portland youth philharmonic

I spent the last week in March recovering from the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was the worst I had felt in a very long time: a whole Tuesday either napping, struggling to keep food down or hopelessly trying to read or watch something. It was an unpleasant forty-eight hours, but it’s hard to compare that against the existential dread and depressive ennui of the previous year.

At least there’s something in the future to look forward to, a wild summer where the masks start to come off and the concerts slowly start coming back. I’m personally looking forward to the opportunity to see Rhode Island noise-rock band Lightning Bolt, known for the absurd volume they can pump out of just bass and drums, as well as the return of the Oregon Symphony. Look out for my coverage of their new season, new music director, and new sound system.

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Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

Watching music at the end of the longest year

When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic: Creative Response

Pandemic inspires youth orchestra to create a new music festival and commissioning program featuring new music by diverse voices

Pandemic inspires youth orchestra to create a new music festival and commissioning program featuring new music by diverse voices

Art is all about creativity, so when the pandemic struck, Portland Youth Philharmonic, facing cancellation of in-person classes and concerts, got creative. The organization created a commissioning program that resulted in the creation of more than a dozen brand new compositions — and also created a multi-orchestra commissioning initiative to help fund them, and a brand new virtual festival to showcase them. 

David Hattner leads Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo: Bev Standish. 

This Saturday and Sunday, PYP’s two-day New Music Festival features world premieres of 14 brand new works composed primarily by women and musicians of color, and commissioned especially for the orchestra’s 97th concert season as part of its recently launched Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative (YOCI).

What better way to show diverse young Oregon musicians and composers that great music isn’t written only by the long-dead white European males whose works have so long dominated orchestra programs? It can also be made by diverse people who live and create here and now. And though arising out of an emergency, these forward-looking changes in approach and even philosophy will persist, permanently enriching PYP’s performances and educational work.

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MusicWatch Weekly: What (else) is going on?

ARCO turns up, Geter turns on, “Kevin” takes the night off

Last week we talked all about how everyone should be making albums right now, and hopefully you all nodded your heads and muttered, “hell yeah!” Okay, good, we’re happy to have you on board. You know what you can do to make that happen? You can support the artists who will make it happen–by supporting what they’re doing right now.

And what are they doing right now? Well, the big news on our desk today is ARCO-PDX performing Beethoven in Pioneer Square at 6:30 this Saturday evening (tomorrow!), playing for–ahem—whoever happens to be downtown just then, all while keeping distant in local artist Bill Will’s Polka Dot Courthouse Square installation.

ARCO says:

Thanks to technological advances, passersby will be able to enjoy the music either from their seats on the semicircular steps, or by weaving their way through the players for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience!

This is clearly the exact right ensemble for Polka Dot Square: among other things, the “amplified” part helps a ton when you’re not only outside but six feet away from the other players, and the “repertory” part helps when the point of the concert is not about building the repertoire but putting it to use.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

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Living Traditions, Part One: American symphonica

Keeping the American orchestra alive with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A couple years back, during the Bernstein Centennial, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner said something that stuck with us: “if American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will.” He meant it, too; that concert, with a deeply moving performance of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony as its centerpiece, was one of only two really worthwhile Bernstein concerts that season (the other was PSU Chamber Choir’s Chichester Psalms). Jeremiah soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, plus superb performances of Jacob Avshalomov’s The Taking of T’ung Kuan and Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (with dazzling solo cello from Kira Wang), only sweetened the deal.

We’ve noticed that PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra all do their fair share to keep the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland. In fact, from an aesthetic point of view they often do better than bigger institutions like the Oregon Symphony. (The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the contrasting American composer relations of the conservative but modern-friendly Portland Opera and the living-composer-obsessed Opera Theater Oregon–which is, to be fair, co-directed by a living, local, American composer).

This month, all three orchestras have concerts that enrich and enliven the American Symphonic Tradition: PYP and MYS this weekend, PCSO the following. We’ve been to most of these three orchestras’ recent concerts, and each one was a perfectly flawed contribution to the tradition’s vitality. That is, they were enjoyable as symphonic concerts and laudable as concerts of music by American composers, but each made (lucky for this music critic) a few critical mistakes.

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