thomas de nicola

45th Parallel review: Critical approach

Converting criticism into collaborative programming, concert features several generations of American composers, including contemporary Oregonians

by TERRY ROSS

If there were any doubt that music reviewers can influence the programming of classical concerts, that contention was put to rest, at least temporarily, on Wednesday night, March 29, in the latest concert of the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel. Reviewing one of the group’s earlier concerts from 2015, a young composer from Salem called Tristan Bliss (b. 1993) had attacked the program of 20th-century music as being uninterestingly composed of late Romantic pieces. Mr. Bliss went so far as to accuse Oregon composer Kenji Bunch of being merely part of a hidebound music establishment, and the ensemble as being afraid of truly new music and dedicated to consigning it to oblivion by not programming it.

45th Parallel performed Tristan Bliss’s ‘Requiem for a Tradition.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This review rankled, needless to say, and 45th Parallel leader Gregory Ewer responded angrily online. A brief brouhaha ensued, with the result that Ewer invited Bliss to collaborate in planning a 45th Parallel concert. Bliss accepted and suggested five pieces, all written in the past three years, with the exception of perennial renegade Charles Ives’s piano quintet Hallowe’en, written way back in 1906 but sounding thoroughly contemporary. Ewer added three other selections, the earliest from 1988, and voilà! A concert was born.

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45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration

ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.

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