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MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!

Cancellations, confirmations, and quarantine playlists

Bad news, everyone! No, it’s not quite the end of the world, at least not yet–and that’s probably the scariest thing of all. It seems we never quite hit Full Disaster, and if the Great Malthusian Dieoff really is underway it’s apparently content with taking its sweet time with us. Instead of a full-blown crisis, we get a series of morally debilitating crises which drain us but don’t ever amount to much (except for the people directly impacted by these subapocalyptic crises, of course, but they’re usually poor, old, foreign, or some other shade of invisible).

Not that we’re wishing for a full-blown crisis: but our minds sure go there in a hurry, don’t they? You’ve seen all the memes by now: on some level of our social psyche we find it easier to hoard toilet paper than to wash our hands more often. We don’t like the small, rational fixes. We like to dream big, and we like to nightmare big too. We like to panic. We like to ostrich.

That, paradoxically, is why the present author has been so gratified to see the concert cancellation notices pouring in. Denial and panic are two sides of the same apocalyptic coin, a rejection of measured responses in favor of whichever easy option is more comfortable (note that neither denial nor panic require much effort). Instead, everybody’s actually talking about it, weighing options and doing their own research, grappling with their social responsibilities, and coming to their own conclusions in the old contest between “safety is job one” and “the show must go on.”

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MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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Storm Large: from Deadly Sins to Holiday Ordeal

An interview with the star of Seven Deadly Sins, bringing her holiday show to the Schnitz tonight

Local singer-composer-writer Storm Large made a new fan this May. I can’t say I was a huge fan before her stellar performance of Kurt Weill’s creepy Seven Deadly Sins with the Oregon Symphony earlier this year. Her voice is magnificent, and as a performer she has impressively commanding charm, but genrewise the American Songbook sound she usually specializes in is simply not my cup of coffee. It’s all great, of course–I wouldn’t be telling you about her otherwise, and if it’s your cup of coffee you should definitely put on her terrific 2015 album Le Bonheur (or dip into the Pink Martini back catalogue, where you’ll find gems like 2013’s Get Happy). But the present author’s tastes always demand something musically a little nastier. Lucky us: that’s exactly what we got with Large’s Weill.

Our hometown orchestra–a well-balanced band with equal affection for Hadyn and Shostakovich–does a lot of work in the fertile in-between ground where pop and classical hang out to smoke weed. OSO’s Steven Hackman mashup concerts have been well-attended and enthusiastically received: peanut-butter-and-chocolate affairs that have been as much about Brahms and Tchaikovsky as they were about Radiohead and Drake (still waiting for the Bartók v. Björk show). And earlier this year, when the OSO decided to create a Creative Chair position for a living composer, they chose Gabriel Kahane–perhaps the most well-known pop-classical composer alive.

Seven Deadly Sins is another important step into that fertile ground–just playing the rebellious hybrid composer’s music at all is a fairly bold move, and hiring a local singer who’s not generally known for classical music is outright audacious. But the collaboration was a canny move: Large, who first sang the work with OSO in 2010, is hardly a nobody, and her devoted fan base showed up in force to hear her knock it out of the park and steal the whole fucking season.

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MusicWatch Holidays: Naughty and nice

Unwrapping Portland’s spiritual duality with holiday concerts for choirs, circuses, dancers, and drag queens

Ho ho ho! Oregon First Winter is fully upon us: the snow and ice and seasonal depression haven’t hit in full force yet, but it’s finally cold and rainy enough to talk about holiday music. Let’s get started with an old favorite:

Our wishlist of worthy concerts is twenty-plus items long this week (not counting the mezzanine), so we’re only going to talk about a select few–but we’ll leave the whole list for you at the end, dear reader, so you can decide for yourself who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Choral joys, classical comforts

Nothing goes together like choirs and holiday music. Portland and environs may be known for a certain sassy grouchiness, but we’re also known for having more choral ensembles than Santa has ununionized elves. Almost all of them are celebrating the holiday season one way or another in the next few weeks, and although our darling Resonance Ensemble is off duty until early spring, the rest of the Oregon choir tribe is gearing up for year-end banquets of sparkly yuletide music.

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Embracing creativity

Composer Gabriel Kahane discusses new Creative Chair position, concerts with Oregon Symphony

This week, singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane arrived in Portland to start his position as Creative Chair for the Oregon Symphony–a job he’ll hold for three seasons, organizing a variety of concerts and working with the beloved hometown orchestra to expand its embrace of new music and living composers. Kahane’s already got Caroline Shaw on board for two different concerts next March: her Partita (paired with Berio’s Sinfonia) and a more intimate chamber concert, the first of Kahane’s Open Music series (and conveniently scheduled less than ten days after Shaw’s Portland concerts with Third Angle). That seems like a pretty good start to me.

The symphony has needed this, dear reader–although, in the half-decade I’ve been monitoring them professionally, the OSO has performed some truly wonderful concerts of new music. In fact, they’ve covered three pretty distinct eras of what’s broadly thought of as “new music”: old new music (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel); new new music (Theofanidis, Akiho, Bettison); and that fruitful in-between realm of oft-forgotten mid-to-late 20th-century music (Barber, Menotti, Corigliano). There have also been more than a few duds in the mix–which is as reliable a sign as any that they’ve hit critical mass.

It’s the question of what they should be doing with that critical mass that’s been concerning me these last few years. We could consider the situation until now as a bare minimum for embracing new music–after all, a bolder move would be to simply invert the ratios and banish Beethoven to the occasional overture, that phantom token zone where the new music usually has to content itself.

That brings us to this weekend’s concerts, which begin with Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus–a wildly appropriate choice considering the rest of the program. The old new music is represented by Russian film composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, a gorgeous and emotionally complicated mid-century ode to the human spirit. All the rest is Kahane, joining the orchestra to sing “Empire Liquor Mart” and Pattern of the Rail, a suite of six newly orchestrated songs from his solo piano-and-voice album Book of Travellers–another ode to the human spirit.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Hot music in the cold city

Warm up your fall with saxophones, film and classical music, international virtuosi, and metallized Metroids

Are you cold yet? Have your fingers and toes and hearts and guts frozen as Winter creeps closer and you face down the end of the world? Are you ready to put on a sweater and a balaclava and drown out the chaos with frosty music and a fire in the belly?

Good! Here’s your prescription for October.

Saxomaphones

Now that you’re all sweatered up, it’s time for some hot sax. Tuesday, October 2nd–tonight!–it’s the zany trio Too Many Zooz at Crystal Ballroom, wherein baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino, trumpeter Matt Doe, and drummer David “King of Sludge” play their stompy dancey “brass house” music. If that’s not zany enough for you, wait until tomorrow and check out skronky Skerik at Goodfoot Lounge on the 3rd. Then, at 4 in the afternoon on the 5th, head over to the Midland Library on Southeast 122nd for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s tribute to Portland’s Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. Or wait all the way until next week and dig local diy jazz quintet Blue Cranes at The 1905 on Sunday the 13th.

Oregon Symphony Orchestra

After a cancelled zoo concert and a weekend of Empire, the OSO’s symphonic season is officially underway. We heard from composer Oscar Bettison last week, and you’ll hear all about his rewilded music (performed last weekend alongside Mozart and Brahms) from Charles Rose soon enough. This month, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi continues into full fall mode with concerts of music all over the “classical” map, from film music to Stravinsky to Coldfuckingplay.

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Building and rebuilding

An interview with British-American composer Oscar Bettison, commissioned and premiered on this weekend's Oregon Symphony season-opening concerts

This weekend, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra officially opens its season with an old Mozart concerto, an old Brahms symphony, a new series of Friday concerts in Salem, a two-hour party on Main Street–and a brand new commission from a living U.S. composer. Parties and Salem shows and ancient Austrians are nice and all, but it’s the living composers that get us new music nuts all excited, so we invited the composer in question–Peabody Institute chair of composition Oscar Bettison–to join us at a noisy coffee shop around the corner from the Schnitz for a latte and a chat about his music, building and rebuilding, the nature of nature, and the thing he hates the most.

Bettison’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

From six to nine to five

I started playing violin when I was six. My dad played violin, and his dad played violin. It was a family violin. My dad wanted to start learning again, so he got lessons, and I’m a six-year-old kid so I wanted to do whatever my dad did, and I started playing the violin. So music is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I have so many friends who have really interesting career trajectories, and mine is like, “nope.” God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t been any good at it! What would I have ended up doing? Maybe law or something.

I like to work slowly and steadily. I don’t like working in a rush, I don’t like looming deadlines, I need to work ahead. Because I need to make mistakes, and I need to go down the wrong track–and know that it’s the wrong track. But I have to go down it to know that.

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