Tomas Svoboda

Vision 2020: Niel DePonte

A Portland musical standout for more than 40 years, the percussionist, composer and conductor thinks about the thorny issues ahead

At the Oregon Symphony’s June 1 concert this year, Niel DePonte will play the famously energetic snare drum part in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The spring season will end his 42-year career as the symphony’s principal percussionist, a job he’s had since he was 24 years old. Symphonic percussionists’ duties have grown more complex in the past half-century, with all manner of bells and whistles added to scores. His responsibilities have burgeoned along with the bigger and, usually, better drumming parts.  

He’s retiring from that role, but head percussion guy is only one of several jobs DePonte juggles on Portland’s arts scene.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


He will continue to conduct the Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra, something he’s done since 1985, and carry on his 26 years of work with MetroArts Inc. mentoring young musicians and pushing educational programs. Then there’s his composing and arranging, including his arrangement for Houston Ballet’s Peter Pan, played since 2002. That won’t stop, either.

Keeping all those artistic balls moving in harmony has gotten tougher as DePonte has turned grayer, he said in a recent interview. “These are high-wire jobs. When you’re trying to be perfect all the time (as a musician and conductor), and the number of performances has increased, it’s demanding. Artistic organizations are trying to grow and help artists to make a living. It’s a lot.”

Niel DePonte, amid the clatter and bang. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony

DePonte grew up in the New York area in a high-achieving family where “education was the thing, and music was played.” His mother sang Italian opera by heart, a piano was in the house, he started drumming at 7, and earned a masters degree at Eastman School of Music. All in all,  “expectations were high,” he said.

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MusicWatch Semi-Monthly: Unholy daze

Busy December needs two monthly columns: one for holiday concerts, one for everything else. Part one: music for strings, singers, and saxophones

Bah, humbug! It’s too early for Christmas music, don’t you think? Just because December is upon us, with its flakey promises of snow, doesn’t mean there isn’t a nice pile of early unholiday presents waiting. We’ve got a good dozen or two non-holiday themed concerts for you: abstract string quartets, killer guitarists and groovy saxophonists, and a visit from Oregon Symphony’s newly appointed Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (interview coming this week).

Aside from Die Hard the Musical at Funhouse Lounge (starts on the 5th, runs through January 4th) and Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (starts on the 7th, runs through the 26th), all the other fun holiday concerts start around the 13th. So we’re going to play Grinch and make you wait a week or two before telling you about all that. Take off that Mariah Carey Christmas playlist, put on MAE.SUN’s latest EP, get some Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge, and settle down for our first half of December mixtape.

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10th anniversary season-closing concert offers clues to organization’s success

by MARIA CHOBAN

Guess where I am.

A lemon yellow wading pool, aluminum bowls spin bump chime on its blue sparkly surface, kids clang big silver balls at them.

Nope, I’m not sitting in a friend’s backyard.

A drone dancing with a human robot.

Nope, I’m not at Burning Man.

A cider balanced on my belly, lying on floor pillows, watching a wizard wave Wii wands, warding off ghosts.

Nope, I’m not high.

Give up?

Photo: Luciana Pina

I was at Cascadia Composers’ All Wired Up micro-festival of electronic music at downtown Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall on the deliberately chosen date — 4/20. 

Concocted by a Western classical music consortium, I expected . . . well, what do you expect when you read “micro-festival of electronic music?” Instead, It turned out to be the funnest fringe festival I’ve attended in Portland.

We obey Cascadia’s unflappable third president, the forward-looking Ted Clifford, and four more Cascadians wielding hand percussion instruments. The Pied Percussionists lead us outdoors into the bright sun where the gamelan is set up . . .  next to the lemon yellow wading pool . . . delighting even the pedestrians strolling down SW Clay.

Gangstas of Gamelan

Cascadia Composers, with 86 members, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, thrives when breaking classical music’s archaic ‘rules’ with unconventional events and offerings. For example, All Wired Up micro-fest of electronic music included a piece for Balinese gamelan (Indonesian percussion) and no electronics: ArtsWatch editor Matthew Andrews’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

In May, I attended Cascadia’s monthly presentation (open to all) and spoke to a 30-something composer who recently moved from Dallas, Texas, ninth largest city in the US. His reason for moving to the 29th largest city? Dallas doesn’t support the ideas of burgeoning creators. When he asked a music mentor in Dallas where in Portland he should plug in, the response was Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX

How did Cascadia gain this notoriety? How did it turn a well behaved niche art enjoyed by a niche few into the rollicking frolic for young and old, newbies and insiders evidenced at All Wired Up? I’ll dust for fingerprints all over this festival. Let’s follow the clues and solve this crime.

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MusicWatch Weekly: spring awakenings

As a new season arrives, concerts awaken Oregonians to stories about gender, migration, cross cultural encounters, and more

As 21st century America belatedly recognizes that gender isn’t always a binary phenomenon, artists have increasingly illuminated its fluid, spectral reality, as Oregonians have seen in recent Time Based Art Festival performances, last fall’s Contralto show by Third Angle, and more. Now comes the most produced contemporary opera in North America since its 2014 premiere. As One is inspired by the true story of its scenic designer and co-librettist. Kimberly Reed became the first commercially released transgender filmmaker with her breakthrough film Prodigal Sons, which chronicled her journey from star Montana high school quarterback to award winning film director. In this chamber opera co-created by American composer Laura Kaminsky and renowned co-librettist Mark Campbell, two singers tell the coming of age story of the fictional trans protagonist, Hannah — one playing before her gender transformation, one after. Her journey is depicted against the backdrop of Reed’s sometimes abstract, sometimes realistic imagery, projected on five screens. Stay tuned for my profile of Reed and Matthew Andrews’s ArtsWatch review.
Friday-March 30, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.

• More theatrical music comes from Light Opera of Portland (LOoP), whose original, romantic musical We Met in Moscow is based upon events in the lives of Ralph Bunch, a professor emeritus from Portland State University, and his wife Eleanora Andreevna, head of cybernetics at the Kremlin in the 1990s. Portland composer John Vergin did his own treatment of the story just a few months ago, and now writer/lyricist Dennis Britten and composer Kevin Lay give the musical treatment to this Oregon/Russia love story.
Friday-March 29, Alpenrose Dairy Opera House 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

• Over the past few years, Portland classical music organizations have belatedly begun to redress the inexcusable gender imbalance on their concert programs by finally including a few works by female composers. Now, Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic does something similar for women’s words as well as music. Because Of Her, We Make Songs features musical settings (by female and male composers) of text by women poets from around the world (Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Elinor Wylie, Pulitzer Prize-winner Amy Lowell, Gabriela Mistral), including songs by the excellent Northwester composer Alex Shapiro, Ricky Ian Gordon, Florence Price, Grammy and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon, and more. Oregon’s 2019 Poetry Out Loud Champion and Runner-Up, Belise Nishimwe of St. Mary’s Academy and Nicole Coronado of Lake Oswego’s Lakeridge High School, also perform.
Monday, The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Portland.

To celebrate the Portland premiere of ‘As One’, Portland Opera commissioned award-winning photographer Gia Goodrich to create a series of portraits and interviews celebrating 11 transgender individuals in Portland’s community. Portrait from “As I Am” exhibition by Gia Goodrich.

FearNoMusic is also the house band for Cascadia Composers’s 10th anniversary concert. Until the group arrived, ambitious Northwest composers who wanted others to hear their original contemporary classical music usually had to take an academic job and hope for the occasional performance by students, or move to New York or other cultural cosmopoli. Since forming a decade ago, the organization has provided Portland and other Northwest composers showcases for their music (10 concerts this year alone, over 500 new works and 100 world premieres over a decade), networking, mutual support and info, even exchanges with composers in other countries. Now the largest and most active local group in the National Association of Composers/USA, Cascadia has become a vital part of Portland’s creative music scene. This 10th anniversary concert includes music for percussion, voice, strings, flute, and piano written by the organization’s founding composers: David Bernstein, Tomas Svoboda, Greg Steinke, Gary Noland, Jack Gabel, Dan Senn, Bonnie Miksch, and ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow, whose styles range widely across the spectrum of 21st century classical music.
Friday, Lincoln Hall Room 75, Portland State University. Streaming here.

Svoboda and Gabel in 1999. Photo: Françoise Simoneau.

Orchestral Music

Today’s weapon of choice in humanity’s quest to destroy life as we know it is human-caused climate change, perpetrated by the greed of our retro-industrial complex and enabled by their lackeys in Washington and right-wing media. But before that, our preferred means of self-inflicted catastrophe was (and possibly remains) nuclear weapons. The man most responsible for turning them into potential planet killers was the anguished central figure in Pulitzer Prize winning American composer John Adams’s 2005 opera Dr. Atomic: American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who supervised the Manhattan Project that created the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Based on Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the story of a great scientist’s Faustian bargain seemed a great subject for contemporary opera by one of my favorite composers, but the overlong world premiere I saw in San Francisco failed to ignite onstage, even when choreographer Lucinda Childs sent dancers sprinting across the stage for no apparent reason in a desperate attempt to inject some action to dispel the dramatic inertia. What did work was Adams’s tense, urgent music, inspired by everything from minimalism to the science fiction movie sounds of the 1950s. He later assembled its best music into a symphony, which the Oregon Symphony performed last month, and which the Eugene Symphony plays Thursday, along with Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture and another Romantic classic, Brahms’s passionate Violin Concerto, starring rising prodigy Julian Rhee.
Thursday, Hult Center’s Silva Hall, Eugene.

See and hear “Coraline” Friday with the Oregon Symphony.

• Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, it performs Bruno Coulais’ score to Portland-based Laika Studios’ delightfully dark Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman story, Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert hall, while the film is projected on the giant screen for its tenth anniversary. On Saturday and Sunday, the orchestra then welcomes award winning singers Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the greatest singers who ever lived (and a sparkling, influential jazz pianist to boot), Nat King Cole, with some hits from his late daughter Natalie too. And the rebranded Newport Symphony Orchestra at the Ocean plays piano concertos by Clara Schumann and Sergei Prokofiev (starring Amy Yang), plus music by the taken-too-soon French composer Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy (Spring Rounds), and George Gershwin’s ever-jolly An American in Paris Saturday and Sunday at Newport Performing Arts Center.

Chamber Music

Speaking of film music, German late Romantic composer Richard Strauss wrote a whole lot more music than the familiar five-note opener used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey decades after he died. 45th Parallel Universe’s Helios Camerata plays some of his theater music (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), opera tunes arranged for string sextet (Capriccio) and a rarely heard Double concerto for clarinet and bassoon.
Thursday, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Helios Camerata plays Strauss Thursday.

• In 2017, Eugene’s Delgani Quartet played Portland composer eminence Tomas Svoboda’s blistering sixth string quartet, an homage to his idol, Dmitri Shostakovich that left the audience cheering. Ranging from bleak to ominous to tense, it fully captured the Russian composer’s spirit without resorting to mere imitation. An ideal match of magnificent music, appropriate acoustic, and committed performers, it was one of the most powerful chamber music performances I’ve heard in Oregon. They’re playing it again this weekend, along with earlier Czech music by Dvorak (his final quartet), and a dance-inspired composition by Erwin Schulhoff, whose legacy of infusing classical and Czech traditional music with jazz, Dada, and other forward looking influences was cut short when he died in the Holocaust.
Saturday, Christian Science Church, 935 High St SE, Salem, and Sunday, The Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.

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MusicWatch Weekly: black voices matter

Major works for voice by contemporary African American composers highlight this week's Oregon music

One of the top tenors of his generation, Philadelphia’s Lawrence Brownlee has drawn rapturous acclaim for his performances at all the world’s great opera houses, from the Met and La Scala on down, especially in the agile roles of early 19th composers. He’s also performed with some of the world’s finest orchestras. But he’s also forged a separate career performing smaller scale works, from African American spirituals to art song, and that’s the focus of this recital with pianist Myra Huang that includes a major new composition, Cycles of My Being by one of today’s most renowned new music voices, Tyshawn Sorey, with text by poet Terrance Hayes. He’ll also sing Schumann’s iconic song cycle The Poet’s Love. Read Damien Geter’s ArtsWatch preview, which includes an interview with Brownlee.

Another leading contemporary African American composer, William Averitt, is coming to Eugene from Virginia to introduce his shimmering setting of Langston Hughes poems, The Dream Keeper, which Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble performs Friday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. Some address the dream of overcoming racial injustice, which the great Harlem Renaissance poet would probably be appalled but maybe not surprised to discover persists today. “Bring me all of your dreams,” Hughes writes. “Bring me all of your Heart melodies, That I may wrap them in a blue cloudcloth, away from the too rough fingers of the world.”

Eugene Vocal Arts members don Renaissance garb for the first half of their spring concert.

The concert also includes R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and one of choral music rock star Eric Whitacre’s greatest hits: the inventive, dramatic Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, which draws on devices from madrigals to minimalism. EVA singers don their annual Renaissance garb to sing music for the birds, featuring madrigals and other songs that use avian imagery, including the great French composer Clément Janequin’s “The Song of the Birds” and other soaring compositions by Thomas Morley, John Dowland, Thomas Weelkes and other English composers, plus more Renaissance masters like Arcadelt and Banchieri.

Percussionist Colin Currie performs with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

More choral music graces the Oregon Symphony’s weekend concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, featuring a rare complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe augmented by the international award winning Portland State Chamber Choir, Man Choir, and Vox Femina. Although it was eclipsed a bit amid all the uproar attending the next big ballet that opened at its premiere venue, little thing called Rite of Spring, Ravel’s epic, magical 1912 ballet score is one of the 20th century’s finest. Alas, the world premiere of a new Percussion Concerto commissioned from one of today’s hottest young composers, Andy Akiho, was postponed, but the orchestra’s artist in residence, scintillating Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, will instead perform American composer John Corigliano’s colorful three-movement 2007 percussion concerto Conjurer, written for another great Scottish percussionist, Evelyn Glennie.

Chamber Music

Speaking of the Oregon Symphony, about this time last year, the orchestra performed aquatic music by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, and his music is back in Oregon Tuesday the Faure Piano Quartet’s Tuesday concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. The Friends of Chamber Music concerts also include quartets by Brahms and Mahler on Monday, and a quartet by Schumann as well as Hosokawa’s marvelously mysterious The Waters of Lethe (which like Daphnis grew out of an ancient Greek myth) on Tuesday. They’ll play quartets by their namesake, the wonderful 19th century French composer, both nights.

Spring is barely here, but we can look forward to the real sunny season at Chamber Music Amici’s Monday concert at Springfield’s Wildish Community Theater, which features the sunny Summer Trio by Oregon’s most venerated living composer, Portland legend Tomas Svoboda. The current and former University of Oregon music faculty members also play the lovely Piano and Winds Quintet that Mozart himself regarded as one of his finest creations — plus a characteristically sparkling piano trio by the fab 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc.

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