the ensemble

MusicWatch Weekly: dead of winter

A new year brings a week of concerts mostly featuring old music — with a few strong exceptions

If you’re looking for new music in the new year, pickings are slim, but a few shows provide some 21st century sounds.

• The Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series explores the connections between today’s sounds and mid-century 20th modern classical music, especially venerated figures like Pauline Oliveros and the so-called New York School of 1950s and ‘60s composers led by John Cage. Flutist John C. Savage and pianist Matt Carlson get to choose exactly when to play the notes in Cage’s Two. The contemporary pieces on the program also embrace Cage’s aleatoric aesthetic. Mark Hannesson’s A Moment Is a Window gives Savage, guitarists Brandon Conway and Mike Gamble, clarinetists Lee Elderton and Jonathan Sielaff, and oboist Catherine Lee discretion as to when to enter, how long to play, and even whether or not to play any given note. Instead of dictating actual notes, Morgan Evans-Weiler’s one-page score for Constructed Objects consists of words explaining how Elderton, Sielaff, cellist Collin Oldham, percussionist Loren Chasse and electronic musicians Derek Ecklund, Branic Howard, and Juniana Lanning approach their respective roles. Matt Hannafin’s Variations on a Picture of Snow by Evan Cordes uses another midcentury mod technique, graphic scores, this one based on a photo of snow falling through the cracks in a wooden porch, with nine variations created in Photoshop. The black lines and white spaces tell Carlson, Ecklund, Lee, Oldham, Howard, and flutist Maxx Katz when to play; beyond that, they get to improvise based on this instruction: ”a cold morning, still and quiet, woken to new snow.” Cage and his followers left a lot of their performances to chance, so you’ll never hear this music played this way again.
7 PM Saturday. Leaven Community, 5431 NE 20th Ave. Portland.

Laura Beckel Thoreson.

• Most of the Indian music we see in Oregon is in traditional forms and for traditional instruments like sitar, sarod, tabla, and the rest. But today’s Indian composers, like any others, also look forward, embracing various contemporary classical techniques and approaches. Portland new music ensemble Third Angle’s Indian Music Now features some of today’s new music by American composers of Indian heritage, performed on flute, piano, clarinet and electronics. The seven 21st century compositions by Reena Esmail, Shirish Korde, Nina Shekhar (a Third Angle commission) and Asha Srinivasan — reconcile the music and traditions of the past with contemporary cultures and influences. Integrated into the no-intermission performance: original dance movement choreographed and performed by Portland’s Creative Laureate, Subashini Ganesan, along with contemporary Bharatanatyam dance. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch preview.
7:30 pm Thursday, 7:30 and 9 pm Friday. New Expressive Works’ Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont, Portland, and 7:30 pm Saturday 19 January, The Vault Theatre, Hillsboro.

Old Music

• Coming out of the holiday season when the biggest classical performances in Portland featured Messiah and the Christmas Oratorio, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest music stars of Baroque Europe were Handel and J.S. Bach. In fact, in their time, neither was as famous as Georg Philipp Telemann. (Bach got a music director job only after Telemann, the first choice, turned it down.) Yet even though his 3,000 plus compositions make him history’s most prolific composer, these days, we don’t hear Telemann’s elegant music nearly as much as those other two 18th century titans. But with The Ensemble of Oregon’s concert of intimate solos, duos, trios and quartets (including four delicious mini cantatas) and last October’s Portland Baroque Orchestra all-Telemann show, a revival may be afoot. Played here in historically informed style and tunings with Baroque cello, violin, organ, and featuring the sublime voice of soprano Laura Beckel Thoreson, they may lack Handel’s grandeur or Bach’s profundity, but make up for it in the charm that made Telemann a Baroque rock star.
7 PM Saturday. First Christian Church, Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: American landscapes

October's Oregon music schedule gets off to a Big Bang, explores American natural wonders, and welcomes a Chinese music master among other highlights

Composers from around the country are commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the National Trails System Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by writing new music inspired by American landscapes. Like so many of the rest of us here in the Northwest, members of Cascadia Composers spend lots of time enjoying our wilderness areas, but they also draw creative inspiration from it. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., includes world premieres of new works for small chamber ensembles, composed in direct response to the places protected by these landmark laws.

Part of a nationwide series of concerts, the show includes compositions by Oregonians Brent Lawrence, Christina Rusnak, and Linda Woody inspired by Oregon’s Owyhee and Deschutes Rivers, and the people and landscape of the Oregon Historical Trail, along with music by non-Oregonians inspired by Georgia’s Chattooga River, the North Country Trail (stretching from North Dakota to Vermont), Arizona and California’s Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, and a wildfire ravaged area along a Klamath River tributary.

• Portland chamber music organization 45th Parallel Universe opens its tenth season with a Big Bang, a new leader (former Third Angle artistic director and violinist Ron Blessinger is interim executive director), new ensembles, and a new, but not exclusive, emphasis on contemporary music. Friday’s show at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, 1838 SW Jefferson St., features no fewer than four new ensembles. Helios Camerata, its new conductor-less chamber orchestra, plays music by Britten, Haydn, Rossini, and contemporary composer Jimmy Lopez. Arcturus Quintet wind ensemble plays a quintet by 20th century American composer Elliott Carter. Gemini Project plays a percussion duo by Robert Marino. And Pyxis String Quartet (the former Third Angle String Quartet) plays a movement from a quartet by leading American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Matthew Andrews has a full preview tomorrow.

Pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen, performs this weekend solo and with Oregon Mozart Players.

• There’s also new music on Olga Kern’s Saturday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. The dynamic Russian-American pianist soared to international acclaim after winning top prize at the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and has impressed audiences in her Portland appearances since then. Programmed by founder Harold Gray, temporarily back in charge after the departure of Portland Piano International’s most recent artistic director, the first of her October recitals features some of the usual pianistic suspects — Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Scriabin — but also a rare and most welcome PPI world premiere: James Lee III’s Window to Eternity’s Threshold.

• Another Oregon music institution not hitherto best known for new music opens its season with a concert dominated by it. Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert at the University’s of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall sports an ideal blend of classic (Haydn’s tempestuous 64th symphony) and contemporary sounds. Kevin Lau’s pounding, bounding Artemis is a musical portrait of the Greek goddess of the hunt. Daniel Schnyder’s jazzy, dramatic Concerto for Pipa expertly mixes a quintessentially Asian instrument with a Western orchestra. Zhou Tian’s upbeat Viaje (Voyage), featuring the brief return from her new Nashville home of longtime University of Oregon prof Molly Barth, one of the world’s finest flutists, reflects the Chinese-American composer’s travels in Spain. While our century’s cross-cultural interactions terrify insular souls into supporting racists and nationalists, they inspire artists to broaden their horizons and open creative new worlds to audiences.

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MusicWatch Weekly: new sounds from Oregon

This week’s Oregon music schedule boasts numerous new works by today’s composers from the Northwest, Midwest and beyond, mixed in with classics from across the ages and oceans

Big Horn Brass, a baker’s dozen of brass players and two percussionists, feature brassy new music by Cascadia Composers Greg Steinke, Jan Mittelstaedt, John Billota, Greg Bartholomew, and fellow Northwest composer Anthony DiLorenzo at their Saturday night concert at Beaverton’s St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Some other guys named Debussy, Bach and Puccini will provide filler.

New Oregon music by Eugene composer Paul Safar is also on the program when Eugene’s excellent Delgani String Quartet goes all homicidal Friday at Portland’s and Saturday at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The program features music inspired by murder, with theatrical readings from literary works that inspired them interpolated by actor Rickie Birran of Man of Words Theatre Company. Janacek and Shostakovich will be represented too. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Speaking of new music by Oregon composers, read Gary’s ArtsWatch preview of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s new composition commissioned by Rogue Valley Symphony, which the orchestra performs this weekend in Medford and Grants Pass. Beethoven is the closing act.

Estelí Gomez sings new music by University of Oregon composers at  Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

There’s even newer Oregon music for voice Sunday at the Oregon Composers Forum’s Sunday concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. The superb soprano Esteli Gomez, one of the singers in Grammy winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble, returns to sing new music by UO composers.

Joe Kye performs at Portland State Friday.

That same night, Portland based, Korea-born songwriter-composer and looping violinist Joe Kye plays his engaging, often autobiographical songs at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Shades of Sufjan Stevens and his albums inspired by American states! Does a symphony called “Portland” and named after Oregon’s largest city qualify as Oregon music — if it wasn’t written by an Oregonian? Decide for yourself at the University of Portland’s free concert featuring Erich Stem’s orchestral work Tuesday night at Buckley Auditorium. His website bio says nothing about where Stem resides or was born, but Indiana seems a likely suspect. The piece is part of Stem’s project called America By: A Symphonic Tour, which includes a collection of commissioned works from across the country, “each work reflecting the unique qualities and history of a specific location.”

New American Sounds

One of the most frequently performed and commissioned composers of choral music, Minnesota’s Jake Runestad, seem poised to follow Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre as a choral music star, and he’s also written several operas and other works. On Saturday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Choral Arts Ensemble and Linn-Benton Community College Chamber Choir team up to present the Music of Jake Runestad, the first major opportunity for Portland to get a healthy sampling of his heartfelt songs and broad, audience-friendly musical range.

Bells toll in Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’s new, half-hour orchestral composition, Sonorous Earth (an evolution of her earlier Resounding Earth), which Eugene Symphony performs Thursday at the Hult Center to complete her artistic residency there. Each of its four-movements also uses techniques associated with the major composers who made percussion the defining sound of 20th century classical music: Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Partch and Oregon’s own Lou Harrison.

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MusicWatch Weekly: March modness & more

Chamber, choral, orchestral, piano and other classical music on Oregon stages this week

The big musical news this weekend is the return of March Music Moderne, and you can read all about it in our separate preview. But it’s hardly the only musical magic happening in Oregon this week. Still, compared to the abundant new music on offer at MMM, some of this week’s other classical offerings look positively Jurassic.

Chamber Music

On Thursday at Portland’s Old Church, Friends of Chamber Music hosts another in its entertaining Not So Classic series shows devoted to performers who add a touch of fun, folk, pop, and/or world music spice to the usual heavy duty chamber music menu. Janoska Ensemble’s special sauce is sparkling arrangements of Gypsy, tango and pop music for its two violins-piano-and bass lineup. The Bratislava-born quartet has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Royal Albert Hall to Sydney Opera House, often joining non-classical champs like Bobby McFerrin and Palo de Lucia as well as classical stars. This show features cheeky arrangements of classics by Massenet, Kreisler, Johann Strauss Jr., Bizet, Piazzolla, Mozart, Paganini and more, along with the band’s original compositions in the same spirit.

On March 25 and 27 at Eugene’s United Lutheran Church, Delgani String Quartet plays a pair of chamber classics by Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Borodin, plus a swinging contemporary piece that the fine New York violist/composer Ljova (Russian-born Lev Zhurbin) wrote for Brooklyn Rider. Culai, named after the founder of the great Gypsy ensemble Taraf de Haïdouks, ripples and sways with Roma dance rhythms.

Portland Piano International brings Dénes Várjon to Portland State University.

Portland Piano International brings much-respected and -recorded Dénes Várjon to Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Saturday to play bagatelles by Beethoven, various works by Bartok, nocturnes by Chopin, and Ravel’s great Gaspard of the Night. On Sunday, along with a Mozart sonata and a fantasy piece by Schumann, he tackles one of the all-time biggies by another Hungarian master: Liszt’s Piano Sonata in b minor.

Vocal Music

Portland all star choir The Ensemble brings two of its star singers and chamber ensemble to perform a pair of Italian Baroque classics on March 24 at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church, and March 25 at Portland’s Old Church. Giovanni Pergolesi’s famous Stabat Mater belongs on any list of 18th century sacred music masterpieces, but it’s often performed by much larger forces than it was written for. When you strip it down to the basics, those singers better be fantastic because there’s nowhere to hide. Fortunately, Catherine van der Salm and Laura Beckel Thoreson are among the Northwest’s finest classical singers. They’ll also perform a less-well known Italian masterpiece of the period, Giovanni Battista Ferrandini’s dramatic Il pianto di Maria, which sounds so much like early Handel that it was long mistakenly attributed to him.

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MusicWatch Weekly: revolutionaries

Concerts celebrate 20th century geniuses

Oregon music this week features the work of a couple of revolutionaries from a century or so ago whose imagination has left its mark on the present and maybe even the future, enhanced by today’s technology. Tesla: Light, Sound, Color (Thursday-Friday Hult Center’s Soreng Theater, Eugene; Saturday, Newmark Theatre, Portland; Monday, Tower Theatre, Bend) brings the eccentric genius inventor/engineer to life via music, dance, digital imagery and even physics experiments. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch preview and Rachael Carnes’s ArtsWatch review.

This weekend’s Oregon Symphony’s concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall feature the revolutionary dance score that helped transform 20th century music, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, enhanced by digital projections.  We talked about it a lot on ArtsWatch during the centennial year. The rest of the program rocks, too —  Bartok’s fab, faux-lky second violin concerto and one of the middle-ish (but not middling) period Haydn symphonies we don’t hear often enough. His 70th was also innovative in its way, adding timpani and trumpets to the composer’s arsenal, which he would later use to great effect in other orchestral works.

Third Angle New Music’s Thursday and Friday shows at Portland’s Studio 2 @ N.E.W. shine the spotlight on cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and fellow musician family members and Oregon Symphony players in music by Portland’s own nationally renowned composer Kenji Bunch, 20th century British composer John Tavener, recent Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, and young New York phenom Andy Akiho.

Marilyn de Oliveira takes center stage at Third Angle’s concerts.

Baroque Rarities

Even without the arias and more elaborate orchestration of his famous cantatas, Bach’s half-dozen (depending on how you categorize them) surviving motets constitute some of his richest and most complex choral music. It takes exceptional singers to perform them with only one voice singing each part, which affords a wonderful intimacy and transparency, and that’s what The Ensemble of Oregon brings to three of these masterpieces Saturday at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church, Eugene, and Sunday at Portland’s Old Church. This all-star team drawn from Portland’s finest choirs also sing arias from two Bach cantatas. A bonus Bach cello sonata provides an instrumental interlude.

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MusicWatch Weekly: no leftovers

This week's Oregon concerts, with trimmings

MusicWatch has a confession to make: it seriously overindulged at last week’s holiday table. In truth, MusicWatch has been putting on the preview poundage (the freshman 1500?) quite a bit since leaving parental supervision for its own place, so ArtsWatch paterfamilias Barry Johnson staged a needed intervention, placing MusicWatch on a strict 800-word limit (and eventually 500, but we can’t go, uh, cold turkey right off the bat) until it slims down to the concision of  A.L Adams’s svelte DramaWatch or achieves the noble balanced proportions Jamuna Chiarini’s ample DanceWatch. If you want to add your own garnishes, please do so in the comments section, where they won’t count against the word limit or MusicWatch’s waistline.

Legends of the Celtic Harp
Patrick Ball, Lisa Lynne and Aryeh Frankfurter combine Celtic and English seasonal music (using three Celtic Harps, Swedish nyckelharpa, fiddle, bandura, bouzouki) and stories including A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a chapter from The Wind in the Willows, and passages from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Thomas Hardy.
Friday, Cerimon House, Portland.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs its holiday show this weekend.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus
Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and other seasonal songs.
Friday-Sunday, Newmark Theater, Portland.

Cinderella
Portland State’s acclaimed opera program presents a piano quartet operetta of the classic fairy tale concocted from vintage German and French songs. Stay turned for Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch review.
Friday-Dec. 17, PSU Studio Theater, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University.

Oregon Symphony and Andre Watts
Scandinavian sounds by Grieg, Nielsen, Sibelius, and fellow Finn Joonas Kokkonen.
Friday, Smith Auditorium, Willamette University, Salem, and Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.

Andre Watts performs with the Oregon Symphony.

Soror Mystica
ParaTheatrical ReSearch PDX’s latest ritual music/ theater/ dance/film/performance art creation (See Mitch Ritter’s ArtsWatch review of the company’s earlier Bardoville.) Friday-Sunday, Performance Works NW, Portland.

ISing
The annual free concert (with donations benefiting a good cause) features familiar carols with 80 voice choir, a brass octet, taiko drums, kotos and massive organ.
Friday and Sunday, Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ 5150 SW Watson, Beaverton, and Saturday,
St. Peter Catholic Church, 8623 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland.

Beaverton’s iSing chorus used video in its winter 2013 concert.

“Singin’ in the Rain”
Peg Major directs, Robert Ashens conducts and Caitlin Christopher choreographed The Shedd’s original production of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1985 stage adaptation of their classic film comedy about 1920s silent film stars making the turbulent transition to talkies.
Friday-Dec. 17, The Shedd, Eugene.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
For decades beginning in 1951, American composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s beloved one-act opera was a perennial holiday treat on NBC television. Thanks to Menotti’s appealing score and story about three kings, a family, and a series of miracles, Amahl is still the most frequently produced opera in the world — a family friendly holiday performance presented by one of Oregon’s finest chamber vocal groups, The Ensemble of Oregon, composed of top singers from the city’s big choirs.
Saturday-Sunday, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Avenue, Portland.

Christina & Michelle Naughton
Along with European classics by Debussy and Ravel (his enchanting child-inspired Mother Goose music), Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky, the award-winning sibling duo pianists play 20th century American music, including delights by wild card Conlon Nancarrow, John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, and Paul Schoenfield’s Five Days from the Life of a Manic Depressive.
Saturday & Sunday, Portland State University, Lincoln Hall.

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Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love

by JEFF WINSLOW

Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

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