spontaneous combustion new music festival

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch deployed a small squadron of reviewers to most of the Spontaneous Combustion Festival’s seven programs of new music spread over 17 concerts in three cities. Here are some of the highlights of the first edition of this valuable new addition to Oregon’s music scene. Read part one here.

Iktus Duo

Tap tap tap on the small of my back.
Fingers scratch and thrum.
Across taut skin, invisible hairs tickle.
My ears drum.

Visceral and sensual, Iktus Duo ignited the Spontaneous Combustion concert at Portland’s Classic Pianos with Joseph Pereira’s oriental Echi Dromi for doumbek and flute. James Romig’s Pynes moved percussionist Christopher Graham to the piano to play slow tag with flutist Hristina Blagoeva. Chasing each other around pitches C, D, E-flat and F, they frequently caught and held each other on unison pitches, eventually adding A, C-sharp and ending on B. Conceptual and very flirty.

Enough foreplay! James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion banged a gong for ten minutes. Well, actually tickled it, coaxing an unrelenting crescendo toward a thundering climax. Forget about rolling over and going to sleep, Tenney and Graham milked ten more minutes of slow decrescendo shudders before allowing us to collapse into intermission.

Iktus Duo

After the sensuality and sexuality of the conceptual first half, Eric Moe’s cute Gong Tormented felt as cartoonish as 50 Shades of Grey following the Marquis de Sade’s acute Juliette. But the closer, Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion, redeemed itself to me. I heard the 21-year-old Portland-born composer’s 1939 piece live at last summer’s CeLOUbration and thought it was lame, not realizing it was a lame performance. Here, Iktus Duo, like everyone I saw and heard at all five Spontaneous Combustion concerts I attended, not only exuded confidence with solid performances, they also imbued them with tons of personality. — Maria Choban

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

Orlando Cela

A whole concert featuring a single wind instrument might sound sparse. But in Orlando Cela’s able hands and imagination, a flute becomes a world orchestra. In his mesmerizing Indian-flavored 2016 composition Rag Lalit, which opened Cela’s solo recital at Portland’s Old Church, the Boston flutist used his right hand to tap out percussion patterns on the barrel while fingering the melody with his left; a shruti box provided a drone harmony. Kyle Rowan’s 2015 Komorebi used a shakuhachi sonority in a completely contemporary and American style, the spare flute phrases dappling the space like sunlight filtered through a leafy canopy. The Old Church acoustic provided the ideal sonic space between sparse notes.

Here and elsewhere, Cela displayed complete command of multi phonics, overblowing, overtones, and other extended techniques, but in each case, they served the music rather than, as is too often the case, the reverse. I’ve heard some fab flutists, but none with his subtle dynamic control and expressive range.

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Spontaneous Combustion reviews 1: from hub to sandbox

Two extraordinary young East Coast new music quartets light up the new music festival's first edition

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch deployed a small squadron of reviewers to most of the Spontaneous Combustion Festival’s seven programs spread over 17 concerts in three cities. Here are some of the highlights of the first edition of this valuable new addition to Oregon’s music scene. Read part two here.

Sandbox Percussion started their concert in January’s Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival with a bit of theatricality, the four percussionists emerging singly from backstage, each in turn adding his phasing rhythmic patterns to the ligneous melee of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood — performed, quite appropriately, on actual slabs of wood (rather than the usual tuned claves). The thing about a piece like this is that if you can just rip through it accurately, that’s really good enough to sell it for most listeners. Reich’s intentionally transparent, semi-automatic compositional process carries the work, and the sheer athleticism required to perform it is impressive enough that matters of interpretation are almost unnecessary.

But no, just as Sandbox insisted on using authentic instruments (can we call this a Historically Informed Performance?), these four decided to be insanely, obsessively precise down to the last little detail, executing unbelievably smooth level changes and cross-fades like a four-man mixing board. Their rhythmic intonation, so to speak, would make the whole city vibrate if a choir were doing it.

Sandbox Percussion performed in Portland’s Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music.

And yet within this strictness was a great deal of expressivity, even individual freedom (much like that imaginary choir we mentioned, which may as well be Hilliard Ensemble since that’s who we’re all imagining anyways). In Sandbox’s subtle, dynamic blend, “soloists” could pop out of the texture just with a shift in their posture; the Old Church’s sensitive acoustics are more than capable of picking up such tiny cues and broadcasting them all over the room, and the concentrated awe on the players faces told me they knew this perfectly well. These little solos, never obtrusive and always musical, made living music out of simple patterns and four planks. And that was just the opener.

It ended up being a whole evening of this sort of thing, uncommonly intimate percussion playing like we heard in this same venue nearly two years ago. It became clear that these four spend a lot of time working together and basking in the “simple joy of playing together.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: choral confluence

Chanticleer, Cappella Romana and St. Olaf Choir headline the week in Oregon music

Vibrant voices lead this week’s Oregon music calendar, beginning with one of America’s oldest and most revered choral ensembles, St. Olaf Choir’s performance Thursday at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Friday at Eugene’s First United Methodist Church and Saturday afternoon at North Medford High School.

Anton Armstrong leads St. Olaf Choir’s 2018 tour. Photo: Flight Creative Media.

Led for 28 years by Anton Armstrong, familiar to Oregon audiences through his long tenure leading youth choirs at the Oregon Bach Festival, this year’s group sports several members from Oregon and is performing music by Portland born, Salem-based composer/educator (and St. Olaf alum) Stanford Scriven, as well as a J.S. Bach arrangement by Seattle’s John Muelheisen and Sure On This Shining Night by Beaverton native Morten Lauridsen. The program contains mostly compositions by 20th and 21st century  composers including Eric Whitacre, Robert Scholz, Rosephanye Powell, Undine Smith Moore, Moses Hogan, Jean Berger, Carolyn Jennings, Ralph Manuel, David Conte, choir founder F. Melius Christiansen, plus the  Sanctus from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and a selection from Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criola.

Choral glory continues with Chanticleer’s performances Friday at Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, and Saturday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall as part of the San Francisco ensemble’s 40th anniversary tour. This year’s program, “Heart of a Soldier,” includes songs from across the ages on the sadly perennial subject of human conflict and its consequences by Renaissance European composers William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Clement Janequin, and Guillaume Dufay through some of the finest contemporary American composers including Jennifer Higdon and Mason Bates.

Friends of Chamber Music often brings Chanticleer to Portland.

Another superb vocal ensemble, Portland’s world-renowned Cappella Romana, brings over the great French conductor Marcel Peres (who helped rescue early music from dry, scholarly performances) to lead one of the great Renaissance masterpieces, Guillaume de Machaut’s Mass of Notre Dame Saturday at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Sunday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church.

Pérès’s Ensemble Organum’s 1996 recording of the masterpiece by the the greatest composer/poet of the 14th century used Corsican singers versed in traditional embellishments that might resemble medieval vocal practices. Their intentionally earthier vocal textures and Peres’s emphasis on lower voices produced as much controversy as early music ever experiences — decried by devotees of later choral music’s restrained, pristine Anglican choirboy sound (which most previous recordings adopted), praised by those (like me) who cherished its folkier, emotionally expressive power. His approach should make an excellent match for Cappella’s singers (particularly its magnificent basses), themselves experienced in medieval Mediterranean vocal traditions.

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MusicWatch Weekly: still burning

Spontaneous Combustion festival continues to light a fire under the West Coast's new music scene

The Oregon portion of the valuable new Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival isn’t even half over and already it’s produced a pair of the finest contemporary classical concerts in recent memory: a spectacular performance of music by Gyorgy Ligeti and one-time Oregonians Lou Harrison and Benjamin Krause by Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, and a sublime and varied solo recital by Boston flutist Orlando Cela that revealed some gems by young, lesser known composers (a welcome hallmark of the festival so far) as well as Astor Piazzolla and others. Oregon rarely gets performances by rising young national performers who play this music full time, with adequate rehearsal.

One of the most exciting recent additions to Oregon’s new music scene, the festival continues through Feb. 2 with major new music performers including daring New York cellist Ashley Bathgate and City of Tomorrow wind quintet. Tonight (Wednesday) at Portland’s Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave., New York’s Iktus Duo plays flute and percussion music by Oregon’s Lou Harrison and less well known composers including Joseph Pereira, Adam Vidiksis, James Romig, Bruce Hamilton and more.

On Friday, at The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave., New York’s Sandbox Percussion (which has premiered many new compositions, performed at prestigious festivals, collaborated with LA’s visionary The Industry opera company, and includes young percussion phenom Ian Rosenbaum, who so impressed Chamber Music Northwest audiences with his sensational performances of electrifying music by the fabulous rising young composer Andy Akiho) plays his music, works by American composing eminence Steve Reich and more.

The Delgani Quartet reprises the most dazzling of the pieces they played so brilliantly in Portland in their hometown at United Lutheran Church, 2230 Washington St. on Sunday afternoon January 28 and Tuesday night January 30. The great late 20th century avant garde composer Georgy Ligeti’s Métamorphoses Nocturnes takes off from where his countryman Bartok’s magnificent masterpieces left off — but turns into an impish, kaleidoscopic carnival ride (complete with drunken waltz) that had the Portland audience both chuckling and cheering. The other quartet on the program, Beethoven’s op. 131 from 1826, was considered as avant garde in his time as was Ligeti’s at its birth in 1954. It’s now deservedly regarded as one of the greatest compositions ever written, and one of Beethoven’s own personal favorites.

Isata Kanneh-Mason performs Friday and Saturday in Portland Piano International’s Rising Star series.

New music by an Oregon composer — and one of Portland’s most valuable musicians, pianist/ composer/ educator Darrell Grant, tops the program at Isata Kanneh-Mason’s recital Friday at Friday, Jan 26: 7:00pm at Portland Piano Company, 8700 NE Columbia Blvd. and Saturday at Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis St. Grant’s Darker Angels: Reflections on Hiawatha, (commissioned through Portland Piano International’s admirable Rising Star program that pairs new music by Oregonians with emerging young piano talents) draws on source material from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies, which in turn was based on Negro spirituals, West African folk themes, and the composer’s own encounters with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Appropriately, the multiple-prize- winning 21 year old British prodigy, part of a distinguished family of acclaimed young musicians, also plays music by that late-19th century fellow Afro-British musician, as well as Prokofiev’s short, early third sonata, Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata and Ravel stately, melancholy Pavane for a Dead Princess.

Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland has galvanized Portland’s classical music scene by using well-designed sound amplification and state-of-the-art lighting effects to enhance its performances of classical music in ways most other concert goers have come to expect. Their performances Friday at Eugene’s Whirled Pies and Saturday at Portland’s Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., ArcoPDX unveil a couple of firsts for the band: vocals and classically enhanced arrangements of non-classical works, three songs by Depeche Mode, the ‘80s synth lords whose music ruled dance clubs and eventually stadiums, and whose recent tour was one of the biggest of the year. The shows also include dark classics by J.S. Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arvo Part and more.

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MusicWatch Weekly: sizzlers and swashbucklers

A new new music festival erupts in Oregon, plus chamber music and live film scores enliven this week's concert scene

A hot new source of contemporary music has ignited in Oregon. Although, given the incendiary events of the summer and fall, its name might be a tad, er, heated for a West Coast music fest, Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival, which runs January 20-February 2 in Eugene, Portland and Seattle (with additional West Coast cities intended next year), includes major new music voices including daring New York cellist Ashley Bathgate, City of Tomorrow wind quintet, NYC’s Sandbox Percussion Quartet, and more. Saturday’s concert at Portland’s Old Church concert hall features Eugene’s own Delgani String Quartet, the state’s finest chamber ensemble, performing Portland native Lou Harrison’s majestic String Quartet Set, influenced by medieval Western European and Turkish music, among others; a quartet by the great 20th century avant garde composer György Ligeti; and a new composition by recent University of Oregon graduate Benjamin Krause, which you can read all about in Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch story. The busy Delganis also play Ligeti and Beethoven Sunday at Salem’s Prince of Peace Episcopal Church and next weekend in Eugene.

Delgani String Quartet performs in Portland and Salem.

On Monday at the Old Church and Tuesday at Eugene’s New Zone Gallery, Boston flutist Orlando Cela plays music by fellow flutist and contemporary American composer Robert Dick, the great Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor  Piazzolla, and more. Tuesday’s concert at the Old Church brings one of the most talked about younger contemporary classical ensembles, Boston’s Hub New Music, which plays music by Oregon-born, Wisconsin-based composer David Drexler, the premiere of a new half hour piece by Robert Honstein, and a composition by erstwhile Seattleite Laura Kaminsky, whose music we last encountered in Portland  a couple years back. We’ll tell you all about the remaining concerts in this exciting new series created by Cascadia Composer and new Portlander Scott Anthony Shell in upcoming MusicWatches.

Portland Mini Musical Festival returns to Fertile Ground this weekend.

Speaking of new artistic creations, as you’ve been reading all over ArtsWatch, one of Oregon’ most valuable artistic incubators, the annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, is back, and at least one of those, Mini Musicals 2018, running thrice at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre this weekend, is of special interest to music fans like all of you. We sure liked last year’s edition.

Last weekend, the Oregon Symphony gave a dazzling performance of Stravinsky’s immortal The Rite of Spring accompanied by newly created visuals tailored to the century old music. (Stay tuned for our review.) This weekend, it reverses the process. Although neither Keith Richards nor Johnny Depp is scheduled to appear, the Oregon Symphony and Pacific Youth Choir play Hans Zimmer’s score to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to accompany a screening of the film.

Douglas Fairbanks swashes his buckles in “The Mark of Zorro,” accompanied by musicians from Vancouver Symphony.

More swashbuckling original music accompanies the Vancouver Symphony’s Chamber Music Series screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s spectacular adventure flick The Mark of Zorro Sunday at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre. The original score by Colorado based composer/conductor/silent film score specialist Rodney Sauer features members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Check MusicWatch next week for info about an even more exciting silent film score screening and live performance.

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Music Notes

New music series, awards and honors, death and resurrection and other transitions in Oregon music news

As a new year begins, here’s one of our periodic roundups of recent news in Oregon music. This is only a smattering, of course. Got more news about Oregon music? Let us know, or leave it in the comments section below.

High Notes

On Sunday at its 40th Anniversary National Conference, Chamber Music America (CMA), the national network for ensemble music professionals, awarded longtime Chamber Music Northwest artistic director clarinetist David Shifrin its 2018 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which annually  recognizes an individual or entity that has provided historic service to the small ensemble music field.

Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin.

Congrats to Oregon music stalwarts Randy Porter and Nancy King. The superb pianist and Lewis & Clark College faculty member and legendary singer received a Grammy Award nomination for their new album Randy Porter Plays Cole Porter, special guest Nancy King (Heavywood).  “If Randy Porter played more widely outside the US Pacific Northwest, he would likely be lauded as one of the leading contemporary jazz pianists,” wrote eminent jazz journalist Doug Ramsey. “This new album of songs composed by his namesake Cole Porter could go a long way toward bringing about wide recognition of an artist with a record of achievement going back more than three decades. Porter has toured extensively in Europe and Asia [and] is known on the west coast well beyond his home base in the Portland, Oregon, area. Six of the nine tracks find Nancy King, at 77, as musicianly as ever—individualistic and expressive, one of the few vocalists capable of improvising with harmonic wisdom equal to that of experienced instrumentalists.”

Eugene-based production company AO Films and Eugene Concert Choir won “Best Documentary” from the Oregon Independent Film Festival for their collaborative film, ”The Story of Shadow and Light: Giving Voice to an Alzheimer’s Journey”’

As we reported before the original performance, Eugene Concert Choir was awarded a $125,000 Creative Heights Initiative grant from the Fred W. Fields Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to help fund the commission of a new composition for chamber choir and orchestra by Portland composer Joan Szymko of Oregon, as well as the world premiere performance in the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, professional concert video and audio recordings, and the film documentary of the artistic journey.

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