the mousai

Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.

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Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.

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The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement

by TRISTAN BLISS

… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.

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Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 2: Oregon interludes

Oregon composers' music highlights spring concerts of 20th and 21st century sounds.

As the last early evening summer sunlight streamed through the windows of Portland’s Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, the city’s most exciting current composer, Kenji Bunch, meandered around the main gallery, playing his viola, passing within inches of the several dozen people in folding chairs. As he orbited the two big pianos installed in the center of the space, Bunch’s New Orleans-accented 2010 viola solo “Etoufee” gradually heated to a crayfish-cooking boil.

After enthusiastic applause, Bunch’s wife Monica Ohuchi, an equally (at least) fine musician in her own right, followed with a brief blistering hurricane, Bunch’s 2010-11 Etude 4. Bunch then joined her for I Dream in Evergreen, a spare and melancholy 2008 “meditation on permanence and impermanence,” he said. In my imagination, the triptych formed a musical parable of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

Kenji Bunch played his own music at Blue Sky Gallery.

The couple concluded one of the best sets of music I heard all season with a ferocious performance of his 1998 Suite for Viola and Piano, which began with a fervid, neb-romantic Rhapsody, a real joke of a Scherzo that alternated between plucked and bowed passages, then a yearning, heartfelt lament, interrupted by jagged sobs that lurched straight into a whizzing whirlwind that showed off the viola’s full range of expression, eliciting cheers and hollers from the crowd for a rousing performance that lived up to the set’s title, Unleashed.

Bunch’s set was the second of four in the June 25 inaugural edition of the Makrokosmos Project, the evening-long annual showcase perpetrated by duo pianists Stephanie and Saar. That concert, in turn was one of several this spring and summer that mixed contemporary Oregon compositions with other music, which we’re looking at here second installment in our three-part series covering Oregon contemporary classical music circa spring 2015. (The third and final episode covers several all-Oregon contemporary classical concerts that highlighted the spring music schedule.) While it’s always gratifying to see full concerts of music by Oregon composers like the one we looked at in the first episode of our spring survey, ghettoizing Oregon classical music (like any new music) may deny other listeners the opportunity to stumble across it. Many Oregon music lovers may not know they’ll like music composed by Oregonians, because they may not have heard much of it. Many of our major institutions, from orchestras to radio stations, implicitly signal its inferiority by devoting only a tiny percentage of their programming time to it. Mixing new and old, local and international, in concert programs, allows the audience for each to bolster the others — and listeners to discover new sounds that they might like as much as the music they came for.

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Concert reviews: The City of Tomorrow, The Mousai, Cascadia Composers

The music is there, now for some audience regard

The Mousai performed in Portland's Celebration Works series.

The Mousai performed in Portland’s Celebration Works series. Photo: Earl Temp.

This spring has brought a bevy of performances that demonstrate why Portland has recently developed one of the country’s most fertile and promising contemporary classical music scenes, thanks largely to forward-looking composers, musicians and presenters who refuse to succumb to the simplistic old notion that music can’t be both broadly appealing and boldly adventurous.

Yet as promising and often intoxicating as much of the music was, none of the shows proved entirely satisfying, for a variety of reasons, each unrelated to the music itself. These shows also demonstrated that playing fresh, local music — and often playing it well — isn’t enough. Too many non-musical considerations (choice of venue, programming and sequencing of repertoire, inadequate rehearsal, etc.) impeded full enjoyment of the music the players were working so hard to create. Taken together, they offer urgent lessons for performers and presenters. But you’ll have to wait for those, because, Gaulingly, we’re going to break this seasonal survey in three.

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City of Tomorrow wind quintet performs in Portland Saturday.

City of Tomorrow wind quintet performs in Portland Saturday.

This weekend’s concerts feature several small ensembles that specialize in contemporary sounds, plenty of Baroque rarities and favorites, and much more.

eighth blackbird, Friday, Music Recital Hall, Southern Oregon University, and Sunday, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon. One of the world’s finest contemporary chamber ensembles performs the haunting Murder Ballades by Bryce Dessner  (the guitarist in The National who also enjoys a burgeoning career as a contemporary classical composer, including an album last year with Kronos Quartet); the ethereal Duet for Heart and Breath by Read Parry (who plays in the Arcade Fire); selections from Slide, a theater work whose music (by another rock/classical composer, Steven Mackey), impressed me when I covered its 2009 premiere in California; another piece whose subject is losing grip on reality, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Old Kings in Exile; a flute and piano arrangement of the great 20th century composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s celebrated piano etudes, and more.

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