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MusicWatch Weekly: The fanfare zone

Gongs and songs, traditional guitars and uncommon fanfares, and a lecture on women in jazz

Tonight, tonight, tonight!

Your busy music editor has to miss a bunch of cool stuff tonight, dear reader: I’ll be schlepping gongs and playing reyong with Gamelan Wahyu Dari Langit, opening for Wet Fruit at Mississippi Studios. If you followed our adventures in Bali last summer and want to hear what all the fuss was about, here’s your chance.

We’ve been hearing the name Mary-Sue Tobin for years: her saxophone quartet Quadraphonnes is a real riot, and the composer/saxophonist herself gets involved in all sorts of Portland jazz shenanigans. Tonight at Literary Arts in Southwest, Tobin presents her free Women in Jazz lecture.

Across the river at Holocene on Southeast Belmont, local musicians Night Heron, Korgy & Bass, and Colin Jenkins join hands with local puppeteers for Pop + Puppetry. Meanwhile, down in Eugene, the symphony’s got a show tonight that Senior Editor Brett Campbell wants to tell you about:

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The Sound of Changing Times

ArtsWatch welcomes new music editor; predecessor reflects on Oregon’s blossoming contemporary classical music scene.

A concert is never about only the music. Otherwise we’d just listen to a recording on headphones. At Pyxis Quartet’s Feb 15 concert at Portland’s Old Church, which on that rainy evening felt like the most consequential performance I’ve attended in Portland, the music offered some splendid moments. But there was much more at stake.

The most important was the event that sparked it. The concert was an artistic response to the horrifying homicidal 2017 stabbings on Portland’s Max train. One of the survivors, poet Micah Fletcher, already known around Portland State University as a superlative poet even before he became famous in a way no one wants, performed his original poetry, which also inspired all the compositions on the program, including Nicholas Yandell’s opening Crisis Actor.

Nicholas Yandell and Pyxis Quartet perform at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Milton Bliss.
Nicholas Yandell and Pyxis Quartet perform at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Milton Bliss.

Just before the composer intoned Fletcher’s words as part of the performance, the lighting turned blood red. That chilling extra-musical effect (made possible, not incidentally, by contributions to the Old Church that allowed a new lighting system that dramatically enhances the music performed in that essential Oregon arts venue) added a dimension to the performance by evoking the bloody attack that inspired it.

Both poetry and music were commissioned by Pyxis’s parent organization, 45th Parallel Universe. That is: they paid some of Portland’s most accomplished artists to create this artistic response to the terrifying crime against our community — a wholly admirable act of artistic and community vision. They put their money where their morals were. They saw their community attacked — and they responded in the best way artists can, with original creations that directly defied it. Many moments in that concert rose to the occasion, and as a whole, it helped me engage with the still unresolved feelings the killings provoked.

What made that possible was the vision of 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer, who conceived the concert, composers Yandell, Kenji Bunch, Bonnie Miksch and Texu Kim, supporters like the invaluable and indefatigable Ronnie Lacroute, ticket buyers, and above all poet Fletcher, who insisted on being more than a victim. These committed community members deserve our deepest gratitude.

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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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Cascadia Composers at ten

Saturday's tenth anniversary season-opening concert celebrates a decade of showcasing and stimulating community creativity

After Dan Brugh came back from music school, whenever he’d be back on Mount Tabor, near where he grew up, “I always wanted to play music there and bring in other composers,” the Portland composer remembers. But back then, there was no organized way for composers to make events like that happen, and showcases of original music by Northwest contemporary classical composers were rare. Then, a decade ago, a new organization arrived. And thanks to Cascadia Composers, Brugh is making that old wish a reality.

Brugh and Jennifer Wright are the main curators for this Saturday’s Caldera, the first of ten concerts in the regional composers’ organization’s 10th anniversary season — the most programs they’ve ever produced in a single year. In that decade, says founder David Bernstein, Cascadia has grown by a factor of ten — from the original eight members to 80 today — into the largest of the ten chapters in the National Association of Composers USA.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

Over the last decade, “we have given 66 different concerts with over 500 works,” primarily by Northwest composers, Bernstein says. “None of the other chapters can compare with what we’ve done.”

Saturday’s season opening concert is an overture to the group’s most ambitious season ever, and a culmination of a steady rise in quality and scope. 

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Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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fEARnoMUSIC review: Incomplete conversation

Portland new music ensemble's concert of homegrown Oregon music doesn't always connect with broad audiences

by TRISTAN BLISS

On my drive home from my first new music concert of the year, there was a bad accident on the 5, and with my own family’s experience of death and suicide weighing on me from this past year, I started considering my motivations to spend this next year – and this review – expounding on the importance of new music. We already have plenty of notated organizational schemes of how to produce sounds traditionally considered pleasing, so why bother with the new?

It’s not that somehow living composers recognize logical inconsistencies with the works of the past, quite the opposite really, and have deemed it their life’s work to fix historical music. New music isn’t about what’s logical; in fact great art is often overtly about what’s illogical: it’s about forgetting to check your blind spot on the 5 and totaling your car, fracturing your skull on a casual hike from a falling rock, or receiving a phone call at work about how your distant uncle who never reconciled with the family stuck a gun to his chest.

So, why new music? Further, why new local music? With all the chaos that could/has/will happen with yet another new year, why do we bother ourselves with such petty considerations as organized rhythm and pitch, and why do we care where the composers live?

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Exactly because of the chaos that makes music seem so petty! New music and our constant return to new music, despite natural chaos-driven tragedies or the cold calculated tragedies of man, stands as a constant reminder of our humanity, and while these conditions exist everywhere, we don’t live just anywhere. We live here, the Pacific Northwest, where when the sky is clear I can see Mt. Hood from Salem, the determined can ski and surf in a single day, craft coffee and beer are a way of life, and we have an ever-growing new music scene. Bach is like an overheard conversation, beautiful and engaging, but, me being neither German nor dead, it was never meant for me!

The power of new local music is that we are the intended audience, and while I didn’t love everything about fEARnoMUSIC‘s second annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday, I was glad for the conversation — but hope that fEARnoMUSIC will eventually extended the conversation past those already engaged with new music. 

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