“This concert is in the spirit of intergenerational support and cooperation,” said Kenji Bunch, co-artistic director of Fear No Music. “The whole trajectory of music history is this continuum of creativity and artists inspiring each other. We don’t live in a vacuum. We influence and nurture each other’s work.”
Bunch was talking about Fear No Music’s Legacies I concert, which will open the ensemble’s 31st season on Monday, November 28. The intrepid musicians of FNM are noted for undertaking all sorts of new music – including the electronic, eclectic, and eccentric – but their upcoming program will start with the present and go back in time.
In terms of contemporary music, what could be better than to open the concert with a piece by an alum of the FNM’s Young Composers Project, which was started by Jeff Payne 25 years ago.
“The Young Composers Project is Jeff Payne’s baby,” said Bunch “He started it and is still working on it with Ryan Francis and Nick Emerson. We put our collective heads together and chose Cloud Valley by YCP alum Nathan Campbell. It’s a beautiful cello quartet that fits perfectly with the rest of the program. It has an unusual instrumentation with the four cellos, but it works with our concept of intergenerational cooperation. We are bringing in three cellists from MYSfits String Ensemble that I direct. They will perform Cloud Valley with Nancy Ives.”
To find out more about Cloud Valley, I called Campbell, who participated in YCP in 2007. He has since received his bachelors in music from Chapman University and a masters from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He is now 32 years old and lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he teaches piano.
“I wrote Cloud Valley in 2014 when I was finishing my masters,” said Campbell. “I had a lot of friends at the conservatory who were cellists. It was originally performed as part of my graduate recital and later done at Western Washington State University. When I wrote it, I was inspired by Barber’s Adagio for Strings. So it is in a similar mood. It’s a one-movement piece that is somber and slow moving with shifting harmonies. It has a simple melodic line that ascends and descends, but the shifting harmonies propel the piece forward.“
Another new work on the Legacies I program is Simurgh – quintet by Ukranian composer Victoria Polevá. She works in a style called sacred minimalism, which is the same school as Arvo Pärt.
I exchanged email with Polevá to find out more about Simurgh – quintet. Here is her response:
It is a one-part composition for two violins, viola, cello and piano. This work is inspired by a Sufi poem of Farsd ud-Dsn Attar, The Conference of the Birds (Manteq al-Tayr, XIII century). In the poem…the birds of the world set forth in search of their king, Simurgh, to escape from the suffering of life. Passing the seven valleys (seven steps towards improving), passing many trials, the birds reach the abode of Simurgh – where each bird in each rose, as if in a mirror, sees his own reflection. So they discover that Simurgh – it is themselves (“simurgh” in Farsi means “30 birds” (si – thirty, murgh – bird). Simurgh, thus, could be interpreted as a symbol of true unity.
Simurgh – quintet is organized by the interaction of a pair of antinomies: psalmodic speech (piano) and choral singing (strings), by their functional separation at the beginning, rotation, inter-translations and the transformation in the unity in the final.
The dramaturgy of the piece is a long way through the images of soaring feather, the movement of the wings, whisper, and sparks, which suddenly end with the singing of fiery Simurgh. Musical material of the quintet has a hidden inner text and comes from Orthodox practice of prayer.
There is a word layer hidden behind the musical text. The piano part features a quiet recitation of the Jesus Prayer. In the finale, against the background of the dance of the fiery bird, a choral prayer sounds. Before the reprise, there is an important moment of the burning of the Simurgh (before his resurrection). It’s almost a theatrical image – there all the strings are slowly gliding down.
Because of the war in Ukraine, I also asked Polevá where she is living. Her reply: “My hometown is Kyiv, I was born there and have lived there all my life. Now I live in Switzerland, but I dream of returning home.”
According to Bunch, Pelova as a young composer was influenced by Alfred Schnittke. That makes a nice segue to the next piece on the concert, Schnittke’s 1976 meditation on Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor.
“I’ve always been a fan of Schnittke,” said Bunch. “His use of quotations and stylistic mixture is engaging even though it is dark in character. And after we play the Schnittke, we’ll do Mahler. It was written a hundred years earlier – in 1876. So we will make a big leap backwards. It is his sole chamber work. He was an epic symphonic composer, but this is an unfinished work. There is just one completed movement and a fragment of a scherzo.”
The Mahler will be followed by Johannes Brahms’ Five Songs Op. 49, which he wrote in 1868. Vakare Petroliunaite, one of Portland’s superb sopranos, will sing them with Jeff Payne on piano.
“These lieder are from the middle period of Brahms,” remarked Bunch. “Mahler was studying in Vienna and an admirer of Brahms, who supported and encouraged Mahler.”
Brahms idolized Clara Schumann. So, the concert will fittingly conclude with Clara Schumann’s 1853 solo piano Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20. Monica Ohuchi, co-artistic director of Fear No Music will play that beautiful piece.
Ohuchi will perform all of the pieces that involve piano except for the Brahms. So I asked her via email to talk about them a bit. “All of the pieces I’m performing on this concert (Schnittke, Poleva, Mahler, and C. Schumann) are brand new to me,” Ohuchi said, “and I’m really enjoying learning them all. They are all so different, and I think it will be really interesting to see the throughline of how all these pieces are connected.”
“The Clara Schumann piece has been particularly enjoyable to work on,” Ohuchi continued. “It’s deeply musical and technically satisfying and challenging. It’s always interesting to me to play a pianist’s piece. I can tell that Clara’s hands were bigger than mine — she has chords and stretches in her writing that are awkward and difficult for me to reach.”
Human ping-pong balls
It’s remarkable how Bunch and Ohuchi as a husband/wife team run a music organization, perform, and teach–all while raising two kids (ages 8 and 10) and keeping their sanity. They’re like a pair of human ping pong balls.
Bunch composes, teaches viola and composition at Portland State University and Reed College where he runs an American roots ensemble – a bluegrass band. He also teaches theory for the musicians of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, conducts the MYSfits string ensemble, and occasionally plays in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony.
Ohuchi maintained a very active piano studio up until last year. “I taught 40 hours a week, and I loved every moment,” she said. “My students were clever, curious, talented, hard working… and then last fall, I took a job as Program Director at Reed College, and I no longer had the time to teach privately. I still teach and coach chamber music at the college level, and every once in a while will give a private lesson here and there (and am reminded of how much I love teaching). I still teach my two Bunchkins everyday.”
“My official title at Reed College is Program Director of Private Music Instruction,” Ohuchi continued. “I oversee the performance arm of the music division; the instrumental and vocal lessons – I have an instructional staff of 35 teachers – chamber music, orchestra, jazz ensemble. I run our wonderfully vibrant and diverse recital series at the college. The students at Reed are exceptionally bright and challenging in the best possible ways.”
Finally, I had to ask her how she and her husband handle the co-leadership responsibility at FNM. “My role in Fear No Music is executive,” Ohuchi said. “Kenji is the artistic brains and my job is to see his vision(s) come to fruition. As a married Executive/Artistic team, it does mean that our work never stops; we’re constantly strategizing and dreaming—it is also what keeps our spark for the organization constantly lit!”
Wow! They look to the horizon and have a legacy to boot!