portland contemporary classical music

‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect

By  CHRISTINA RUSNAK

What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.

Continues…

A new ‘Snow Queen,’ part 3: Cooking up a fresh new score

For Eugene Ballet's upcoming production, Portland composer Kenji Bunch takes on the biggest project of his musical career

Story by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen.  ArtsWatch will reposting the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

When Eugene Ballet premieres its new full-length interpretation of The Snow Queen at the Hult Center next spring, its dancers will perform to all-new music by Portland composer Kenji Bunch.

That’s a giant leap forward, both for the ballet – which has never before commissioned a full-length musical score – and for Bunch, who has never before composed such a long piece of music.

Kenji Bunch and Coffee.

Kenji Bunch on a Coffee break. Photo: Bob Keefer.

“I have never done a full-fledged, evening-length orchestral ballet score,” he said in a recent visit to his home studio. “That is definitely a bucket-list item for a composer.”

Continues…

Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

By JEFF WINSLOW and DANIEL HEILA
Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

Continues…

‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ and ‘The Overview Effect’: Solo flights

A pair of theater and music combinations aim high but don't always run deep

Lisa Jura was an amazing woman. In the wake of the Nazis’ horrific November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, her Viennese parents sent her to relative safety in England as part of the Kindertransport program that saved thousands of children’s lives. The teenaged piano prodigy, who knew no one in England and brought only a single suitcase with some clothes and sheet music, survived a Blitz bombing that leveled the overcrowded London home for Jewish refugees she’d talked her way into. She took a job at a garment factory sewing soldiers’ uniforms, then leveraged her pianistic skills into a scholarship at the nation’s most prestigious music school before moving to America and eventually having a daughter who became a concert pianist herself.

That daughter, Mona Golabek, stars in the one-woman tribute to her indomitable mother, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which runs through May 1 at Portland Center Stage. Directed and adapted from Golabek’s book, The Children of Willesden Lane (written with Lee Cohen), by the veteran composer/ performer/ theater artist Hershey Felder, the production achieves Golabek’s primary goals: making audiences appreciate her mother’s extraordinary story, and raising funds and attention for her admirable educational foundation.

Mona Golabek stars in 'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

Mona Golabek stars in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/ blankeye.tv.

What the show, which features Golabek as narrator and pianist, does not do is add much emotional depth or understanding to this lesser known but important chapter of the story of humanity’s greatest horror.

Continues…

‘The Overview Effect’ preview: Space odyssey

Portland composer/actor's new theatrical production sends audiences on a journey through inner and outer space

For as long as he can remember, Portland composer Tylor Neist wanted to be an astronaut. “I don’t even know where it came from,” he admits. Growing up in Minnesota, “I always loved space. I had space paraphernalia in the house as a child.”

Tylor Neist.

Tylor Neist.

He also loved theater. When he was eight years old, Neist played the shy, lisping Winthrop in The Music Man.But music became his main attraction, eventually leading Neist to a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied violin performance and composition.

A couple of years ago, Neist saw a film about the Overview Effect, a term coined by Frank White in his 1987 book of that title that refers to “a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface,” says Wikipedia, in which “the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative.”

“Everything came together,” Neist remembers — space, music, theater. “Being that I always wanted to be an astronaut, I was really inspired by the message.” He decided to create “a piece about a journey into the great unknown.” Neist’s new theatrical production, The Overview Effect, opens Friday and runs through April 23 at Portland Center Stage.

Neist plays a character he calls a combination of astronomer Carl Sagan and philosopher Alan Watts. The hour-long show is set in his workshop, and also uses projections from the Hubble Space Telescope as his character’s imagination embarks on its journey.

Continues…

Words & Music: Ambitious Oregon productions combine stories and sounds

'Attachments & Detachments,' 'Boldly Launched Upon the Deep,' and 'Oregon Stories' weave stories and sounds

Oregon is all about stories. Maybe the rain helps, but for whatever reason, we’re known as one of the most literary states in the union. Check Portland’s downtown Powell’s bookstore even on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it teeming with people seeking stories.

Of course stories appear in other art forms besides books — films, operas, songs. Not so much in instrumental music, however. Yet lately, we’ve seen a slew of contemporary music performances that explicitly connect new music to storytelling in various ways, including just in recent weeks:

I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others, but it’s clear that there’s a trend toward connecting storytelling to new classical and jazz music in Oregon these days. Why?

Delgani Quartet's Man of Words concert.

Delgani Quartet’s Man of Words concert combined music and theatrical dialogue.

Both jazz and contemporary classical music have gone from being relatively mainstream art forms to niche interests over the past half century or so, and one reason is their emphasis on art for art’s sake, too often privileging artistic process and innovation over audience connection. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition — much of the greatest music both innovates and connects — but maybe this craving for story represents a desire to re-connect new music to lived human experience rather than indulge in abstract soundscapes, abstruse musical processes, and concept-dominated art.

Yet when performers add words to music in unfamiliar ways (not opera, not songs), they enter a different realm than the usual music concert. Even the most compelling words and music don’t necessarily compel interest without some sense of how they work together dramatically on stage. Three recent Oregon performances showed the risks and rewards of mixing stories with sounds.

Continues…

Dianne Davies preview: Attachments and Detachments

Portland pianist uses Cascadia Composers music, dance, and visual art to tell life stories

Portland pianist Dianne Davies was looking at scores that she might want to play in an upcoming Cascadia Composers program when she picked up Ghosts and Machines by Jeff Winslow. After she played through the fourth movement, she realized that the Portland composer and ArtsWatch contributor’s solo piano piece, which he began in the wake of his older brother’s death years earlier, “fit perfectly into unresolved deep grief issues I’d had for years,” Davies remembers. “It speaks to a part of me, and says in music what I feel but can’t articulate. I think it’s incredible that people like Jeff can write such music out of deep places of pain.”

Davies knew about pain. Although Winslow’s composition was purely instrumental, she felt the composer’s loss. Davies had also lost a sibling, her beloved older sister, when Dianne was 11. “When my sister died, I couldn’t speak about what I was feeling inside, but it had to come out,” she recalls. “When I went to the piano and played and I could let myself cry, it made me feel better. It helped console me.”

Dianne Davies will perform and off her bench Sunday.

Like most of us, Davies suffered other losses — parents, a child leaving the nest — but at one point, she also almost lost the thing she loved most: music itself. Ultimately, she’d find solace in performing music from her own time and place.

Ghosts and Machines, which anchors Davies’s free show Attachments and Detachments at 3 pm this Sunday, Feb. 28, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, is one of seven works by members of Cascadia Composers that Davies will play in a show unlike any other in memory: a cycle of contemporary compositions, augmented by dance, visual art, humor and narration, that represent turning points in the performer’s own life.

Continues…