paloma griffin hebert

The Meanings of Music, Part Two: Minding the beauty

In part two of three, we consider Resonance Ensemble's "Beautiful Minds" concert and its meaningful treatment of text, time, and texture

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

Yesterday, we started our investigation of music and meaning with FNM’s “Hearings.” Today, we continue with Resonance Ensemble’s “Beautiful Minds.”

It was a pleasant October afternoon, and intermission had just ended. Resonance Ensemble Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon led the crew back into Cerimon House’s cozy performance space, where they dispersed around the room and encircled the hushed audience. FitzGibbon looked around her band of singers, lifted her hand, and dropped it: and suddenly we were bathed in a bizarre nonsense chord, a shocking flash of sound-color, like something out of Ligeti’s micropolyphonic choral works or Shaw’s “Allemande,” a vast simmering “aaaaaaa” that soared beyond mere “consonance” and “dissonance” out into some alternate realm of abstract sonic glory. Over the course of five minutes that felt like five wonderful hours, the singers creeped around gradually shifting long tones while a groovy psychedelic sci-fi mandala rotated on the screen above the stage.

The music was one of the Sonic Meditations conceived by beloved composer, accordionist, electronic music pioneer, and Deep Listening guru Pauline Oliveros. Normally these meditations–essentially text-based scores–are meant for large groups of people to practice together; Oliveros once led 6000 women in a meadow through one of these, and I can personally attest to their power in informal settings. To hear it as a concert piece, though, put a new spin on the work–not least because this is one of the most agile vocal ensembles this reviewer has ever heard. Where large groups of participants with mixed musical skill levels can have a lot of fun with these meditations (try one with your family this weekend!), this small professional vocal ensemble gave a highly focused interpretation of Oliveros’ creation, transmuting it into something more like an aleatoric post-tonal soundscape drawn from the New Polish School playbook. That is, they turned a set of instructions into music.

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FearNoMusic: Musical Terroirists

New music ensemble’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert provides tasty sampler of locavore sounds

Kenji Bunch is either an oenophile or he’s been reading Jeff VanderMeer. The Fear No Music artistic director introduced the ensemble’s fifth annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert post-concert Q&A with a discussion of the somewhat esoteric term terroir, used to describe the interlinked ways in which wines, cheeses, cannabis, and other such creations are influenced by the myriad regional factors that help condition their development. Bunch defined terroir (actually it seems likely he got the term from Darrell Grant) as “the taste of a place” and asked the gathered composers, “is there a sound to composers living in the Northwest?”

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Locally Sourced Sounds

The January 21 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall gave us a chance to find out, with a tasting menu of six Pacific Northwest composers.

Kids these days

FNM’s artistic and executive leadership team of Bunch and Monica Ohuchi opened the concert with the world premiere of recent Reed College graduate Yiyang Wang’s Converse, a sparse and cloudy mood piece, awash with open strings and rhythmic tappings on Bunch’s viola over tinkly jazz arpeggios and Liszty swirls on Ohuchi’s piano. At one point Bunch carefully set down the viola to sneak around to the piano’s low end, hiding behind Ohuchi’s arched shoulders, where he pounded out a few bass tones. FNM usually likes a slow start, and although Converse didn’t command my rapt attention the way Wang’s piano trio Color Studies did in 2017, her atmospheric little duet opened the show on a pleasantly conversational note.

Next up was another duet, Music for Four Hands by Ryan Francis, a youngish Juilliard-trained composer whom we have seen around the halls at Portland State University, where he’s been teaching theory. Ohuchi and Jeff Payne provided the titular hands, spinning out polyrhythms in wistfully melancholy GlassGuaraldi harmonic language similar to Portland composer Jay Derderian’s The People They Think We Are (performed on this same piano a few months back by Kathleen Supové). And because this was Ohuchi and Payne—one of the finest piano duos in Portland — the polymeters and the wistful melancholy were uncommonly graceful, immersing the audience in elegant waves of auditory bliss the way John Luther Adams is supposed to.

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Fear No Music: music of migration and more

New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.

FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.

FearNoMusic

This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.

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Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.

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Composer Bonnie Miksch: Fearless Dreamer

Portland composer and new music ensemble create a powerful recording, and a lasting relationship

In 2009, FearNoMusic violinist Paloma Griffin Hébert sat in the audience at a Cascadia Composers concert to hear her bandmates, pianist Jeffrey Payne and violinist Ines Voglar, play Portland State composer Bonnie Miksch’s Man Dreaming Butterfly Dreaming Man at a Cascadia Composers concert.

“I was transfixed,” recalls Griffin Hébert, who became FNM’s artistic director in 2011, by the “emotional quality of her music. She wears her heart on her sleeve. I am also that way, so naturally I gravitate toward that style.”

FearNoMusic's Griffin, Payne and Nancy Ives.

FearNoMusic’s Griffin Hébert, Payne and Nancy Ives.

After hearing more Miksch music at various concerts, Griffin Hébert resolved to record a CD. Recorded at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, it arrived this month, just in time for Saturday’s release concert at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall. The album and the concert both document a rare and successful musical relationship that’s expanded the artistic horizons of both the composer and the musicians.

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Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch

Since ArtsWatch broke the news that one of America’s best contemporary composers was returning to his hometown after two decades winning renown in New York, where he moved to attend the Juilliard School, Kenji Bunch and his wife, the superb pianist Monica Ohuchi, have quickly become an integral part of Portland’s thriving contemporary classical music scene. They’ve played in concerts by 45th Parallel, Cascadia Composers, March Music Moderne and more, and Bunch has worked with his old teenage youth orchestra, Portland Youth Philharmonic.

This month, veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic announced that Bunch, who was already directing its admirable Young Composers Project, would become the group’s new artistic director, and Ohuchi would run the business end as executive director.

This weekend, Bunch and Ohuchi join the ensemble (composed mostly of current and former Oregon Symphony players and other top Oregon musicians) in an all-Bunch concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater: an ideal opportunity for Oregon audiences to hear Bunch’s engaging, intriguing chamber music, often inspired by popular music and culture, and performed by one of Oregon’s most valuable and adventurous music groups. It’s one of the most highly recommended concerts of the year.

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