ron blessinger

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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

45th Parallel’s real-time music video

An interview with Ron Blessinger

It’s such a weird thrill going to Oregon Symphony concerts, looking down into the string section with its fifty-odd neatly seated performers, and seeing 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Ron Blessinger, buried in the violins, attentively warming up his bow with the rest of the office. That’s how it goes with this orchestra: scan the rest of that string section and you’ll see local composers Nancy Ives, James Shields, and usually Kenji Bunch. Up in the back, Niel DePonte tightens cymbal stands and organizes mallets. Supergroup!

In 2018, when Blessinger took the reins of local music organization 45th Parallel (founded ten years earlier by his fellow symphony violinist Greg Ewer), he immediately expanded the relatively loose-knit group into a Universe of ensembles drawn mostly from the ranks of Oregon Symphony principal players. The Parallel Universe has exploded all Marvel crossover-like in the last season and a half, with a wide range of classical music concerts all across the Old Versus New abyss. Our personal favorite highlight (so far) was 45||’s double concert last year pairing Mousai Remix’s beautifully economical black composer history lesson with a Pyxis Quartet concert featuring new work by local composers created in collaboration with local poet Micah Fletcher.

Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Seth Nehill.
Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2019. Photo by Seth Nehill.

Tonight, 45th Parallel presents the latest result of their restless creativity: Les Boréades, an evening of French music performed on a square stage inside the PICA building, two sides open to the audience and a pair of projection screens on the others. We’ve just learned that the concert is down to standing room only, which suits this eternally peripatetic music journalist just fine. Come early for a discussion of The Frame with the concert’s visual/psychological collaborators, and wear comfy shoes for your circumambulatory musical adventure.

We spoke with Blessinger by phone; his answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On collaboration and performance space

I go way back with Brad Johnson, the lead artist. He used to be the principal of Second Story Interactive, and I did a project with him where we used existing technology to create what you could call a virtual venue. We did something similar just about 15 years ago. This time around we came up with a musical program–a survey of French music–and then we were thinking of where to perform it.

Continues…

MusicWatch Weekly: This land is mine

Retro rock, math punk, psychedelic cumbia, shredded metals, and Jimmie Herrod

Well folks, we’re almost done with Second Summer and the world is on fire, from the Amazon to Africa to Indonesia to Portland’s Rocky Butte, but the usual churn of crazy local bands and composers continues to enliven bars, cafes, and churches all over the place. This week and weekend you’ve got free funk and two days of local metal in downtown Portland, psychedelic cumbia and shreddy math punk across the river, and a retro-rock sextet up in NoPo. But right now I need to put down my panggul mallet and my kretek cigarette and talk to you about Jimmie Herrod. 

Now, normally I wouldn’t talk about former singing coaches two weeks in a row. But it’s just my good fortune that (to reference a cruel old joke) those who can sometimes also teach–and it’s everybody’s good fortune that Portland and Environs are so full of wonderful singers who are also wonderful teachers. Last week it was mezzo extraordinaire Hannah Penn, and you can read all about her performance in Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings in Angela Allen’s review right here.

This week it’s singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, who left me for Pink Martini.

Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod backstage with Pink Martini's Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.
Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, laughing at me backstage with Pink Martini’s Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.

Kidding, kidding! Herrod is a Portland State alum who got hired on as a vocal teacher right after he got his Master’s; before he got drafted by Pink Martini he had a full vocal studio with all kinds of students, and I was certainly the least of them. While at PSU, Herrod studied composition with Cascadia composer Bonnie Miksch, and it shows. His music is in that sweet spot I’m always talking about listening for in contemporary music: his songs cross genres with lyrical grace, catchy melodies, and just enough harmonic novelty to keep the ears pricked and the heart fluttering.

Continues…

Classical Up Close: intimate circle

Oregon Symphony musicians’ neighborhood pop up performance connects listeners, classics, and performers

By DAVID MACLAINE

Photos by Joe Cantrell

Southeast Portland’s Mt. Scott Presbyterian Church was filling up pretty quickly when I got there for the April 24 performance in the Classical Up Close program. Now in its seventh season, the annual spring series brings Oregon Symphony players to venues around the Portland metro area for chamber music concerts free of the formality of downtown halls, and with free admission too. (Read ArtsWatch’s story about CUC’s origins.)

 I reached my destination a bit early. No problem: the convenient location was no small part of the attraction of this concert. I could use the spare minutes sitting in the sun at a bench in Mt. Scott Park. Children climbed and slid down slides, the sun slid a bit too, and it was time go see what Classical Up Close was all about.

Turns out that “Up Close” is not just a slogan. The church is a pretty cozy venue in the first place, so when MC Christa Wessel let us know that the row of seats at the back of the podium were for fans, not musicians, and implored us to occupy them, I took the plunge, abandoned my place in the more distant pews, and endured a couple of awkward minutes sitting on-stage alone, staring out at the crowd, before others worked up the courage to take that walk up the aisle and join me. By the time the concert was ready to begin children were darting up there too. 

MC Wessel and hornist Joe Berger talk horns from the stage at Classical Up Close.

Six feet away from the players is a pretty choice location for chamber music, and not one I have enjoyed for a while. It has been decades since fans could enjoy the intimate view of Chamber Music Northwest events from the cushions on the floor of the Reed College cafeteria.

From my vantage point on stage I could survey the crowd. It was a better turnout than most free events, and although the gray-haired demographic was still in the majority, we at least fell short of the veto-proof supermajority found at most classical concerts. The presence of children and young parents was a welcome mood booster. 

So too was the insistence by our emcee that this was to be a holiday from conventional concert decorum. Take pictures or tweet if you want, applaud whenever you feel the urge, come and go as you please, and above all, have fun. It was a good test of what I think of as the Choban Theory that classical music is essentially smothered by the people who love it, swaddled in deadly formality, and that the antidote is an audience that feels free to express itself, passionate performers and music that flows from a living source instead of a distant past. On this occasion all those elements came together to provide more evidence that the theory might be true.

Blessinger & Noble
Blessinger & Noble

Bohuslav Martinu is not a serious contender for my personal list of the the Top Forty Classical Composers, but whenever I do stumble across the 20th century Czech composer’s work I always wonder why we don’t hear more of him. His Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, performed by violinist Ron Blessinger and violist Charles Noble, provided not just the back and forth dialogue you tend to expect when two string instruments are asked to play catch without the safety-net of an accompanist, but also an infectious ability to build toward a climax. I began to worry that from my position right behind the players I might become a distraction, as I felt myself swaying and tensing as the music drove toward its payoff. I was too indoctrinated to accept the invitation to applaud between movements, but the audience happily felt no such inhibition.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

Continues…