steve reich

MusicWatch Weekly: Federale February

Indian classical, Super Bach Sunday, and a chat with Collin Hegna

Normally we like to contain all our monthly previews in one tidy column. But since February starts this weekend, we’d like to tell you all about the first stretch of Februarial concerts now–and we’ll tell you about the rest of the month next week. We’ll start with local supergroup Federale, playing with local “desert surf” act Plastic Cactus at Polaris Hall this Saturday.

This crafty, vintagey septet is among Portland’s greatest musical treasures, and last year they released one of 2019’s best albums, No Justice. We gushed thusly about it in our year end album guide:

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

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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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The Meanings of Music, Part Three: Community grooves

In part three of three, we consider the meanings of instrumental music and community with Third Angle's "Back in the Groove"

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

We started our investigation of music and meaning on Thursday with FNM’s “Hearings” and continued yesterday with Resonance’s “Beautiful Minds.” Today, we conclude with Third Angle New Music’s “Back in the Groove.”

Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann carried her flute up onto the Jack London stage and asked the dimly lit, comfortably tabled audience: “any Jethro Tull fans in the audience?” A lone, enthusiastic “woo!” made Tiedemann raise her eyebrows and chuckle. ”Really?” She went into a little rap about Tull’s Ian Anderson, something of a maverick hero to flutists who admire his wild, chaotic energy and his contributions to discovering, inventing, and road-testing a toolkit of useful extended flute techniques.

Tiedemann didn’t get up on one foot, but she did take her shoes off: “to manage my ipad.” Pulling up the score for Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube, she said, “I encourage you to have a very relaxed time–applaud when you like!” She then proceeded to shoelessly stun the audience into silence with an angular, effects-laden, transparently difficult, insane flurry of strangely melodic modern flute music.

It was the sort of thing that, if someone like Anderson (or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or Eric Dolphy, or whoever) were to be discovered on some old French TV show busting into something like this it would be all over the damn internet with comments about how “outside” it is. On the other hand, compared to something like Varèse’s Density 21.5 or Babbitt’s None but the Lonely Flute–that is, to coming at it from the other side of complexity–it was commendably smooth, accessible, melodic, groovy. Such is the joy of crossing the streams.

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MusicWatch Weekly: clarinets cut loose!

Chamber Music Northwest blows into town with windy festival-within-a-festival. Meanwhile, woe unto thee: you just missed Makrokosmos V.

“Good afternoon! I’m David Shifrin, and I play the clarinet!” A big roomful of laughing clarinetists goes “woooo!” and welcomes the Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall for the first of the festival’s five New@Noon concerts. It’s the last Friday in June, it’s breezy and just uncomfortably warm enough, and we’re up here in the Performance Hall—instead of down in the recital hall by the statue in the basement, where the New@Noon shows are usually held—because of that roomful of clarinetists. “We have a hundred clarinetists here,” Shifrin said, a gigantic smile on his face, “and it’s a joyous occasion.”

David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.
David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

Earlier that week

Last Friday, I told you all about the lovely afternoon and evening you could have down at Reed College the following Monday. CMNW’s all-Mozart opening concert was as purply as promised: a warm breezy day, a cool evening, and all the Mozart you could stand—culminating in the delirious birdsong laden romp through the countryside which was Shifrin and Protégé Project Artists Rolston String Quartet ripping through the majory-as-cherry-pie Clarinet Quintet in A Major.

The best music of the evening, though, didn’t feature clarinets much at all: the Notturni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, and Three Basset Horns. This combination, when it held steady (two of the basset hornists occasionally switched to plain vanilla Bb clarinets), was so extraordinarily luscious it made me want to hear everything arranged this way. Nottorni, cantatas, arias, art songs, requiems, whole operas, all of it.

Extra points to soprano Vanessa Isiguen and mezzo Hannah Penn (the latter fresh off two runs of Laura Kaminsky’s As One) for supporting both each other and baritone Zachary Lenox, all while blending with the weirdo horns, selling the hell out of Mozart’s sweet, smeary, summery harmonies, and just generally kicking ass.

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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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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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Makrokosmos 3 review: powered by percussion

Minimalist and locally grown music headlined this year's edition of Portland's annual summer new music marathon

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Photos by MASATAKA SUEMITSU 

I walked into Northwest Portland’s Vestas building lobby just as Portland Percussion Group was leading the crowd in a Steve Reich clap-along, an exercise in audience participation that I’d love to hear more of at these types of concerts.

Actually, there aren’t enough of these types of concerts. Produced for the third summer in a row by piano duo Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho & Saar Ahuvia), the June Makrokosmos presented five hours of contemporary classical music in a setting that allowed the audience members to move around, even leave and return, as they pleased.

Portland Percussion Group played part one of Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ at Makrokosmos.

The original of Reich’s Clapping Music calls for two players, although many other arrangements are possible (some of my favorites are the Evelyn Glennie rendition and this dollop of ridiculousness), and PPG’s enforced recreation had the audience split into halves to play the two phases of Clapping Music’s diverging pattern. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time, which is reason enough to do something like this, but doing service as both Happy Hour Ice Breaker and New Music Process Demonstration made it a lot better than other pre-show talks I’ve endured.

I missed the actual opener, PPG’s performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming (Part One) but I can’t say I minded too much: I’ve seen that famous video of theirs, after all, and one of the very few things I’m stodgy about is performances of single movements of larger works. But all this was just the happy hour appetizer. The real action in Makrokosmos 3: Reichmokosmos! happened up in the open atrium/auditorium on the Vestas third and fourth floor, a bright, modern space I heard multiple audients comparing to the Wieden+Kennedy auditorium two blocks away. The stage area—little more than a wide walkway limning the bottom of a tiered wooden seating area covered in floor mats—already housed the six pianos, along with a vast amount of percussion.

Pianos dominated, as in previous years, but this year PPG came out to show us (came out to show us, came out to show us) the power of percussion with some marvelous new ensemble music. The resulting spectacle, for all its epic grandeur, somehow remained delightfully intimate.

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