slugGISH ensemble

MusicWatch Weekly: odd ensembles

Unusual instrumental and vocal aggregations descend on Oregon stages this week

The weather’s changing, the climate’s changing, the Congress is changing, our linens are changing (flannel sheet season FTW!) and ensembles coming through Oregon this week are changing the formula for chamber music.

• Take the combo of violin, viola, drum, and DJ. That was the setup onstage at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last year when Black Violin played a couple of shows in Portland. They’re returning there Friday, and then take the Silva Hall stage at Eugene’s Hult Center Sunday. Stay tuned for my preview tomorrow, and during the meanwhilst, read ArtsWatch’s reviews of their previous Portland shows by Matthew Andrews and Maria Choban.

The Akropolis Reed Quintet performs in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series. Photo: Tom Emerson.

• Like Black Violin, the young Akropolis Reed Quintet is also shattering instrumental stereotypes. While string quartets and piano trios are by far the most common instruments are stereotypically “classical” ensembles, they play classic and contemporary music arranged for the unique combo of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon — and it works beautifully. “Akropolis is great at balancing expressive lead playing with clear, richly textured, well-rehearsed group dynamics,” wrote Matthew Andrews in ArtsWatch after their sizzling performances at Chamber Music Northwest last year. In their Sunday afternoon concert in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music at Beall series, Akropolis plays an all-American music program of arrangements for of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, contemporary compositions by Gregory Wanamaker and John Steinmetz (a name familiar to Oregon Bach Festival audiences), and 20th century classics by Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives.

• Another windy ensemble returns to Portland’s Newmark Theatre Monday when the ever-popular Canadian Brass play their usual mix of classical, pop and other sounds on tuba, trombone, horns, and trumpets.

• Still another unusual classical ensemble joins the Eugene Symphony this Thursday. The four-time Grammy winning Chicago sextet (piano, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, violin/viola) returns with a concerto written especially for them by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize winning American composer who’s probably the closest successor to Aaron Copland. As she showed in her appearance with the ESO and Marin Alsop years ago, Higdon is one of the country’s most engaging exponents of contemporary classical music, writing accessible yet inventive music and reaching out to audiences with equal generosity. Read Daniel Heila’s ArtsWatch interview with Higdon.

The rest of the orchestra’s splendid program includes one of Bach’s ever popular Brandenburg Concertos, some danceable Mozart, and Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy 1944 ballet score Fancy Free, which dazzlingly evokes midcentury New York’s cosmopolitan culture via a musical depiction of a story of three sailors on shore leave seeking romance (which Bernstein immediately revisited, sort of, in On the Town). Both Akropolis and eighth blackbird are also doing multiple community outreach and education events while they’re here.

• Last year, the ESO played another fine recent work by another top American composer (and another Alsop favorite), Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway. This Friday (at Portland’s First United Methodist Church) and Saturday (at Troutdale’s Reynolds Performing Arts Center), Portland Columbia Symphony orchestra plays the dramatic 2015 cello concerto, which won three Grammy Awards last year. Each movement evokes episodes from the author’s stories. A WWI vet heals himself through immersion in a Michigan wilderness; an American on a suicide mission to help the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War (including a tolling bell); an old fisherman struggles against wild natural forces. In the Spanish-inflected final movement, a disillusioned, Lost Generation bohemian American expat seeks inspiration from bullfighting and the famous running of the bulls. Rising star cello soloist Allison Eldredge recently won a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant, and was named by Musical America as Young Artist of the Year. The program also includes three other literary-inspired works by Erich Korngold and a Mozart overture.

Continues…