an annual feat of endurance for Portland new music nuts. This year, local pianists join Ho and Ahuvia to present the complete piano music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, spread across two of the evening’s four segments, along with other piano works by John Luther Adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Olivier Messiaen. The mini-fest ends with the Pyxis Quartet’s performance of George Crumb’s gorgeously nightmare-inducing Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land” for electric string quartet (you read that right). One ticket gets you a five-hour mini-festival with free cheese and wine. Hard to beat.

Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival: Week One
June 24 – 30
Kaul Auditorium at Reed College
Lincoln Performance Hall at Portland State University
Alberta Rose Theater

Clarinetist extraordinaire David Shifrin ends his nearly four-decade run as CMNW Artistic Director with an opening week full of clarinets. No fewer than 27 all-star clarinetists perform two centuries of clarinet music ranging from Mozart—the first great composer to write for the instrument—to new works by Libby Larsen and Michele Mangani.

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Vancouver Symphony Orchestra & Nicole Buetti: keeping orchestra music alive

Orchestra opens season with original music composed by one of its members

“Good evening everyone!” Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Salvador Brotons told the full house at Skyview Concert Hall. “This evening: all American music. We usually play only the dead composers,” including this night’s classics by Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. But this time, he said, “we have another piece from another American—and is alive! And she is here!”

He passed the microphone to the orchestra’s contrabassonist Nicole Buetti, author of the September 30 concert’s opening Odyssey Overture. “It’s always scary as a composer to put your music in front of your peers,” Buetti said, turning to her fellow symphony players. Pointing to her seat, way back at the far end of the wind section by the upright basses, she said, “I’m fortunate to sit in the middle of the orchestra: the best seat in the house.”

The overture is dedicated to Buetti’s father, who instilled in her a love for science, Star Trek, and Star Wars. He championed the piece, calling its melody his favorite and asking when she would finally set it for orchestra. “Well, dad,” Buetti said, gesturing to the orchestra behind her, preparing to play her music, “twice in one weekend: pretty good!” She concluded by hinting at the overture’s hidden programmatic element. “Rather than tell you the story I had in my head—though it’s a good one!—I’d like to invite you to sit back and imagine your own story.”

Mayuko Kamio plays Barber with VSO and Brotons. Photo: Paul Quackenbush

This is not only my first time hearing Buetti’s music, it’s my first time hearing the VSO. The brooding, cinematic opening gives me a pretty good idea of what this orchestra would sound like playing the Firebird Suite. Concertmaster Eva Richey’s solo violin hovers over heavy low strings and dark winds, Elfman-y contrabassoon work from Buetti answered by Barbara Heilmair’s spooky bass clarinet. A bouncy trio in 5/8 starts up, passing from Buetti to the other bassoons and thence to ecstatic trumpets and trombones, then a nice little oboe solo from Alan Juza and the return of that gorgeous melody in the strings as the horns blend into the ever-building wall of sound. If Bartók had Gone West to write music for action movies, it might have sounded like this.

A big, dramatic finish out of Goldsmith or Horner brings it to a close, and a big grin breaks over Buetti’s face. I jot in my notes, “colorful, confident orchestration.” And, more significantly, “melody! hooray for melody!”

Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio started up Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with a quiet, delicate opening, supported by rich horns (I dare say this section might be better than Oregon Symphony’s). The second movement, another lovely oboe solo answered by sweet cellos and a high clean violin section. Kamio’s line turns tragic, light and bittersweet, a vigorous vibrato, molto schmaltzando, as muted trumpets echo mysteriously in the distance. As the last movement’s virtuosic perpetuo moto got underway Kamio began to really pick up steam, full orchestra punctuating her hoedown grooving, Florian Conzetti bending way over his timpani to play a quick snare drum flourish, Brotons’s legs braced wide for the big ending, a hop and a sting and it was over.

After a quick consultation with Brotons, Kamio came back out for an encore, a dazzling set of variations on that famous theme of Paganini’s, her playing rough and weird (in a good way), fancy battuto strokes and left-hand pizzicato pull-offs that put me in mind of Eddie van Halen. A few “wow”s susserated around the audience.

Music from the Theater

Before the Bernstein set—symphonic suites from Candide and West Side Story—Brotons talked a bit about the composer, whose centennial celebration continues to enliven music halls around the country. “Bernstein was a complete musician, one of the greatest of the 20th century,” Brotons said. He gave a little background on the composer’s operetta Candide, saying there is “not much difference between operetta and musical: is light, but also intense and beautiful.” He concluded by relating the story behind “Make Our Garden Grow,” the justly popular song that closes both the operetta and Charlie Harmon’s orchestral suite. “I hope it will make you cry,” Brotons said, “and I hope you will make your garden grow.”

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