Ysaye Barnwell

MusicWatch Weekly: Look before you leap day

A weekend of concerts and a Portland Weird undectet

Fry Day

As usual, we’d like to start by bringing you last minute news of a few shows happening tonight, tonight, tonight. As you read this, Mike Dillon and Band are packing up their road bags, leaving Eugene (where they played at Whirled Pies last night), and trekking up I-5 to Portland, where they’ll head straight down to the Jack London Revue subterraenan social club for an evening of what we can only call “gonzo punk jazz.”

See, from a technique perspective these dudes are all basically just avant-garde jazz musicians (bandleader Dillon is in wide demand as a vibraphonist and all-around killer percussionist), but–like so many others over this last half-century of escalating strangeness–they’ve found the grittiest, truest expression of both “avant-garde” and “jazz” not in the relatively staid traditional world of characters like Henry Threadgill and Branford Marsalis (who are, of course, total badasses and not to be trifled with except for purposes of this strained comparison), but instead have seen the true face of “jazz” and “avant-garde” in the wooly realm of punk, metal, and other folk musicks of the rough and ragged variety. If that’s your bag, dear reader, get on it!

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Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

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MusicWatch Monthly: the darkling buds of May

Encore shows, season closers, and kickoff concerts showcase visuals, Dutch virtuosi, Japanese drums, and women composers

There’s an old Oregon saying: “April showers bring May showers.” Our famously persnickety springs tend to veer from warm noon-times of glorious blooming sunshine to those long desperate afternoons of deep drizzling gloom that have our S.A.D. souls begging the gods, “when will you make an end?”

Fitting, then, that our Curated Concert Spread for May includes so much rich, loamy music. From fresh rain and frolicking flowers to ominous thunder and deadly lightning, here’s a sample of what’s happening in your merry, mournful town this May.

Weill, Auerbach, Price: Music for Orchestras

Oregon Symphony Orchestra
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra puts on a few different types of concerts, and they end their season with three contrasting varieties spread across the month like a field full of wildflowers and mushrooms.

May 4, Norman Huynh conducts the OSO and guest choirs from Portland State University in a live performance of the award-winning score from Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, the music deftly synchronized to the movie, projected on a giant screen above the orchestra. Unlike similar concerts with thoroughly cinematic scores (Star Wars, Batman), this concert doubles as a simple Mozart feast—including more than a little bit of that glorious Requiem, which PSU’s choirs performed in its entirety earlier this year. The music is all ages but the film is rated R, so know your kids or leave ‘em at home.

PEER GYNT from Studio Moto on Vimeo.

May 11-13, Carlos Kalmar conducts Edvard Grieg’s popular Peer Gynt score with visualizations by designer Alexander Polzin. This is the third concert of OSO’s popular SoundSight Series, which brings together visual artists and musicians for delightfully polysensory shows. Previous concerts have featured animation, projection mapping, and all kinds of puppetry. Also on the program: Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, featuring soprano Jane Archibald.

OSO closes its season with a Mahler symphony, the deceptively pretty first, sometimes called the “Titan (it’s the one with the minor-key Freres Jacques). The three concerts May 18-20 also reprise Kurt Weill‘s satirical ballet chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, with Pink Martini chanteuse Storm Large in the double lead role originated by Lotte Lenya (Anna I and Anna II) and vocal quartet Hudson Shad as The Family. The Mahler symphony is nice and springy—like all Mahler, it’s lusciously orchestrated and therefore absolutely essential Schnitz-listening—but it’s the Weill that’s bringing us in out of the rainshine.

Storm Large rejoins the Oregon Symphony with Hudson Shad in ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’ Photo: John Rudoff.

That vocal quartet is a funny case and deserves a special mention. Hudson Shad is, among other things, a cadre of Seven Deadly Sins specialists who got together specifically to perform this macabre deliciousness with Marianne Faithfull way back in antediluvian 1989, eventually recording it with her in 1997. These four guys have now been singing this music together for three decades. Listeners familiar with Weill from his Threepenny Opera can expect more of the composer’s iconic, sardonic cabaret sound. Meanwhile, here’s a taste of what we can expect from Large.

Auerbach and Martinů
May 5
Portland Youth Philharmonic, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
PYP routinely handles new and difficult music that belies the age of its membership—think of it not as a group of highly skilled young musicians but as a 95-year-old symphony orchestra playing with vigor, courage, curiosity, and a deep emotional heft rivaling its more grown-up professional counterparts. They earned points with OAW by being one of the only groups in town to celebrate the Bernstein centennial with something other than West Side Story and Candide for the umpteenth time, opting instead to perform Lenny’s first symphony to perfection with Laura Beckel Thoreson in March. (Points also to PSU choirs for their magnificent Chichester Psalms and to Eugene Symphony for performing Bernstein’s second symphony, both last year; there’s also this).

Their season closer features PYP alum Max Blair performing Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů‘s 1955 sunny little Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and the West Coast premiere of contemporary Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No. 1 “Chimera.”

You’ll enjoy the Martinů concerto, sure but you’re really going to thank us for Auerbach, whose music is exactly the right kind of fresh. It’s punchy and agitated, modernistically morbid, bristlingly bombastic, colorfully dissonant, heroically wistful, and melodically profuse—which, to my ear, places her about halfway between Khachaturian and Elfman.

America’s Florence
May 21
Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
Classical music lovers continue waking up to music by U.S. composers of the present and past, and one of the best of the rising old stars is Florence Beatrice Price, the first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious symphonic composer. Following the 2009 discovery of dozens of lost Price scores (discussed here by local singer and Arts Watch correspondent Damien Geter), the classical world has been abuzz over this much-needed new entry into the early U.S. canon, finding ample space for her among the Beaches and Seegerses and Iveses. Stay tuned for ArtsWatch’s concert preview.

MYS—like PYP a fearless and curious band—performs Price’s tasty first symphony and her Americana-as-apple-pie Dances in the Canebrakes, along with the homage Letter to Florence Price, composed by MYS alum Katie Palka, one of the stars of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project (read Charles Rose’s interview with Palka and three other YCP composers right here). MYS will also give the West Coast Premieres of two works by a pair of eleven-year-old composers, participants in the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Initiative: Harlem Shake by Camryn Cowan and Boogie Down Uptown by Jordan Millar.

Japan, Netherlands, Florida: Transnational Chamber Musics

“Her Light Escape”
Spire Duo, May 4, Portland house concert.
Superb Eugene soprano Emma Rose Lynn and pianist Andrew T. Pham performing settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost and more by 20th and 21st century composers composers such as André Previn, Dominick Argento (both of whom died this year), Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, and others.

Portland Taiko rejoins FearNoMusic. Photo: Rich Iwasaki.

Japanarama: The Ongoing Influence of Japanese Culture
May 6
Fear No Music, The Old Church, Portland
Fear No Music’s husband-and-wife leadership team—Artistic Director Kenji Bunch and Executive Director Monica Ohuchi—have spent the past five years making FNM the best kind of Portland hybrid: a classical ensemble with unimpeachable performance credentials, a love for local and contemporary composers, and a mature sense of social justice and responsibility.

This season’s theme, “Worldwide Welcome,” invites international musics and musicians into downtown Portland’s Old Church, and this concert’s special guest is the beloved percussion ensemble Portland Taiko, a jolly and entertaining crew who have collaborated with Bunch on previous concerts and will likely be audible across the river. The Japanese drums—many of them gigantic—were originally designed for communications between villages and within armies, providing a nice counterpoint to Bunch’s quiet, reflective music.

Kendrick Scott Oracle
May 6, Jack London Revue, Portland
After earning his reputation as one of the finest jazz drummers of his generation in his decade anchoring Terence Blanchard’s superb ‘00’s band, Kendrick Scott formed his own band, Oracle, to showcase his considerable compositional chops. He scored a coveted record contract with sainted jazz label Blue Note, which just released one of the best jazz albums of the year so far. A Wall Becomes a Bridge beautifully blends varied textures: Jahi Sundance’s turntable, Mike Moreno’s fluid guitar, John Ellis’s various woodwinds (flute, bass clarinet, horn) and bassist Derrick Hodge’s wordless vocals, plus some vocal samples. Add Scott’s inventive drumming and Tyler Eigsti’s bright electric and acoustic keyboards, and it adds up to a forward-looking amalgam of ‘70s fusion, a dash of modern hip hop, and lyrical contemporary jazz that can charm fans of everyone from Pat Metheny to Scott’s fellow Houston natives Jason Moran and Robert Glasper.

Classical Musicians of Holland bring Portland a Dutch treat.

“Classical Musicians of Holland”
May 7
Portland Dutch Society, The Old Church
We here at Oregon Arts Watch have an almost jingoistic attitude toward classical music: local composers, local performers, local poets, local rainstorms. We’re locavores and we’re not ashamed of it. Some might even call us musical terroirists. But we do occasionally get wind of travelling shows blowing in under the radar, something to remind us life beyond the Willamette Valley.

On May 7, Portland Dutch Society hosts three young musicians, the most recent winners of Holland’s Prinses Christina Concours (Princess Christina Competition): violinist Yente Lottman, trombonist Niels Jacobs, and pianist-composer Maxim Heijmerink. The concert program features a lot of pretty familiar stuff—Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin—and it will all no doubt be played superbly (we’re especially excited to hear that delicate Rachmaninoff vocalise on trombone). But this concert’s blossoms are the works by less-known composers: Alexandre Guilmant, Joseph Jongen, Peter Kiesewetter, and Heijmerink himself.

Mozart’s Clarinet
Delgani String Quartet
May 12 & 14, Temple Beth Israel, Eugene
May 18, Christian Science Church, Salem
May 19, The Old Church, Portland
Maybe you just can’t wait until June to hear Mozart’s clarinet quintet at Chamber Music Northwest’s opening night. Or maybe you just want to hear UO clarinet professor Wonkak Kim play the foundational work with a basset clarinet and an amazing regional string quartet. Delgani also hails from Eugene, and we’ve admired the spry, sensitive quartet ever since hearing them pair György Ligeti’s first string quartet with Lou Harrison’s early last year at Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival (another worthy out-of-towner that gusted through Portland and blew most of us away).

But it’s not Mozart’s quintet (Brahms’s is better) or Kim’s basset clarinet that interests us. No, what we really want is to hear something—anything—by the criminally underappreciated Florida-based composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose miraculous Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet was our personal “best-in-show” of CMNW 2017.

One Heart: Music for Voices

Lost | Found
Big Mouth Society
May 3, The Hallowed Halls, 4420 SE 64th Avenue, Portland
The ensemble founded and led by early music specialist and singer Emily Lau also has big talent, and big ears. This show includes vocal and instrumental chamber music by anonymous 14th-century Sephardic Jewish women, 15th century Burgundian master of melody Guillaume de Binchois, 16th century choral music paragon Palestrina, 17th century Italian pioneer Claudio Monteverdi (one of the first Baroque and opera composers), the greatest composer of the 18th century (J.S. Bach), 19th century Brit Edward Elgar, contemporary American composers Emma Lou Diemer and Eric Whitacre, and even Lau herself.

Portland State University’s Queer Opera Project returns May 7. Photo: Byisabel.

Queer Opera Kickoff Concert
May 7
PSU Queer Opera, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland
Last year, PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard introduced us to Queer Opera with two of the season’s most entertaining recitals (three, if you count Poulenc’s Les mamelles, which was the best show this exhausted reviewer attended all year). This is what we had to say about Queer Opera’s debut concerts at the time.

QO is a summer program, so they kick off their season just as other groups are ending theirs. On May 7th, community members join PSU students and faculty in a concert featuring some of the songs that thrilled us last year, along with selections from West Side Story and Jake Heggie’s song cycle Here and Gone, sung by Daniel Mobbs and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter.

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