orion weiss

MusicWatch Weekly: jazz tributes

PDX Jazz Festival leads this week's Oregon music highlights

Today’s jazz is often about tributes to yesterday’s jazz, especially the post-bop through fusion music of the late 1950s through the ‘70s. It’s easy to understand why — that music is a pinnacle of human artistic achievement that still delights millions of us daily and nightly. But many of us worry that the worship of the old can crowd out development of the new, as happened for a century in classical music, which is still in recovery. Granted, unlike classical music, jazz by its nature is always new, encouraging musicians to update whatever they’re playing every time they take the stage. But as rock climbers know, it can be harder to really take the leap into the next phase of your art form when you’re still clutching the old approaches with one hand.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Thanks in part to the 80th anniversary of the revered Blue Note record label, plenty of worthy tributes ennoble the 2019 BIAMP PDX Jazz Festival. Fortunately its curators, chiefly artistic director Don Lucoff, have included some of today’s forward looking jazz artists too…

• … beginning with tonight’s opening concert featuring Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah at Portland’s Star Theater. The young composer/ trumpeter/ improviser/ producer/ instrument designer is one of the century’s most musically ambitious artists in any field. Scion of one of New Orleans’s most renowned musical families, he builds on jazz traditions and wins awards for his virtuosity, but looks forward artistically. His “Stretch Music” embraces a wide variety of artistic influences while remaining musically accessible to broad audiences. Scott’s landmark 2017 Centennial Trilogy addressed many of our most pressing social issues (anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism, demagoguery, gender bias) while still swinging, and he’s also contributed enormous amounts of work and creativity to youth education and other worthy causes, scored films, worked with musicians as varied as Thom Yorke, Prince, and McCoy Tyner, founded a music festival, and more. He’s a major part of jazz’s future.

The rest of the first week offers an impressively wide range of the varied music we foolishly try to lump into a single four-letter word: fine singers like Kendra Shank (who also plays a Broadway House concert in Eugene Sunday) and Veronica Swift (with fab pianist Benny Green), venerated masters like Pharoah Sanders, Harold Mabern and Patrice Rushen, rising stars including Aaron Diehl Trio, top current acts the Bad Plus, Steve Turre and Ralph Peterson, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (named after a holy shrine of the music) and so much more.

For all the starry national names though, maybe the most valuable part of the festival is the showcase it offers local jazz musicians who offer comparable, sometimes superior performances year round. Many of those shows are free, and the first week’s constellation of local stars shines particularly bright. Check it all out.

Chamber Music

Long before jazz emerged, a mythical Greek dude strummed a mean lyre. The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician who pursued his lost love to hell and almost all the way back, has been told and retold in songs, operas, musicals and more through the centuries. But it’s never been told like this. In Orpheus Unsung, a multimedia concert presented by Third Angle New Music couple of contemporary classical music stars team up to evoke the Orpheus story as a “wordless opera” with only electric guitar and drums.

One time California rocker turned Princeton prof and composer Steven Mackey has done as much as anyone to organically integrate electric guitar into contemporary classical music, while composer/drummer Jason Treuting’s band So Percussion is the country’s leading percussion ensemble, collaborating with everyone from Steve Reich to Matmos. Using multi-media visuals, looping and effects pedals, gongs, and other percussion, along with guitar and drum kit, they incorporate influences from classical to post-rock to various experimental genres to tell a story almost as old as music itself.
Wednesday and Thursday. Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St.

Other notable chamber music events:

Portland Baroque Orchestra (really an ensemble this time, with lutenist John Lenti and violinist Monica Huggett, string ensemble and soprano Arwen Myers) play and sing wonderful English music by Locke, Purcell and Blow Friday at First Baptist Church.


Friends of Chamber Music review: Playing outside the (toy) box

Pianist Orion Weiss and Salzburg Marionette Theater animate Debussy and Schumann’s music.


Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music keeps expanding its mission, living up to its name in broader and broader ways. Its Not So Classic series has for some years now brought in audiences looking for something outside the traditional chamber music box. Now it’s even embracing other arts. On the Sunday before Halloween, FOCM brought the Salzburg (Austria) Marionette Theatre to Portland State University for a kid-friendly afternoon matinee at Lincoln Performance Hall. Orion Weiss, a young pianist familiar to Portland audiences from gigs with Chamber Music Northwest, made the music half of the partnership, even throwing in a few solos.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Orion Weiss joined Salzburg Marionette Theatre at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Pianist and puppets’ first joint set was both romantic and Romantic: an enactment of the final scene of The Awkward Years (Flegeljahre), a novel by German humorist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (better known as Jean Paul), accompanied by Robert Schumann’s early work Papillons (Butterflies), inspired in 1831 by the same scene. At a masked ball, twins woo the same woman. The twins may look the same, but they have very different personalities and one is a much better dancer than the other. At one point, they exchange masks – in this production they exchanged legs! At another, a giant boot (said to be wearing itself) waltzes (sort of) through the ballroom. The guests dance and woo through the night. Eventually a clock strikes six in the morning, but everyone has slipped away.

The intrigue moved Schumann to create a string of a dozen short dances, mostly in triple time. Moods vary fantastically from one to the next, but there’s very little heavy oom-pah-pah, except by that boot of course. Like its namesake, the music mostly flits about, until finally all melody and even harmony melt away to a single note.

Fancifully costumed marionettes of the main characters and other dancers played out the drama in front of a simple set of overlapping walls, with unadorned openings for doors. Their handlers, dressed in black, receded into the darkened stage background and it was easy to ignore them even as they made arms and legs weave about and heads nod. The piano sat close against the other side of the stage, angled so Weiss and the handlers could keep an eye on each other but the sound still projected towards the audience. Weiss played with great precision and tightly melded music with stage action, yet there was nothing mechanical about it. His performance would have been an expressive delight even on its own, and helped bring the characters to life. Audience laughter was frequent but gentle, except for one outburst that may have loosened them up for later.


Concert preview: Orion Weiss & Salzburg Marionette Theater

Pianist and puppets open a musical toy box.


“I had a marionette once,” stated pianist Orion Weiss. “But I’d play with it for ten seconds and then the strings would all be tangled. The Salzburg Marionette Theater will have twelve puppets on stage, more than the number of puppeteers, but they never get tangled up. It’s amazing! I guess it’s like playing the piano. People are like ‘Oh my god, how do you play two hands at once?’ Everyone thinks that’s the hardest part, but that’s not really the hardest part. The hardest part is discovering the subtlety of it all.”

Orion Weiss performs Sunday at Portland State University. Photo: Scott Meivogel.

Orion Weiss performs Sunday at Portland State University.

Weiss is always looking for the next musical adventure, whether it’s performing Christopher Rouse’s piano concerto Seeing (1998), commissioning Constellation and Toccata (2012) from pianist-composer Michael Davis, releasing his latest recording of Scarlatti sonatas, or as in his upcoming Friends of Chamber Music performance Sunday at Portland State University, hopping on stage with a cast of puppets to perform Debussy’s little-known piece La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box) along with short ear-pleasers by Schumann.

Debussy composed The Toy Box in 1913 for a ballet inspired by an illustrated story by artist André Hellé. Debussy himself described the plot saying, “A cardboard soldier loves a doll: he seeks to prove this to her, but the ‘belle’ deceives him with a ‘polichinelle.’ The soldier learns of her affair and terrible things happen: battles between wooden soldiers and ‘polichinelles’. In brief, the lover of the pretty doll is gravely wounded during the battle. The doll nurses and cares for him and…everything turns out for the best.”

Originally from Ohio and now living in New York, Weiss last performed in Portland in July with his wife and duet-partner Anna Polonsky premiering Stephen Hartke’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest in honor of this powerhouse piano couple and their new baby girl Alia. Weiss recently talked with OAW about his magical relationship with the piano, his rehearsals with the Salzburg Marionette Theater, and his experience performing Schumann’s Papillons.