oregon contemporary classical music

Arvo Pärt Festival: When meaning and music collide

At Cappella Romana's exploration of the great Estonian composer's music, one listener finds that sacred sounds and secular listeners don't always connect


Music serves meaning and that meaning can be embedded in a text. It can deliver that meaning as forcefully or more forcefully than speech or writing. It can be used for all purposes benign or malignant, it can lead listeners to a transcendent experience, highly dependent on their own associations. And, in a sense, the music is completed by listeners from within their sphere of meaningful associations regardless of whether a text is understood.

At Cappella Romana’s February 5-12 Arvo Pärt Festival, that physical sphere was various Portland cathedrals and churches and Kaul Auditorium at Reed College: the former, places to pursue divinity, the latter a place to pursue reason and scientific and intellectual truth.

Cappella Romana performed throughout the Arvo Part festival. Photo: Ted Jack.

I came face to face with a conundrum: having questioned the validity of labeling Pärt’s music mystical, spiritual, or sacred I found myself questioning the meaning of my appreciation of the music and the intent of the texts.


Snow Queen 6: Scenes into sounds

Recording the new show’s soundtrack album

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen.  ArtsWatch will repost the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.

The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Recording engineer Lance Miller runs the sound board at the Snow Queen recording session.

This all came to light this month, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of The Snow Queen.


Third Angle preview: Reich on Rails

Portland new music ensemble's concerts celebrate the 80th birthday of one of the world's greatest living composers

When Steve Reich was a child in the 1940s, his parents separated, one living in California, the other New York. The young Jewish boy rode the rails back and forth across the country to see them.

Meanwhile, in Europe, other Jewish children were riding very different trains, taking them to their death in Nazi concentration camps. Had circumstances been different, Reich, now one of the world’s most revered composers, might have been one of them.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Reich musically portrayed these different fates in his 1988 composition Different Trains, which blended the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors (including one from Portland), the governess who accompanied Reich on those journeys, and a Pullman porter of the time with string quartet music whose rhythms were based on the rhythms of their speech.

This weekend, just days before his October 3 birthday, Portland’s Third Angle New Music performs that work and Reich’s two other string quartets in concerts that celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, joining a long list of orchestras and ensembles around the world honoring one of America’s most revered musical originals.


A new ‘Snow Queen,’ part 3: Cooking up a fresh new score

For Eugene Ballet's upcoming production, Portland composer Kenji Bunch takes on the biggest project of his musical career


Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen.  ArtsWatch will reposting the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

When Eugene Ballet premieres its new full-length interpretation of The Snow Queen at the Hult Center next spring, its dancers will perform to all-new music by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.

That’s a giant leap forward, both for the ballet – which has never before commissioned a full-length musical score – and for Bunch, who has never before composed such a long piece of music.

Kenji Bunch and Coffee.

Kenji Bunch on a Coffee break. Photo: Bob Keefer.

“I have never done a full-fledged, evening-length orchestral ballet score,” he said in a recent visit to his home studio. “That is definitely a bucket-list item for a composer.”


MusicWatch Weekly: In with the new(s)

Fall new music calendar, new class in classical music for general audiences, newly announced symphony conductor finalists, and oh yeah, concerts too

With Oregon’s music schedule still not fully recovered from its summer swoon, we’re taking the opportunity to add some other music news to this week’s previews.

First, the Eugene Symphony just announced the finalists to succeed music director Danail Rachev after his final season this year. Chosen from a pool of 250 applicants from 44 countries, each will lead an ESO concert this season as part of their audition. The assistant Conductor of the great Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Dina Gilbert, who’ll conduct the December 8 concert, also founded and runs her own chamber orchestra. Brooklyn’s Ryan McAdams, who’s won rave reviews for conducting orchestras in Europe and Israel, tries his baton January 26. Boulder native Francesco Lecce-Chong, who’s assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, takes his turn on the Hult Center podium March 16.


Gilbert, McAdams, Lecce-Chong.

Important: amid all their starry fellowships, awards, big-name mentors and glowing reviews, all three young conductors have worked with contemporary composers and new music — an essential quality for a 21st century conductor, especially one who aspires to join a line of renowned new music advocates that includes former ESO music directors Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero. Their success in Eugene surely contributed to what search committee head Roger Saydack (who led the last five searches) called “the strongest pool of candidates we’ve ever seen here,” which is saying something. That’s why the search for a second-tier orchestra conductor in a college town in the upper left corner of the US is really international news. ESO conducting alums go on to much bigger opportunities after a few years in Oregon. Like the song says: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you, Eugene, Eugene.”

Second, beginning this Sunday, ArtsWatch’s pal, esteemed former Oregonian music writer David Stabler, is leading a course in classical music appreciation we thought many of our readers might want to know about. It’s aimed at the general public. Below you’ll find David’s description of this Sunday afternoon’s first class. For more info, check his website.

Third, Portland’s Modern Music Maven Bob Priest, who’s happily reviving what used to be March Music Moderne in December, has issued his fall guide to Portland new music, which appears at the bottom of this post and is available at his Ear Trumpet website. It’s hardly comprehensive (Portland only, and avowedly tailored to the author’s admittedly idiosyncratic taste), but still immensely valuable to fans of 20th and 21st century classical music. We’ll have more extensive previews of most of these shows as the season unfolds.

On to this week’s previews.


Music@Home: Desktops and devices are the new venues

Burgeoning availability of live streams gives Oregon contemporary and classical music lovers home access to concerts from around the world

Story and screenshots by GARY FERRINGTON

As I grow older, I find it more difficult to go out on those dark, wet and blustery Oregon evenings to enjoy a concert of classical or contemporary music. Although I’d prefer sitting in a venue enjoying a live performance, I know it won’t always be possible. So, it is with much personal pleasure that I’ve discovered Internet live-streaming and have spent the last couple of years exploring the availability of both statewide and worldwide concert performances.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

With the click of a mouse or a tap on a trackpad or screen, music lovers can connect to streams of live music performances from most anywhere around the world on the internet. From major international festivals and concerts overseas to two Oregon colleges taking the lead in bringing live performances online, viewers and listeners who may seldom or never be able to experience distant concert events have the option to do so on their computers or mobile devices. The increasing availability of live streaming offers real benefits, beyond mere convenience, to composers, musicians, and music lovers in Oregon and beyond.


Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

Riveting Chamber Music Northwest performances showcase an exemplary 21st century composer

Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.