Richard Strauss

MusicWatch Monthly: Second winter descends

Hymns, films, saxophones, French music, Local music

Oregon has two winters as well as two summers. We’ve just wrapped up First Winter: the time when it hasn’t gotten too terribly cold and miserable, holiday cheer is in the air, and everybody’s all excited for the solstice and the new year. Now that all that busyness is behind us, it’s time to hunker down for the rest of winter, the long cold dreary late morning of the soul, a grim season that seems to grind on forever and promises only the occasional snow day in compensation.

But we’re in luck: we get to ring in the Coming of Second Winter with a month of pleasantly undemanding concerts of medieval hymns, saxophone ensembles, live film music, and classical chamber music by a variety of French and Local composers. It all starts this weekend with Cappella Romana and the Hymns of Kassianë.

This weekend: nuns, saxes, oboe, and movies

“With a golden apple in his hand, Emperor Theophilos slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties; His eye was detained by the charms of Kassia, and, in the awkwardness of a first declaration the prince said that in this world, women had been the occasion of much evil,” from Eve on down. “And surely, Sir,” Kassia pertly replied, “they have likewise been the occasion of much good,” including Mary, who birthed Jesus.

Kassia’s impudence at a medieval beauty contest aimed at finding a bride for the ruler of Medieval Europe’s Eastern Empire may have cost the composer (born 810 in the Byzantine capitol Constantinople) her chance to become Byzantine empress. But it might have also sparked her to overcome the barriers female artists faced in her time—some of which remain. Kassia subsequently left the royal court, earned fame as a poet, philosopher, and activist who endured beatings and other persecution. And, like the later, more famous female medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen–she became abbess of her own convent. The Orthodox church later beatified her as St. Kassianë.

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‘Contralto’ and ‘Queer Opera Experience’: queer is a verb

Third Angle New Music and Portland State University productions transcend rigid gender boundaries

Queer, like pride, is a verb. As a verb, it can have two opposing meanings: to problematize, and to normalize. In a single September weekend, Portlanders heard both, in very different approaches to queering art music.

Third Angle’s September 14 season opener Contralto, created by percussionist and experimental composer Sarah Hennies, derived strength and meaning from an Artaudesque confrontation with the challenges faced by transitioning women learning to retrain their voices. Part of this year’s TBA Festival, the hour-long film-and-music piece normalized the voice of the outsider, to be seen and understood, reminding us that people whose gender identities and sexual orientations lie outside traditional boundaries are still normal people, human beings with beautiful aspirations no different from those accustomed to passing in straight society.

Third Angle New Music presented ‘Contralto’ at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:18 Festival. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

The next night, two concerts of traditional classical vocal music performed by students in Portland State University’s Queer Opera Experience aimed for the opposite type of queering: by flipping the genders of famous opera characters, and leaving everything else the same, these singers demonstrated their right to a seat at the operatic table, loving whom they will, insisting on freedom of representation and authentic self-expression within the context of a conservative musical tradition.

Contralto

Seven women face the camera and deliver snippets of the speech therapy texts, beginning with body meditation affirmations—“your body is soft, your body is smooth”—reminiscent of hypnotic self-awareness techniques. The women move on to isolated syllables, gradually building up to words and phrases, “her voice is so soothing,” “when is your next appointment?” It’s a diverse assortment of women, young and old, and when they start singing musical notes their voices come together in moments of shyly emerging beauty. Composer and filmmaker Hennies earlier explained that “all of the text of this piece was constructed by speech therapists who assist trans women during their transitions.”

‘Contralto’ creator Sarah Hennies with Third Angle artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

Throughout, three percussionists crumple papers, drop keys, and create a creaking starfield of random sounds. The four string players get right into the extended bowing techniques, scratchy whispering harmonics, maximally sparse, minimally vibrant. Gliding tones never quite line up, never really go anywhere, certainly not towards any coherent harmony or melody. In one clever bit, the strings play a single note which one or the other of the prerecorded women then sing, a counterpoint of alternating tones, a composite scale emerging from the interplay of live performance and video, totally T:BA appropriate. But the music never really becomes very musical, remaining in this inchoate John Luther Adams territory for the whole very long hour. The only relief comes when the video soundtrack emits lovely sung chords, presumably constructed from samples of the women’s sung tones; the effect is a little like Imogen Heap on the vocoder.

I have to admit that this sort of experimental music wears thin fast, at least for me. Like its popular counterpart, noise rock, it seems all too easy to create a lot of sounds and call it good: no harmony, no melody, no groove, no take home pay. The infinite world of experimental music unleashed by Cage and Co. in the 1950s will probably never run its course: it’s a deep well, after all, and it most definitely scratches a musical itch. I suppose I was hoping (perhaps in part due to the show’s title, contralto being the lowest of the female singing ranges) for something along the lines of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices. That work, which Quince Ensemble performed for Third Angle last year, is certainly avant-garde and experimental in every sense, but it nevertheless features compelling melodies and harmonies.


Sarah Hennies – “Contralto” (preview) from Sarah Hennies on Vimeo.

Hennies describes her aesthetic as “concerned with an immersive, psychoacoustic presentation of sound brought about by an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice.” She’s no stranger to the music of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, et al, and she does have more harmonically driven music in her catalog (Live Fleas and Gather & Release are particularly good, although of course none of it is Mozart). All of which suggests that Contralto’s arrhythmic, aharmoic, amelodic scoring of the strings and percussion was a completely deliberate choice, an aesthetic layering meant to be experienced in counterpoint to the audio-visual presentation, a troubling sonic evocation of the difficult undercurrent running through the life-affirming experience of transition. It’s a bold move, a film composer sort of decision, a way of queering the narrative.

Queer Opera Experience

It was with great relief that I got to go hear several hours of sheer uninterrupted melody at two concerts produced by PSU’s Queer Opera Experience that weekend. Seven singers (again seven!) performed two concerts of classical repertoire—an evening of opera scenes on September 15 and an afternoon of art songs on the 16th—flipping genders and singing what they wanted, without regard to traditional voice type.

PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard, who accompanied the performers in Lincoln Hall’s little black box studio theater, came out before the show to discuss the project. “I want to start by saying that I love my mother,” he said from the stage, relating a phone call on the subject of queer opera. “She said, ‘Charles, you might be a lot of things, but you are not queer.’ And I understood what she meant, sadly. But it made me reflect on what the word means, has meant, and can mean.” He discussed the word’s history as a means of torment and ridicule, and its reclamation as a positive expression and “an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as L, G, B, or T.”

“Tonight,” Dillard concluded, “queer is a verb.”

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Oregon Symphony: reaching for the stars

Orchestra's season-opening concerts range from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek' to a classical music superstar

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra started its season in September with two of the more unusual, less typically classical types of concerts it regularly produces. The first was part of the film-with-live-score series, always among the OSO’s most popular concerts; the second was an evening of overtures and songs and a favorite recurring guest star. The movie was Star Wars, the first and original (retitled A New Hope when the Empire Struck Back). The special guest was superstar soprano Renée Fleming, premiering a new song cycle by Kevin Puts and singing hits from her classical, cinematic, and Broadway catalogs (told you she’s a superstar).

The Oregon Symphony performed the score to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ while the film played.

In both concerts at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the OSO came out swinging for the fences, sounding sharper than I’ve ever heard it. And this weekend, the orchestra continues its live film score performances with that other long-running science fiction film franchise. More on that below.

Star Wars

It’s fitting that symphony orchestras have been saving themselves from oblivion by performing film scores by composers like John Williams, who is generally credited with reviving and saving the orchestral tradition in film music. Watching any movie, in a concert hall instead of a movie theater (or living room), with living and breathing musicians performing the score in person like any other symphony, is always multiple different experiences: concert performance as much as movie screening. When it’s Star Wars, you’re bumping elbows with a couple thousand other Star Wars fans, listening to supremely iconic music which is possibly more important than the film itself; these fans love this movie and its soundtrack as much as your average concert-goer loves Brahms and Beethoven, and the excitement in the Schnitz that night was, ahem, a palpable Force.

A film is a smorgasbord of varied art forms. To watch a movie is a plurality of experiences, driven by narrative and character like theater and literature, photographed and edited into an illusory farrago of moving pictures, decorated with an assortment of audio and visual effects, and given life with some sort of musical score. When opera first became a thing back in the 1600s, it got its name—which simply means “works”—from the way it combined music with other existing arts like poetry, dance, acting, and stagecrafty stuff like set design and costuming (not to mention the mechanical dragons, flying stages, and now the various multidisciplinary effects the 21st century has birthed). Now that film has supplanted opera as the most perfect art form (#sorrynotsorry), it’s only appropriate that one of the greatest would turn out to be the space opera Star Wars.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Star Wars itself is a plurality of experiences: it’s a fairy tale and a hero’s quest (several of them, in fact); it’s a gritty 1970s-style “used future” sci-fi picture, part of a lineage that stretches from 2001 to Moon; it’s a miracle of independent filmmaking, simultaneously a myth-making blockbuster and the work of an idiosyncratic auteur in love with documentaries and samurai movies; it was the first movie a lot of us fell in love with, and after 40 years and however many sequels/ prequels/ books/ games/ cartoons the first one remains the best (second best if you count Empire, but that’s an argument for beers and joints; fight me later).

Williams’s score adds to this all this rich profusion, and not just because it’s so damn good or because it marries that gritty realism to all the lofty, heroic, transcendent, mythological, Romantic ideals which are the film’s heart.

Huynh’s conductor’s score for ‘Star Wars.’

Williams is one of the Great Composers, with every right to steal from Stravinsky, Holst, and Bartók (as those composers in turn stole from Debussy, Wagner, et alia), and that makes him part of the same time-honored tradition as the rest of OSO’s normal repertoire (any ass can hear that). Raise the screen and I could believe this was just another symphonic poem, an evening-length concerto for orchestra by one of America’s most successful living composers. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that Williams generally doesn’t show up on “greatest American composer” lists like this one

All of this made it a distinct thrill to hear Star Wars performed on September 9 by the same orchestra we last heard playing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Although Williams’s score is customarily connected to the classical world with the formula “Wagner via Holst and Korngold,” the composers I hear the most in this music all showed up on OSO concerts last season.

• The tribal-mechanical percussion, the menacingly heraldic brass, the creeping weirdness of the low woodwinds: all are features of OSO’s old friend The Rite of Spring, and performed with the same sense of familiar immediacy.

• The mythological, melancholy strains of that immortal Force theme, the rebellious sentimentality of Princess Leia’s theme, the grand sweeping gestures and the heroic fanfares and the quiet intimate moments: all played with the deep spiritual sincerity the orchestra invariably brings to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.

• And when Williams’s score gets sciencefictional, it does so by operating in the complex 20th-century sound world the OSO already knows so well from Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Messiaen.

Renée Fleming

In its September 23rd opening concert, the OSO came out in fine form, starting the show with a bit of Richard Strauss (the tone poem Don Juan), the horns sounding especially wonderful, Teutonic trombones muscular and rotund, principal oboist Martin Hébert dazzling on his solo.

Renée Fleming came out in a glorious fuchsia Vera Wang gown and talked a bit about Letters from Georgia, a song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Fleming recounted the work’s inception in the letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz which Puts used as a libretto, calling them “very steamy, very powerful.”

Puts won his Pulitzer for his first opera, and operatic sensibilities shine all through Letters from Georgia. Right out the gate the orchestra plays a series of huge post-tonal sonorities, a big full modern symphonic sound, the world of Adès, Britten, Davies, Henze, Higdon; by contrast, most of the vocal passages were supported by clear instrumental textures, leaving space for the all-important melodies, giving Fleming’s voice and O’Keeffe’s words room to breathe. Huge moments would give way suddenly to very small passages: a tender duet between clarinetists James Shields and Todd Kuhns (the fourth song, “Friends”); a 4-mallet vibraphone solo from Niel DePonte (the closing song, “Canyon,” which was certainly the best of the five); a series of solo violin passages for concertmaster Sarah Kwak (including a comically gnarly bit of devilish fiddling during the second song, “Violin”). Throughout it all Fleming played the superstar, one voice against a hundred instruments, her performance alternately vulnerable and assertive, always beautiful and evocative, bold and individualistic but subservient to the text, the story, the music.

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45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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