northwest new music

Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra made beautiful music together in 2012.

Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra made beautiful music together in 2012.

The pause in performances at the outset of the new year offers a chance to take a deep breath and try to draw some conclusions from the flurry of events that filled Oregon’s — and particularly Portland’s — classical music scene in 2012. Usually, we’re too busy here just trying to tell our readers what’s about to happen or what just happened. So rather than presenting only the usual “here’s what I saw — again” recap, I’ll offer a quick overview, and then say a bit more about what it means. Naturally, I could attend only a fraction of the many worthy performances around even Portland, much less the rest of the state, so this take is far from comprehensive or definitive. And apologies in advance for the worthy work I did see and unintentionally left out– when you attend several concerts per week over the course of a year, it’s easy to let a few slip the memory banks. Moreover, it excludes much worthwhile nonclassical music I heard last year, from taiko and Indian music to jazz, rock and much more.

First, though, we have to note some of the comings and goings in the Oregon classical scene: departures in leadership at the Portland Columbia Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other institutions, and arrivals at the Oregon Mozart Players, Choral Arts Ensemble, Eugene Symphony, Portland Opera and more. Sadly, the music suffered some serious losses — we salute the memory of Anne Dhu McLucas, Obo Addy, Franya Berkman, and others. Classical music is, or should be, ever-renewing.

Peak Performances

The quality of orchestral performances I saw continued to rise, led by the Oregon Symphony, which just seems to get better and better, not only from year to year, but often even from concert to concert. As I noted last spring, and will again soon, I still think the programming caters to too narrow an audience, but last year’s programs boasted a number of relatively fresh gems — from a brilliant little piece called “Drip”  by a young American composer Andrew Norman to newish works by Thomas Ades, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Adams and others — and always able, often superb performances of museum music. I hope the orchestra can continue raising its performance standards under whoever replaces the departed executive director Elaine Calder, but it’s already made such enormous strides in that regard that it now can afford to also look to other areas of improvement — community outreach, contemporary programming, etc. Last season’s concluding concert featuring John Adams’s “City Noir” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was one of the city’s top classical music events of the 21st century.

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Weekend MusicWatch: Tough choices

Music fans will have to stretch far and wide this weekend

Janet Coleman, Sarah Tiedemann, and Diane Chaplin perform George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale at Northwest New Music’s concert last week.

This is the point in the season when Oregon music lovers face a conundrum a lot of places would love to have: too many irresistible concerts, not enough time. So many excellent shows are happening this weekend that it’s impossible to make them all, which is a shame. I wish some of these could get scheduled for the fallower periods of, say, August or December or January, but there are solid reasons why those periods are tough to schedule.

Saturday, for example, we encounter the rare spectacle of two Portland early music concerts directly competing against each other. Do you head over to Grace Memorial Church to hear the Portland Viol Consort (featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra regulars and other historically informed specialists) play Renaissance music by William Byrd and his contemporaries on modern replicas (crafted by Portland luthier Jess Wells) of ancient viols, that impossibly expressive string instrument whose soft voice helped doom it to obsolescence when its louder though no more alluring competitors, and larger performances spaces, came along? Normally, I would, not least because in addition to the viol foursome, the concert features the splendid countertenor Tim Galloway.

Ah, but these aren’t normal times.

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This weekend is so packed with terrific music that when OAW’s James McQuillen and I compared notes on the eight Portland concerts we’re covering this weekend, we discovered that there was no overlap—and that, sadly, we both have to miss still another very attractive show. Plenty of cities would love to face such dilemmas. Even more would be thrilled to see so many examples of classically influenced music made and enjoyed by musicians and music lovers under 40—some even under 20.


Avant cellist Zoe Keating performs at the Shedd in Eugene and the Aladdin Theater in Portland this weekend.

In another post this weekend, James and I will discuss Thursday’s fascinating 45thParallel performance. The string quartet featured — amazingly — the 16-year-old concertmaster of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Michael Siess. That orchestra closes its season at Arlene Schnitzer  concert hall Sunday afternoon with a splendid program of one of the most popular orchestral compositions of our time, Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral; one of the 20th century’s most striking works, the fascinating Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s spooky Sensemaya; another 20th century classic, this one written in Oregon —  Ernest Bloch’s Hebraic Suite, plus Brahms’s Symphony #2.  If you close your eyes, chance are you won’t realize the players are teenagers.

Still more young classical music talent will be on display at the same time Sunday afternoon, across the street in the Newmark Theater, when Portland Piano International brings pianist extraordinaire Christopher O’Riley’s popular radio show From the Top to town. The concert will feature promising young left coast musicians including Portland teenager Ruta Kuzmickas, and will be broadcast later on the all-classical station the 45th Parallel concerts benefited.

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FearNoMusic led Portland musicians in Terry Riley's In C

Although March was Portland’s officially dedicated month of new music, contemporary sounds have continued to resound unabated on stages around town. Last week, the country’s most celebrated vocal ensemble, Chanticleer packed Northwest Portland’s capacious St. Mary’s Cathedral with a program of music by non-decomposing composers — half of them still alive, a fact that would merit mention only in a classical music review. (Check the season announcements of most of Oregon’s theater and dance companies, where the expired creator is the exception.) The dozen-member “orchestra of voices” proved just as persuasive in appealing music by contemporary composers such as Eric Whitacre, Arvo Part and Jan Gilbert as in the magnificent polyphonic Spanish Renaissance works by the great Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria and his much lesser known countryman and contemporary, Sebastian de Vivanco.

The audience seemed to especially like Lebanese American San Francisco-based composer Ilyas Iliya’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which used simple means (a baritone solo over long-held, suspended chords and unusual harmonies) to create a spellbinding aura of sound. For the program closer, Jan Gilbert’s “Grace to You,” most of the group arrayed themselves along the side aisles, leaving three soloists at the front, embracing the audience in their vibrant vocals. A pair of gospel oriented encores (arranged by the group’s retired music director, Joe Jennings, who pushed the group into earthier territory) ended a show that drew rock-star level cheers, whoops and shouts from the capacity audience. Anyone who imagines Portlanders won’t respond to contemporary music should have heard that audience response.

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Danish modern and more: Trio con Brio Copenhagen performs at Portland State University

Perhaps appropriately, given the new year’s daunting prospects in politics, economics and other affairs, 2012, in Portland classical music, started off with a backward gaze — and a prayer.

In its biggest project ever, involving more than two dozen of the city’s finest singers, Cappella Romana’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 All-Night Vigil was much more than a concert. Along with the Russian composer’s settings of hymns, canticles and psalms appropriate for the traditional Orthodox Saturday evening service, the Northwest’s pre-eminent vocal ensemble interpolated other choral arrangements by Russian composers of the time and earlier, including Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, creating what felt like an actual liturgical experience and thereby adding depth, breadth and historical context. Yet listeners were there for a musical experience, not a worship service, and the additional selections, well-chosen by CR music director Alexander Lingas, infused welcome stylistic variety to the program, particularly jolting the second half with more animated musical energy. The show also gained variety because the spotlight kept shifting to different soloists and subgroups, and the sound ranged from delicate to exultant. Still, it all felt remarkably integrated despite the music’s divergent eras and styles.

Even though a couple voices sounded a tad frayed on this third of three consecutive performance, and even though the augmented ensemble’s roster was barely sufficient for this music, Cappella Romana’s immaculate attention to detail and diction (they sounded Russian, not Byzantine), and the sheer power and character of those great voices, made the group sound bigger than it was; few other groups of that size would have been capable of generating enough sound to fill a cathedral in that particular music. (I heard the concert at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral, a relatively acoustically “drier” space than the other two, more resonant venues for this program, where they probably sounded much bigger.) As befits a sacred service rather than a stagier setting, the performance felt both restrained and reflective, yet still powerfully moving. As the group left the stage while singing the last of several seasonally appropriate encores, I felt less like applauding (though I did, of course) than saying “Amen.”

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Northwest New Music performs at Portland State University

Sometime during the second movement Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, performed Tuesday night at Portland State University’s cozy Lincoln Recital Hall by a splendid team of Oregon classical musicians, I began to realize that I was in the middle of something special.

It wasn’t just the spine-tingling performance of Messiaen’s 20th century masterpiece, plus other works by Debussy and the great 20th century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. I also realized that this was fourth concert in as many weeks starring local musicians performing relatively contemporary music. Those other concerts also featured mostly original music written in the 21st century by Oregonians, so with the most recent work being Takemitsu’s 1981 “Toward the Sea,” Tuesday night’s Northwest New Music concert — which in most other cities would be one of the few “modern” music concerts of the season — almost counted as classical fare here in Portland.

And all of this has been happening before the classical music “season,” whatever that means anymore, has really even started! This coming weekend (see below) offers still more new music treats, as does almost every weekend for the rest of the year. NWNM and other new music groups are springing up (and cooperating — the pianist Tuesday was the superb Susan Smith of Third Angle New Music Ensemble, and she and the new 3A violist are performing this weekend with still another group), while the city’s other alt.classical groups going strong and even pushing into the mainstream; two of them, Electric Opera Company and Opera Theater Oregon, even participated in old-line Portland Opera’s street party last weekend.

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Night catches up with day on this equinox, providing more time for the evening activities that entice ArtsWatchers. Although the Oregon Symphony has performed a couple of relatively pop-oriented concerts already, this weekend brings what hard core classical types consider to be the start of the real classical season, with Carlos Kalmar leading the band in a meaty, all-Russian program highlighted by Sergey Prokofiev’s great Violin Concerto #2, plus Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2 and a popular Glinka overture.

The fall classical music scene got off to a stumbling Thursday in Eugene when the season-opening star, the great Dawn Upshaw, suddenly canceled her appearance with the Eugene Symphony. Not only did this deprive classical music fans in Eugene (and Portland, where she was scheduled to perform next weekend with the OSO) of one of the state’s favorite visiting stars (who has family here), it raised concerns about Upshaw’s health, as she waged a battle with breast cancer a few years ago.

In my interviews with her over the years, I’ve found Upshaw to be just as down to earth, thoughtful and generous as she appears onstage, and thanks to her easy connection with audiences (most recently here in a riveting, all-20th century music Portland Friends of Chamber Music recital in January 2009) and commitment to new music and to educating future generations of singers, she is without question one of the most important musicians of our time. We hope she’s well.

Fortunately, the ESO was able to find another audience-friendly replacement on short notice: pianist Andre Watts, playing that much more famous Rachmaninoff Second — his virtuosic Piano Concerto #2. And the orchestra received some compensatory good news in the form of a $100,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust to boost its education and community engagement programs. The Newport Symphony and Salem Chamber Orchestra also open their seasons this weekend.

Portland Opera also kicks off its season this weekend, with yet another in a series of smart events aimed at broadening its audience beyond the hard core. This time, it’s a free Saturday street party, starting at 5 p.m. for the proles who can’t afford the toff-level tickets for the season opening fundraiser, which benefits outreach programs like this one.

Thanks to an ample screen set up outside Keller Auditorium, everyone can watch the actual performance of opera’s greatest hits going on inside. PO also wisely engaged the city’s two alt-opera companies, Electric Opera and Opera Theater Oregon, plus a rockabilly band, to perform out front before the show begins, along with the Marx Brothers — or at least their filmed incarnations in the classic A Night at the Opera — for an after-concert, starlight viewing.

Portland Opera plans a knockout season-opening street fair

A couple other benefits this weekend help two important Portland new music institutions. On Friday at Bamboo Grove the Creative Music Guild, which regularly brings the kind of beyond-the-edge music you just don’t find elsewhere, presents several of the city’s most compelling improv oriented performers, including Better Homes & Gardens (sound artist Tim DuRoche and members of Blue Cranes), experimental composer Daniel Menche, and more. And on Saturday, Gallery 135 hosts a benefit for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, featuring some of the city’s most inventive younger jazz stalwarts.

There’s still more local new music onstage Friday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, with an all-women’s music program (the first of several impressive distaff dominated shows this fall that we’ll be telling you about) by members of Cascadia Composers and performed by several top classical musicians. And on Tuesday, the same venue features what promises to be an absolutely beautiful concert of 20th century classical sounds performed by Northwest New Music, a most welcome recent addition to the city’s burgeoning alt.classical scene and featuring an all-star guest lineup that includes University of Oregon violin faculty member Fritz Gearhart, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner (on clarinet), Third Angle pianist Susan DeWitt Smith, and more. They’ll be playing a couple of haunting works heard at Chamber Music Northwest’s Wanmu Percussion Trio show this summer: the wonderful Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree and Toward the Sea, and Debussy’s Syrinx and one of the last century’s most compelling musical statements: French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

As Takemitsu showed, there’s more to classical music than what comes from the West, and you can hear some of it Sunday at Portland’s idyllic Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden, when guest musicians from southern China (who’ll also be performing at the UO in Eugene soon) will perform rarely heard music from that region. Some of the city’s own  classical Chinese musicians will also perform, as will student musicians and dancers from the Wisdom Arts Academy, which this concert benefits.

Finally, if you’re planning on seeing Portland Center Stage’s all-African American staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical Oklahoma!, which  opens this weekend, you might head over to Portland’s Goodfoot on Saturday night to hear a terrific jazz band from that state perform a powerful response to the notorious genocidal race riot that devastated Tulsa’s black community in 1921. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s ambitious Race Riot Suite tells the story in purely instrumental terms, in part by using contrasting sounds (e.g. lap steel guitar, blues) associated with each race.

We all lament the impending end of summer sunshine, but with evening events like these to tempt us, bring on the night!

Top image: A Night at the Opera in the Year 2000, by Albert Robida, ca. 1882. / Via Wikimedia.