paul jacobs

Oregon Bach Festival: riding out the storm

Venerable music institution mounts its 49th summer festival amid leadership transition and uncertain future

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival has lately been looking a bit like a Blah-ch Festival. If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership. Happily, that’s on the way, with the festival having laid off controversial executive director Janelle McCoy and reversed her much-derided decision to institute a rotating directorship or leadership by committee (the last two years), instead of replacing the respected artistic director she railroaded out of town for never-explained reasons

This year’s program, like last year’s, was put together by an artistic committee of music faculty and other UO personnel chaired by McCoy. Her job was made no easier by university-imposed cutbacks that left the festival nearly bereft of star power and big splashy productions and commissions. Yet some highlights shine — if you know where to look.

Beyond Bach

While named after an 18th century master, the festival does provide some space for new sounds, or updates on old ones. My top recommendation for the entire festival: Portland composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s The Territory, which we reviewed here after its second Portland performance. Kudos to the festival for featuring a major recent work by a top Oregon composer. Grant and jazz ensemble perform in Soreng Theater July 12.

On July 2 at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of America’s most acclaimed new music ensembles, Brooklyn Rider string quartet, plays one of the greatest of all chamber works, Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, plus five new commissions on the subject of healing written by some of today’s leading composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun.

Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.
Brooklyn Rider. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Portland Cello Project has been making a classical instrument hip for over a decade. They also play Beethoven, but mostly new music, and it more often comes from hip hop, rock and other pop artists. A big draw wherever it goes in on its many tours, the ensemble returns to OBF June 29 with a program featuring music by Radiohead, John Coltrane, and more — including, of course, J.S. Bach himself. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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