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I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

The Bad News

•  To the surprise of no one but the disappointment of many, Portland Opera announced the postponement of the first two operas of its 2020/21 season, necessitated by Oregon’s pandemic-provoked prohibition on large public gatherings through at least September. I suppose we can all live without Tosca for awhile, since she seems to spring back to life every few months in endless resurrections/recyclings, but it really stings to have to wait longer for the Oregon premiere of a chamber opera by an actual living composer, Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s 1991 Frida, about the eventful life of the great Mexican painter. Both powerful women should appear on Portland stages sometime next year, with exact dates to be announced later. Meanwhile, enjoy this video of Portland Opera Resident Artist Camille Sherman singing Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” from the balcony of the company’s building on the Willamette River.

• Another seasonal opera source, Portland SummerFest, also announced the cancellation of its Opera in the Park, a consequence of Portland Parks & Recreation’s pandemic-induced cancellation of all summer activities in city parks.

• After the cancellation of the Oregon Bach Festival and Chamber Music Northwest’s live performances, another — and much newer — summer classical music institution is on hold. In a Landscape, which happens outside at various scenic Oregon natural venues, would seem a good candidate for the kind of physical distancing needed to safely attend, but “concerns about travel and crowd limitations, along with the risk of exposure for our audience and crew” have induced impresario/pianist Hunter Noack to hold off on this summer’s series, with hopes of possible resumption of a few performances.

•  Another Oregon classical music institution, Musica Maestrale, announced the indefinite suspension of its concert plans, pending some level of certainty about the resumption of live Oregon musical performance. During the meanwhilst, founder/lutenist Hideki Yamaya has, like many other performers, been scouring the Renaissance/Baroque organization’s video archives and posting past performances on YouTube

• The Newport Symphony is taking a similar tack for its annual Independence Day show, replacing live performance with a radio broadcast of an encore performance on KNPT and KYTE at 4 pm July 4, followed by a 7-10 pm posting on the orchestra’s website.

• Given the almost complete cancellation of live music this year, it’s not surprising that American Public Radio has also canceled its weekly live radio show, Live from Here, hosted by Portland mandolinist/ singer/ composer Chris Thile. The ebullient successor to A Prairie Home Companion reached 2.6 million listeners per week over 600 public radio stations, but “while this news fills me with sadness, I understand the decision,” Thile told Billboard, “ as my extraordinary teammates and I conceived of Live From Here as a celebration of live, collaborative audible art, and there’s just no telling when it could be that again.” The silver lining might be more time for Thile to make music, like his just released album with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, and with other projects like his Punch Brothers band.

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell

The Good News

On Sunday, the Oregon Symphony inaugurates a free weekly online series. The seven-part Essential Sounds spotlights “people who are holding our community together during this time of crisis,” the orchestra’s press release explains. “Over the course of this free, seven-part series created by Oregon Symphony Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane and director Holcombe Waller, you will experience dozens of heartfelt musical performances, each accompanied by stirring imagery inspired by the stories of essential workers in a particular sector. You will hear stories like that of an Oregon Symphony percussionist, whose cousin went from frontline healthcare worker to COVID patient – and his musical dedication to her.”

Special guests include Portland songwriters Storm Large and Amenta Abioto, and recurring segments like “Composers in Quarantine Making Dinner” spotlight how prominent contemporary American composers like Nico Muhly, Jessie Montgomery, and Missy Mazzoli are responding artistically to the pandemic.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman

• The Oregon Symphony is also premiering Symphony Storytime, an original video series designed for kids seven and under. Each episode presents a children’s story narrated by a master storyteller, with accompaniment by an OSO musician performing the book’s “soundtrack,” as well as a lesson about the instrument featured in the episode. Nine English episodes and four Spanish episodes will be released on June 25, July 2, and July 9.

Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong has added a Thursday night live show, featuring talks with other musicians, to the orchestra’s educational Musical Mondays stream.

• Portland’s Big Mouth Society is hosting weekly online community salons Tuesdays at 6 pm, featuring music, spoken word content and “heartfelt conversation.”

 • Live jazz is scarce these days, but Driveway Jazz Series, a socially distanced outdoor jazz series, is bringing top musicians like singer Marilyn Keller and pianist Darrell Grant to a driveway in front of a bungalow in Southeast Portland, and streamed out to the universe.

Portland Baroque Orchestra is planning to stream its entire next season, reserving the possibility of returning to live audience productions if virus and authorities permit. And it’s also going to use its spiffy streaming technology to allow other Portland artists to do the same.

•  One more Oregon classical music institution holds out enough hope that the music will resume to extend the contract of its artistic director. Eugene’s Oregon Mozart Players announced that Kelly Kuo will remain as artistic director and conductor through the 2023-2024 season.

Kelly Kuo re-ups with Oregon Mozart Players.

•  Though Sunriver Music Festival has suspended its August concert series, it’s still planning to stage its annual Young Artists Scholarship Concert in late August, and to award $35,000 to classical music students for next school  year. The organization has reopened its offices and plans further announcements about upcoming performances soon.

• Fueled by strong reviews, Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana’s new CD , The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, topped the Billboard classical charts for three weeks during its 15-week run there. You can watch a documentary about the making of the world’s first vocal album to be recorded entirely in live virtual acoustics, as well as video from the original live concert, at the group’s website.

•  Many ArtsWatch readers have enjoyed performances at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, including Newmark Theater, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the rest. They and other visitor venues found themselves with lots of unconsumed food and beverages for canceled events. So Metro, the regional planning organization that runs the venues, donated those perishables to groups that are feeding hungry Oregonians. The donations “have helped in providing 11,549 meals to our houseless guests here at the mission and for our search and rescue program,” said Lori Quinney, Union Gospel Mission food service director.

• Portland pianist Michael Allen Harrison has long staged an annual benefit concert and other programs to boost music accessibility to children of all economic backgrounds. Harrison’s July 25 Play It Forward virtual fundraiser supports no-cost music lessons and instruments for Portland youth by delivering to donors homes a music-filled “supper club” featuring live music, dinner and wine pairings.

• Two Portland-based music organizations, Chamber Music Northwest ($20,000) and My Voice Music ($15,000) were among the 14 Oregon arts recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts this month. And Cappella Romana just scored a a $68,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the work of Cappella Romana’s music director and founder, Dr. Alexander Lingas, who will lead a team of scholars to produce a volume of medieval Byzantine chants from the Greek monastery of Grottaferrata near Rome. He’ll also conduct research to create “Christmas 1400: A Byzantine Emperor in King Henry’s Court,” a new concert program of Byzantine and Latin music, slated to be performed in 2021.

• George Floyd was many things: family man, religious man, athlete, friend, victim of homicidal racist police state violence, maybe symbol of long overdue change. But he was also a musician. In the wake of his murder and the national protest movement it sparked, even more than usual, we need to hear from artists of color. Eureka Ensemble has compiled a useful guide to African American composers and organizations that offers “ links to either a) music by Black American composers created as a counter to the racism they faced; or b) information about Black-led/Black-founded groups working towards inclusion and equality.” Music from Other Minds offers a more contemporary oriented playlist of Black composers here.

Musicians aren’t the only performers stifled by the virus crisis, but music is no doubt providing solace to them too. Of course, Oregon’s top major professional team boasts a bona fide professional artist, rapper Dame DOLLA, in its starting lineup, and along with being a good dad to his young son and joining a protest against racist police violence across Portland’s Burnside Bridge, he’s been laying down some tracks — including this one speaking directly about the continuing racist outrages perpetrated against African Americans.

Another perennial NBA All Star, Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who grew up in Oregon while his dad Mychal patrolled the painted area for those same Portland Trail Blazers, is recuperating from injury and presumably getting through this season’s virus-enforced hiatus with the help of meditation, nature sounds (of course), and classical music. We await a study that would provide arts advocates ammunition by documenting a causal relationship between listening to, say, Chopin, and sinking three point shots at an alarming rate. 

•  Those of us who miss the chance to hear live musical theater like opera and musicals can sympathize with a pair of Oregon Broadway music fans who made a parody video of show tunes they loved (from Frozen to Sweeney Todd to Hamilton and more) – rewritten about life during quarantine. Actor/singer Julia Belanova and writer/director Joel Kwartler ask that if you enjoy their video “please consider a donation to the actors fund.”

Have some more news about Oregon music that ArtsWatch readers should know? Let us know in the comments section below, or email music@orartswatch.org. Meanwhile, enjoy a little serendipitous patriotic musical harmony from Portland State University, whose graduation ceremony fell victim to the virus. But that didn’t stop the music, thanks to a Portland Opera singer and a PSU grad student.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Music Notes: Comings, goings, stayings

Year end round up of recent news and moves in Oregon classical and jazz music

Portland Opera has named Sue Dixon the company’s sixth general director, replacing Christopher Mattaliano, who departed in June after 16 years. She’s served the company in other capacities since 2014. PO also temporarily assigned Mattaliano’s artistic direction responsibilities to Palm Beach Opera’s Daniel Biaggi, who’ll serve as interim artistic director until a permanent AD is found. The opera recently announced its return to a September – May schedule, beginning with the 2020/2021 season, and a five-year strategic plan to modernize business practices, augment community engagement, and balance the company’s budget. 

Sue Dixon, Portland Opera's new general director. Photo by Gia Goodrich.
Sue Dixon, Portland Opera’s new general director. Photo by Gia Goodrich.

Portland Piano International has named renowned Russian-American pianist Vladimir Feltsman its next Guest Curator for the 2020 / 2021 season. He will also open the season, performing on October 3 & 4, 2020.

• The Oregon Symphony has appointed Brooklyn-based composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane to the newly-created post of Creative Chair. “In addition to writing and performing three substantial works over the next three seasons, Kahane will serve as an advisor for contemporary programming on the Classical series … and produce two new concert series: Open Music, a composer-driven chamber series held in smaller Portland venues, and an as yet unnamed indie concert series in which marquee pop artists will collaborate with dynamic composers and orchestrators,” the OSO press release announced.

Gabriel Kahane’s ‘emergency shelter intake form’ featured a “Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics.” From left: Holcombe Waller, Kahane, and Holland Andrews. Photo: Yi Yin.

Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form, co-commissioned by the orchestra, was a highlight of its previous season. In early December he presented the first of his new commissions (the world premiere of Pattern of the Rail, six orchestral settings from his 2018 album Book of Travelers, inspired by a cross country train trip through America following the contentious 2016 presidential election, and the premiere of the full orchestral version of “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)” from his moving 2014 album, The Ambassador).

• While artistic leaders come and go, the Eugene Symphony announced that its artistic director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, is staying, and has renewed his contract through 2023. In his two seasons at the helm, Lecce-Chong has undertaken a number of initiatives, the most promising being ESO’s First Symphony Project, co-commissioning (with his other orchestra, California’s Santa Rosa Symphony) four American orchestral works to be performed over the next four years, beginning with a new work from New York-based composer Matt Browne in March 2020.

Francesco Lecce-Chong conducting the Eugene Symphony Orchestra at the Hult Center.

• Eugene’s other major classical music institution, the Oregon Bach Festival, parted ways with its controversial executive director, Janelle McCoy, blaming the elimination of her position on university budget cuts. Earlier, the festival reversed her decision to replace the popular artistic director she reportedly chased away, Matthew Halls, with rotating curators and instead embarked on a search for an actual artistic director.

Oregon Mozart Players has appointed a new Executive Director, Daren Fuster. He comes to the Eugene chamber orchestra from Ohio’s Columbus Symphony. Kelly Kuo remains the organization’s Artistic Director.

Siletz Bay Music Festival has named Jain Sekuler, its stage manager and production coordinator for the last three years, as its new Executive Director. Yaacov Bergman continues as Artistic Director, a position he has held for ten years.

Resonance Ensemble board president Dinah Dodds died in September. The longtime Lewis & Clark College professor was a great friend to Oregon music. Resonance has set up the Dinah Dodds Fund for the Creation of New Art in her memory.

• Portland-based jazz legend Dave Frishberg is, happily, still with us, but the 86 year old composer/singer/pianist and his wife April need some help with medical issues, which you can provide here

• Frishberg was the first recipient of PDX Jazz‘s Portland Jazz Master award, in 2011. The organization just named the 2020 winner, the superb singer Rebecca Kilgore, who’s recorded with Frishberg and many other American jazz legends. Already a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame, she’ll be honored during the PDX Jazz Festival’s February 27 event at The Old Church and perform with her trio the next day.

• Opera tenor Marcello Giordani, who made his American debut at Portland Opera in The Pearl Fishers and sang with the company several times under artistic director Robert Bailey before becoming a star at the Metropolitan Opera and Paris Operas and other major companies, has died in Sicily at age 56. 

• After 14 years running Central Oregon’s Sunriver Music Festival, executive director Pam Beezley is retiring at the end of the year, and the festival has launched a search to succeed her. 

•  Richard Lehnert, the respected longtime copyeditor of Stereophile, most recently at the magazine’s Ashland offices, has retired after 34 years, leaving behind a sweet reminiscence of his long tenure at one of the world’s leading music magazines.

Laurels & Shekels

Ethan Sperry conducts an Oregon Repertory Singers rehearsal at Portland State University. Photo by Paige Baker.
Ethan Sperry conducts an Oregon Repertory Singers rehearsal at Portland State University. Photo by Paige Baker.

•  Oregon Repertory Singers has won the 2019 American Prize in Choral Performance in the community chorus division. The major national performing arts prize is the latest earned by choirs directed by Ethan Sperry, the ORS artistic director who has also guided Portland State University’s choral singers to many national and international awards.

• Another Portland chorus, Sing Portland!, was the only adult choir from the US selected to perform at Carnegie Hall at a conference and three-day residency organized by Distinguished Concerts International New York that featured 500 singers from around the world. They’ll be returning in 2021. 

Sing Portland! at Distinguished Concerts International New York. Photo by Kristin Jacobson.
Sing Portland! at Distinguished Concerts International New York. Photo by Kristin Jacobson.

• The University of Oregon Chamber Choir won first place in the chamber choirs/vocal ensemble category at the Grand Prix of Nations in Gothenburg, Sweden, earlier this month, beating out 15 other choirs from around the world at one of Europe’s most prestigious choral competitions.

BRAVO Youth Orchestra trombonist Eric Acosta-Medina was among 100 students from around the country selected to perform in a July concert with the YOLA National Orchestra in Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall conducted by Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. BRAVO is performing seven times around Portland in December.

• Portland’s Resonance Ensemble has been awarded a $100,000 grant from Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative to help fund the world premiere of composer (and ArtsWatch contributor) Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem, which the choir commissioned and will perform with the Oregon Symphony on May 23 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

• Several music organizations received grants in the Oregon Cultural Trust’s 2020 grants:

Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Music and Equity Program that addresses barriers to instrumental music for low-income youth;

Ethos Inc.’s rural outreach program Music Across Oregon;

My Voice Music’s artist mentorship after school programs for working families;

Phame Academy’s original rock opera;

Oregon Symphony’s programs for low income students (Kinderkonzerts, Young Peoples Concerts, Link Up, open rehearsals and Prelude Series);

Pacific Youth Choir’s expanded Neighborhood Choir for elementary school students;

Eugene Symphony’s youth music education programs;

Portland Youth Philharmonic’s touring program; 

Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras’ introductory strings classes;

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s From Maxville to Vanport program;

Marilyn Keller with PJCE in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’

Montavilla Jazz Festival’s program expansion;

Third Angle New Music’s upcoming Sanctuaries original chamber opera by Portland composer, arranger, educator and pianist Darrell Grant (last year’s winner of the Portland Jazz Master award that Becky Kilgore just won) with a libretto by two-time National Poetry Slam Champion Anis Mojgani and directed by Alexander Gedeon. Sanctuaries also scored a $25,000 from the New York-based MAP Fund, the only Oregon-based arts group to earn one of the 42 original live performance projects to receive that grant.

Chamber Music Northwest’s 50th anniversary season’s community outreach activities for resident ensembles;

Fear No Music’s “The F Word” concert;

In Mulieribus’s October concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the birth of composer Barbara Strozzi;

and operational support for Portland Baroque Orchestra, Portland Columbia Symphony, Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, Eugene Opera, and Shedd Institute for the Arts.

Composer Jake Runestad discusses his new orchestral work World On Fire, commissioned by the Oregon Coast Music Festival, and inspired by the massive fires that swept over Oregon in 2017. It premiered in July at Coos Bay’s Marshfield High School Auditorium. 

Positive Developments

All Classical Portland announced a new Music Heals initiative, a comprehensive radio, web, and social media campaign designed to raise awareness of local organizations that are using music to heal and help connect community members to those resources. It follows on the public radio station’s 2017-18 Music Feeds campaign, which provided 53,538 meals to those in need in Oregon and SW Washington.

Portland’5 Centers for the Arts has partnered with KultureCity to make Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Keller Auditorium, Newmark Theatre, Winningstad Theatre, and Brunish Theatre, and all of the programs and events that they host, to be sensory inclusive. Portland’5 staff received training and equipment to improve the listening experience for customers with autism, dementia, PTSD and other similar conditions.

Classical Music ain’t dead yet! If you have more news about Oregon music you’d like us to consider for these occasional roundups, or for other OAW coverage, please let us know at music@orartswatch.org.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

MusicWatch Semi-Monthly: Unholy daze

Busy December needs two monthly columns: one for holiday concerts, one for everything else. Part one: music for strings, singers, and saxophones

Bah, humbug! It’s too early for Christmas music, don’t you think? Just because December is upon us, with its flakey promises of snow, doesn’t mean there isn’t a nice pile of early unholiday presents waiting. We’ve got a good dozen or two non-holiday themed concerts for you: abstract string quartets, killer guitarists and groovy saxophonists, and a visit from Oregon Symphony’s newly appointed Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (interview coming this week).

Aside from Die Hard the Musical at Funhouse Lounge (starts on the 5th, runs through January 4th) and Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (starts on the 7th, runs through the 26th), all the other fun holiday concerts start around the 13th. So we’re going to play Grinch and make you wait a week or two before telling you about all that. Take off that Mariah Carey Christmas playlist, put on MAE.SUN’s latest EP, get some Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge, and settle down for our first half of December mixtape.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Breaking cultural ground in Beaverton

Work begins on the new, $51 million Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, a long-held dream for the city's center-in-the-making

ON A DRY AND CHILLY MORNING, BEAVERTON BROKE GROUND Wednesday on a significant slice of its future. The official groundbreaking of the long-awaited Patricia Reser Center for the Arts drew a big crowd to the site of what’s hoped to be a new city center, at The Round in the Creekside Urban Development District, near a MAX light rail station, City Hall, and Beaverton Creek. The 45,000 square foot arts center, which is expected to open in 2021, puts a huge stamp on the western suburb’s push to re-establish its own identity separate from downtown Portland: As the metropolitan area grows, its cultural and economic scenes expand with it and assert their own identities.

Patricia Reser speaks at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for her namesake public arts center in Beaverton. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

By DANIEL HEILA

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The two works were masterfully crafted, rewarding attentive listeners with multi-textured soundscapes, harmonic excursions into unfamiliar territory, and bravura ensemble and solo passages that highlighted the virtuosity of both the ensemble and the guest artists. So it was with a sinking heart–just a few bars into Esmail’s sensitive treatment of Hindustani music–that I realized the Oregon Mozart Players had bitten off more than they could chew with Teen Murti.

The piece opened with layered melismatic lines over a drone: a quintessential Indian music structure. The texture was thick with “blue” notes (microtones achieved by fingering a touch higher or lower on the neck and via glissandi) and meaty low-register trills in the first violins. My ears were primed. But then there was a spate of stuttering pizzicato. The string players were hesitant, not wanting to be the one to plink out of place, thereby rendering their entrance scattershot. A growing sense of ill ease permeated the performance from that point on, the players struggling to get through the piece without a train wreck.

In an effective, coloristic section of ad lib, portamento-laden phrases in the violins held aloft what could have been a languid, sensuous cello obligato from within the orchestral section. Unfortunately, the cellist was so focused on the page that her performance was lackluster. To be fair, rehearsal time is at a premium even for the more regularly programmed works from the classical canon, let alone unfamiliar new works that may present challenges the ensemble has not faced before. 

The ensemble continued their unsteady way through the lovely piece, doing their best to execute the freely metered, elastic rhythms. A final return to the opening liquid microtone textures brought the structure to a satisfying conclusion, capped off with an inspired melismatic solo statement from concertmaster Alice Blankenship. The piece had desperately needed that kind of emotional commitment from the beginning.

This is music that goes against the grain of western music in so many ways, and to ask an ensemble that specializes in the most western of western music to embrace it was perhaps poor judgement. It is hard to see an ensemble struggle, especially one with such high standards. But salt was rubbed into the wound when artistic director/conductor Kelly Kuo made awkward excuses for the subpar performance, mentioning the challenging rhythmical elements. Perhaps it would have been better to sing the praises of the work and move on to the next piece instead of acknowledging the weakness of the performance.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Processing tragedy

On his well-crafted website, Kevin Puts writes about having written music associated with tragedy: “It seems I am always making memorials, or trying to process tragedy through my writing.” Often these works are inspired by images the composer has seen. Falling Dream: a couple leaping together from one of the burning towers during the 9/11 attacks. His Clarinet Concerto: images from a documentary of families mourning at the graves of fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The impetus for How Wild the Sea was televised imagery of an elderly man, trapped on the roof of his home, being swept along on the violent Tōhoku tsunami tide, having just lost his wife to the tumult.

Delgani Quartet opened the piece, with a gentle to-and-fro motion of arpeggios and running scales that evoked an undulating sea, consonant intervals projecting a deceptive benevolence. After an abrupt shift to dissonance, the to-and-froing morphed into an ominous swelling and contracting as the orchestra washed over the solo ensemble. This morass of portent gradually coalesced into a clearly metered rhythmic section that highlighted declamatory, unison orchestral statements.

The concerto continued in this manner, exploiting the protagonist role of the quartet against the “forces of nature” portrayed in the orchestra. Puts’s brilliant orchestration had the quartet sending phrases off into the brass and percussion sections, creating motivic currents which gave the work tremendous sonic depth. Despite the predictable tolling chimes and woodwind intonation issues, OMP delivered a much more energetic performance than with Esmail’s work, including an outstanding contribution by the french horn section.

Puts’s treatment of the quartet as a single voice–shared rhythmic and melodic material activated, agitated, and modulated from within by the separate instruments–created a powerful counter to the orchestra’s aural dominance. Delgani was in their element, their tight ensemble rapport executing dense contrapuntal and rapid scalar sections with enthusiastic synergy.

A return to the oceanic textures of the opening–this time the underlying anxiety retreating in dark brass reverberations–signaled the conclusion of the work. A few errant currents of phrases and motifs passed between sections, and a tic-toc brass-and-percussion figure guided the orchestra to a textural cadence and a unison solo statement by the quartet: a spine tingling conclusion that was unfortunately marred by two full orchestra hits that seemed counterintuitive and awkwardly self-conscious.

Creative impetus, or mere marketing?

I feel compelled, in today’s atmosphere of transparency of intent and growing respect for difference (cultural, sexual, religious or otherwise), to mention a criticism I have for Puts’s work. With regard to the two previously mentioned tragedy-inspired works (Falling Dream, Clarinet Concerto), I understand the impetus. These are issues close to home, events that affected and continue to affect Americans viscerally. But I have observed a tendency (especially in more conservative contemporary classical communities) for composers to jump at monumental events as impetus for composition. I feel that this practice can be a minefield of unintended effrontery to victims of these tragedies or members of the cultures that have been afflicted, especially if the events happened at a significant distance to the composer’s life, lifestyle, and culture. 

So, I wonder about the respectfulness of writing pieces inspired by a kind of media-driven voyeurism. I can understand using the Japanese tragedy as impetus if the composer had a direct connection to the Japanese disaster; Puts did have a piece performed in a Japanese town damaged by an earthquake in the 90s, but that seems a distant relationship to the Tōhoku earthquake. Simply appropriating the meaning in a Japanese man’s suffering without any deliberate, respectful reference to his culture seems a particularly good example of cultural hubris. How Wild the Sea used no elements of Japan’s rich musical culture, historical or contemporary. I can imagine there were many touch points for creativity in the aftermath of the disaster: favorite community songs and folksongs of the region, to name just two. Why were these not explored?

Remove the program note’s mention of the impetus and the composer’s explanation on his website, and the piece bears no connection to Japanese culture. So why just a textual reference to a tragedy that captured the world’s attention? Could this be marketing? Is this a composer seeding his work with imagery to engage the morbid fascination and pity the observer feels for the suffering? I certainly hope not. But, I feel that there just wasn’t enough relevant content in How Wild the Sea to comfortably support the composer’s decision to apply the tragic imagery of a doomed man’s suffering to his music.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.

The Oregon Mozart Players are to be commended for their programming of living American composers. They are participating in a rising tide of performing organizations discovering the amazing variety, accessibility, and artistry of American contemporary classical music. Perhaps they might find a more copacetic rapport with the more pulse-oriented pieces of the minimalists (Philip Glass’ symphonies, for instance) and post-minimalists (John Adams’s lighter orchestral works) or the abstracted tonality of the current roster of young Brooklynites (Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli).

However the orchestra’s programming develops, Oregon Mozart Players have established themselves as committed champions of contemporary classical music, willing to take risks and create memorable music of our time.

Oregon Mozart Players will feature music of Frederik Magle on December 6 and 7 and of Michael Torke on March 28, 2020.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene, OR.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

MusicWatch Weekly: A wider net

In which we stumble upon a Hall of Fame inductee, learn about joiking and konnakol, and hear from the audients

There’s so much going on this month that I’m going to refer you to our monthly column, cast a wider net, and focus on telling you about different concerts, music that flies under the radar or comes up at the last minute. But you still deserve to hear about more than just what I can tell you about. The delicate imbalance of mental variance my Muse demands of me requires a certain amount of rest and risotto, and if I went out and did all the things you hear about here I’d soon be reduced to a burbling mess of incoherence.

So I’ve been sending my team of loyal brigands around town, collecting intelligence for me and turning in hot takes like Odin’s snoopy ravens. Call em the Rose City Irregulars. In a moment, you’ll hear about symphonic Batman, choral Oliveros, and Third Angle. But first, a digression.

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MusicWatch Weekly: natural classical

Sounds inspired by nature and spring highlight this week's Oregon music performances

Oregonians live in a nexus between the natural world that drew so many of us here and the human-created environment that nurtures us. That juxtaposition has inspired several of this week’s musical highlights.

Read my ArtsWatch preview of Habitat, Third Angle New Music’s immersive multimedia performance created by Portland composer/sound artists Branic Howard and Loren Chasse,
Thursday and Friday, Studio 2 @ N.E.W. 810 SE Belmont St. Portland.

• Lewis and Clark College faculty chamber ensemble Friends of Rain’s annual new music concert features music that responds to the natural world, written by a cast of top Northwest composers from accomplished veterans like Susan Alexjander to an award winning rising star, Andrea Reinkemeyer.
Friday. Evans Hall, Lewis & Clark College.

• One of the stalwarts of Portland’s classical music scene, Violinist Adam LaMotte is probably most familiar for his sterling work in Portland Baroque Orchestra. He’s launched a new, conductor-less orchestra to explore repertoire for bigger bands than the standard chamber ensembles he also performs with, and that stretches across a much wider time period than PBO — from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Amadeus Chamber Orchestra seeks to “bring new audiences into the realm of classical music via education, outreach, and vibrant live performances, collaborating with other entities to present multifaceted events.”

The added facets this time: interpolated readings by one of Oregon’s greatest nature writers, Kathleen Dean Moore (who has done similar shows with a pianist), and nature photography by Larry Olson. Both complement the nature-inspired musical selections in this “concert devoted to Mother Earth”: two of Vivaldi’s famous seasonal concertos, a flurry of English Baroque master Matthew Locke’s music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, early 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s famous The Lark Ascending, long a popular evocation of spring’s impending arrival, and even an original composition for piccolo and strings by LaMotte himself.
Friday, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University.

• There’s more English music for chamber orchestra in this Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert. The program includes one of Haydn’s miraculous London symphonies (written for a much bigger orchestra than OMP’s chamber orchestra forces) to a couple of mid-20th century works, Benjamin Britten’s Rossini tribute ​Soirées Musicales and Malcolm Arnold’s ​Serenade for Small Orchestra​, to contemporary composer Jonathan Dove’s ​nifty Mozart tribute Figures in the Garden.​
Saturday, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon.

• The Lark Ascending reappears, in a much larger flock, when the Oregon Symphony mixes a pair of much-beloved classics with a brand new piece from one of the country’s leading active composers. Oregonians can sympathize with a 19th century German composer’s joy in visiting sunny Italy — Felix Mendelssohn’s ebullient “Italian” Symphony. The big news is the world premiere of leading American composer Christopher Theofanidis’s new concerto Drum Circles, co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, which incorporates a percussion quartet as the soloists rather than the usual violinist or pianist. Theofanidis wrote it for an all-star group called the Percussion Collective, who will play it with the orchestra.
Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

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