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From Hate to Healing

FearNoMusic’s “The F Word” commemorates the Portland murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by white supremacists

Note: throughout this article, Mulugeta Seraw is referred to by his personal name, “Mulugeta,” instead of the patronymic “Seraw.”

On November 12, 1988, three racist skinhead gang members descended on 28 year old Mulugeta Seraw as friends dropped him off at his Southeast Portland apartment after dinner. The trio, who’d recently attacked other minority Portlanders, beat Mulugeta to death with a baseball bat. The Portland State University graduate student, who came to Oregon from Ethiopia to go to college, left behind an eight-year-old son.

A Portland jury sent Mulugeta’s killers, who were part of an organized Northwest white supremacist movement, to prison. A jury also imposed a civil judgment against a California white supremacist for inciting Mulugeta’s killing.

Ethiopian-born Portlander Mulugeta Seraw.

Kenji Bunch was a Southwest Portland high school student when Mulugeta was murdered. “It really stuck with me,” he remembered. “It was really jarring for a kid living in this sheltered suburban life and realizing these issues were present in my hometown.” 

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MusicWatch Monthly: A harvest feast

Stay warm with a smorgasbord of chamber music, choral music and art songs, and orchestras aplenty

Music for chambers

This weekend, Sunday the 3rd, local cellist Diane Chaplin brings her solo show Il Violoncello Capriccioso to Weisenbloom House, a lovely little salon in Southeast Portland. The present author first encountered Chaplin in 2011, when she joined Lewis & Clark gamelan Venerable Showers of Beauty for a performance of Lou Harrison’s deliriously melodic hybrid masterpiece Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Javanese Gamelan. Chaplin spends most of her time playing with Portland Cello Project and The Unpresidented Brass Band, but she just got back from a summer in Italy and she’s ready to show off her evening of cappricios by Klengel, Piatti, and Cambini, along with Ernest Bloch’s Suite No. 3 and works by Alan Chaplin, Michal Stahel, and Aaron Minsky.

Local classical organization Friends of Chamber Music, as their name implies, specializes in inviting established chamber ensembles and soloists to perform in Portland. Last month, it was Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and you can read Katie Taylor’s take on that fine performance right here.

This month, FOCM brings the Danish String Quartet to Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall for two evenings of Bach, Beethoven, Schnittke, Shostakovich, and Webern on November 4th & 5th. Despite the lack of contemporary composers, that’s a pretty nice program: miscellaneous Bach (including a Well-Tempered Clavier arrangement done by Mozart in a fit of enthusiastic reverence) and two rather Bachish late Beethoven quartets (127 and 135) provide the traditionalist foundation; Webern’s austere and terrifying pre-serial quartet of 1905 and Schnittke’s thorny, polystilistic third quartet provide contrarian modernist counterpoint. Snuggled morbidly between them, Shosty’s moribund final quartet.

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FearNoMusic: Musical Terroirists

New music ensemble’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert provides tasty sampler of locavore sounds

Kenji Bunch is either an oenophile or he’s been reading Jeff VanderMeer. The Fear No Music artistic director introduced the ensemble’s fifth annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert post-concert Q&A with a discussion of the somewhat esoteric term terroir, used to describe the interlinked ways in which wines, cheeses, cannabis, and other such creations are influenced by the myriad regional factors that help condition their development. Bunch defined terroir (actually it seems likely he got the term from Darrell Grant) as “the taste of a place” and asked the gathered composers, “is there a sound to composers living in the Northwest?”

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Locally Sourced Sounds

The January 21 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall gave us a chance to find out, with a tasting menu of six Pacific Northwest composers.

Kids these days

FNM’s artistic and executive leadership team of Bunch and Monica Ohuchi opened the concert with the world premiere of recent Reed College graduate Yiyang Wang’s Converse, a sparse and cloudy mood piece, awash with open strings and rhythmic tappings on Bunch’s viola over tinkly jazz arpeggios and Liszty swirls on Ohuchi’s piano. At one point Bunch carefully set down the viola to sneak around to the piano’s low end, hiding behind Ohuchi’s arched shoulders, where he pounded out a few bass tones. FNM usually likes a slow start, and although Converse didn’t command my rapt attention the way Wang’s piano trio Color Studies did in 2017, her atmospheric little duet opened the show on a pleasantly conversational note.

Next up was another duet, Music for Four Hands by Ryan Francis, a youngish Juilliard-trained composer whom we have seen around the halls at Portland State University, where he’s been teaching theory. Ohuchi and Jeff Payne provided the titular hands, spinning out polyrhythms in wistfully melancholy GlassGuaraldi harmonic language similar to Portland composer Jay Derderian’s The People They Think We Are (performed on this same piano a few months back by Kathleen Supové). And because this was Ohuchi and Payne—one of the finest piano duos in Portland — the polymeters and the wistful melancholy were uncommonly graceful, immersing the audience in elegant waves of auditory bliss the way John Luther Adams is supposed to.

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‘Locally Sourced Sounds V’: showcasing homegrown classical music

FearNoMusic's annual composers showcase reveals Oregon's burgeoning contemporary classical composition scene

When violist Kenji Bunch left his native Portland for music school in New York more than a quarter century ago, contemporary classical music wasn’t much on the city’s radar. Outside New York, “there wasn’t a lot going on anywhere, compared to today,” Bunch remembers. “New music didn’t have the cachet or excitement it generates today.”

The next year, a group of Portland musicians formed an ensemble devoted to elevating contemporary classical music. And five years ago, that ensemble, FearNoMusic, selected Bunch as its new artistic director. Returning home after winning a reputation in New York as one of the nation’s finest and most listener friendly composers of his generation, he found a very different city and musical culture than the one he’d left.

FearNoMusic artistic director and Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

“Definitely there’s a real vitality now in the new music scene,” he says. “The level of attention nationally to our region has only grown and developed. There’s a real interest in and fascination with Portland nationally. Maybe that comes from things like Portlandia, but it’s also deeper than that. I think it’s recognized as a hub of activity and innovation. It’s pretty evident the West Coast is leading innovation in orchestral music — look at  LA, San Francisco, Seattle [symphony orchestras], and the Oregon Symphony is starting to hold their own in that mix as well.”

Bunch immediately decided to showcase his hometown’s contemporary classical vitality by creating an annual concert of music by Portland composers. On Monday, FearNoMusic plays its fifth Locally Sourced Sounds concert, featuring half a dozen homegrown compositions.

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony preview: song of the earth

Portland orchestra's 'Arabian Nights' concert features a new, environment-focused composition by nationally acclaimed young Oregon composer Katie Palka

When most people see their first ballet, they’re transfixed by the action onstage. But when almost-three-year-old Katie Palka went to her first Nutcracker, her dad took her down to see the orchestra pit. “I saw the violins at intermission and said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” she remembers. “‘I want to do that!’

Now 17, Palka did indeed become a violinist. She’s even performing Sunday in Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s “Arabian Nights” concert. But music has become an even bigger part of her life. Palka is an award winning composer, and one of the pieces MYS performs Sunday is one that she wrote herself.

Raul Gomez conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony Sunday. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Later, after her fiddle teacher taught her how to use Sibelius composition software, Palka began to transcribe and arrange music she liked, such as the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and to compose her own. By the time Palka reached eighth grade, her violin teacher realized she needed formal instruction in composition. She recommended one of Oregon’s — and America’s — finest composers, Kenji Bunch, who immediately noticed a couple of distinctive qualities.

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