tara helen o’connor

MusicWatch Weekly: Flutes and strings and weirdos

Chamber Music Northwest plays Caroline Shaw and Jacob TV. We are Kulululu.

Chamber Music Northwest seems a lot quieter since the clarinet circus left town. After last week’s brouhaha—a wide swath of concerts featuring upwards of a hundred clarinets—the audiences at Thursday night’s Copland/Shaw concert and today’s New@Noon felt hushed, rapt, attentively relaxed in a way that only summertime and a lot of lovely string and flute music can induce.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor performing at Chamber Music Northwest.

Let’s talk about the flute first. Last night at Reed College, CMNW stalwart Tara Helen O’Connor played flute in a chamber orchestra of other CMNW stalwarts, performing Aaron Copland’s bland-but-beautiful Appalachian Suite. This afternoon at the New@Noon concert down in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall, O’Connor did what she does every year: she balanced Thursday’s classical side with something daring, special, bizarre. Last year, it was Andy Akiho’s -intuition) (Expectation; the year before it was Allison Loggins-Hull’s electronics-laden Pray. This year, today, she played a bit of “boombox music” by bizarro Dutch composer Jacob TV, whose Grab It, for saxophone and prerecorded samples of death row inmates, caught everyone’s attention several years ago (two favorite versions: this one for jazz trio, and this one for two bari saxes and drums).

Lipstick—the one O’Connor played today—uses the same multimedia gimmick as Grab It, a combination of speech-to-melody transformations (used most famously by Steve Reich in Different Trains), wild chromatic flourishes on regular and alto flute, various extended techniques, electroacoustic stuff I couldn’t discern the nature of (was that a prerecorded track or a filter-delay effect on the live flute?)—all of it accompanying a manic MTV-age video montage of footage from talk shows and talent competitions, sliced and remixed and projected on the screen above the stage.

In other words, it’s exactly that madhouse smorgasbord of aesthetic layering we love so much about contemporary classical music. Hearing O’Connor play this stuff is always a festival highlight for me, because it demonstrates the one thing that really makes new music sing: love of craft. The rest of the time, we hear O’Connor and all the rest of the CMNW crew apply their considerable skills to Bach and Brahms with real dedication—and it’s wonderful to hear that craft applied to music by living composers.

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Andy Akiho: systems within systems

Composer and steely pan virtuoso brings the heat at Chamber Music Northwest, and tells ArtsWatch where the fire comes from

In the midst of a five-week music festival, a weird mid-week show starring composer-performer Andy Akiho felt like a village gathering. Akiho’s music, after all, is geared towards pretty specific tastes: challengingly colorful modern classical music, complex rhythmic grooviness and modern sonorities, rooted in jazz and pop and rock and hip hop, all played on steelpan and other percussions together with flute and strings. Everyone in the mostly full Alberta Rose Theater audience that Wednesday was either already an Akiho fan or about to become one.

Composer Andy Akiho

CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta introduced the concert by jokingly insinuating that Akiho may have been indirectly responsible for last winter’s notorious CMNW office fire. “I picked up eleven copies of his new CD in January when it came out, and there they sat, on my desk in our office, where they burned up. We don’t know what caused the fire: maybe it was mechanical, maybe it was arson, or maybe the CD is just that hot!”

Cool Duos

Akiho himself lurked quietly off-stage, quivering with athletic energy like a young Robert DeNiro, as the show opened with flute goddess Tara Helen O’Connor and Akiho champion Ian Rosenbaum premiering a new arrangement of -intuition) (Expectation, originally composed in 2012 for trumpet and marimba. O’Connor excels at this stuff, and it was wonderful to hear her amplified: flutter-tongued polymetric riffage, breathy backbeats, and crazy wide-registered arpeggiations popped out around the theater, sizzling about over Rosenbaum’s quick quintuplets.

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest in 2016. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Akiho-Rosenbaum duo dominated the show. They opened Karakurenai with a loose, improvised intro, getting into a full-body head bob and grooving from the spine once that all-important quarter-note pulse got going, Akiho spinning out crazy-fast flashy four-mallet wheedlings all around his steelpan, showing off like a hair metal guitarist, pure Cool.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: winds of change

Imani Winds leads a series of wind-assisted concerts featuring new music

Strings tend to dominate chamber music concerts, so it was nice to hear so many wind instruments at this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. It helps that artistic director David Shifrin is himself a master clarinetist, frequently appearing on concerts both with other wind players and with the customary strings.

Tara Helen O’Connor performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

My first taste of this year’s windiness came with CMNW’s July 21 New@Noon concert in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall. Tara Helen O’Connor started us out with Allison Loggins-Hull’s Pray for flute solo and electronics, the flute part mostly straightforward modal melodies evolving into fancy, violinish arpeggios and creepy, cinematic dissonances, the backing track full of jazz organs, Björk-y electronic beats, watery reverb, and poppy chord changes like something from an ’80s Laurie Anderson tune. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Loggins-Hull’s “Urban Art Pop Duo” Flutronix has performed at the Brooklyn Museum and covered The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

Hsin-Yun Huang performed at Chamber Music Northwest 2017. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We did get a bit of strings that day, with Hsin-Yun Huang’s solo viola performance of Joan Tower’s Wild Purple, a merry crescendo of energetic virtuosity packed with Tower’s usual post-serial melodicism, dissonant glissandi against open strings giving way to Bartóky suggestions of folky pentatonicism and jolly bouncing tritones.

Then, Imani Winds breezed onto the stage. Bassoonist Monica Ellis introduced the group: “me and my winds are so happy to be back in Portland. We think it’s our fourth time…we’ll have to fact check that. It’s also a pleasure to be ensemble in residence.”

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Chamber Music Northwest review: Pièces de Résistance

Summer festival opens with Debussyan delights, defiance.

by JEFF WINSLOW

A hundred years ago today, a shot heard around the world killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and within weeks Europe plunged into World War I. Long-simmering resentments and rivalries erupted all over the continent, and its greatest ever flowering of artistic optimism withered and collapsed.

The leading French figure of that flowering, and the first musical modernist, Claude Debussy, who had wrestled with the rampant Wagnerian esthetic of his day, and won, found in himself a streak of fervent patriotism. Though he was too old to go to war, he wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand, “if, to assure victory, they are absolutely in need of another face to bash in, I’ll offer mine without question.”

At first he could not compose, but in the summer of 1915, Debussy was seized with a sudden determination to make a contribution only he could make. In short order this most painstaking of artists nearly doubled his catalog of mature piano music and wrote two chamber sonatas. A third was written over the next two years as he struggled against the cancer that would ultimately kill him. On each, the title page was emblazoned, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

Tara Helen O'Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Tara Helen O’Connor, Paul Neubauer and Nancy Allen perform Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The three sonatas, his only so-named essays in what had become a quintessentially German genre, deliberately thrust aside the enemy shades of Haydn and Beethoven to invoke earlier French models. They were his final masterpieces, sadly – three more planned sonatas were never completed. Instead, too weak to be moved, he died in an upstairs bedroom as German shells exploded in the surrounding streets of Paris just months before the armistice.

German music continues to dominate Chamber Music Northwest‘s offerings, like so many classical chamber music festivals. So it seems particularly apropos that in this anniversary year, artistic director David Shifrin chose an all-Debussy concert, including the three sonatas, for the opening salvo. Rounding out the program was the clarinet and piano rhapsody, the great-granddaddy of all contemporary solo flute pieces, Syrinx, and Reed College composer David Schiff’s deft arrangement for clarinet and string quartet, Five Pieces and a Ghost from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. I caught these Tuesday evening at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, and for a short time my always generous appetite for Debussy was well sated.

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