Third Angle New Music’s final 2017-18 season concert was titled “A Fond Farewell.” The title came from an Elliott Smith song, appropriate for a concert devoted to re-imaginings of the late Portland singer/songwriter/guitarist’s music.
But it was appropriate for another reason: the season’s end also marked the end of the 17-year tenure of 3A’s artistic director, Ron Blessinger, who had run the organization for more than half of its existence. (Given the abruptness of the February 20 announcement and his departure, I’m not so sure about the “fond” part.)
Whatever the circumstances, Blessinger has a lot to be proud of. Board president David Machado praised Blessinger’s “innovative programming” and extensively chronicled his and the organization’s joint achievements during his tenure, including recordings, dozens of commissions of new works, residencies with leading composers, a new record label and commissioning fund, tours to Asia and New York, collaborations with other arts institutions, and much more.
For me, another hugely valuable contribution that took place during his tenure was the Frozen Music series that reimagined where and what a concert could be. Third Angle’s team of Blessinger, executive director Lisa Volle and all its musicians and staffers, going back to its previous incarnation as Virtuosi Della Rosa, deserve credit for making Third Angle one of Oregon’s most valuable musical assets, one of the two longtime beacons (along with its younger comrade FearNoMusic) of contemporary classical music — and a sustainable, forward-looking Oregon arts institution we should all care about.
But after 17 years, it’s time for a new direction. The position announcement was circulated nationally, the organization’s board of directors has appointed a selection committee to winnow the applications, and the board will choose the next AD this summer.
As with any turnover in leadership, this one presents a tremendous opportunity for organizational reinvention. Whoever succeeds Blessinger at Third Angle will bring a new vision, and I hope they choose one that acknowledges several important changes—and challenges—in Oregon’s musical landscape since the last search 17 years ago.
None of these challenges and shortcomings are unique to Third Angle; they plague most of our classical and contemporary classical music institutions. But Third Angle is a special institution in Oregon arts, and its rare impending leadership change presents a dandy opportunity to discuss them.
More Channels, More Choices
Way back in the 20th century, it could be hard for Oregonians to find and sample contemporary classical music. Thanks to the establishment’s obsessive veneration of endlessly re-recorded dead European male composers (lamented by American composers going back to at least Aaron Copland), much of the new music that was composed went unrecorded, or was available briefly on small labels or on the occasional radio broadcast.
That’s one reason ensembles like Third Angle, FearNoMusic, and now others like Sound of Late have been so important. For years, if you wanted to encounter contemporary classical music in Oregon, a Third Angle concert was the best place to do it.
That’s changed. Thanks to forward-looking younger generations of musicians and listeners, there’s more new music being produced than ever before. And, for better or worse, it’s much easier to discover and sample without investing in a concert ticket or CD, thanks to streaming services like Counterstream Radio, YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music and the rest, not to mention live streamed concerts. If Third Angle and the rest just wanted to turn us on to new music, they could do that by posting a monthly playlist on their website with direct links. (Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad idea anyway….) Today’s concerts need to offer more than just newness.
But isn’t live music always better than a recording? Not necessarily. Now that the days of being grateful simply because we could occasionally hear any new music in Oregon are over, we now have the luxury of being choosier. With such an overwhelming volume of available choices nowadays, curation becomes even more crucial: which new music will entertain and stimulate us? It means adding value to the program besides just the music, like interesting venues (a Third Angle specialty), multimedia elements, and the rest. And it means the live performance better offer standards comparable to what we can stream.
And that leads to another necessary change. It’s no longer enough just to play new music in Oregon—it needs to be played better than what we can hear online and from touring ensembles, and often a lot better than audiences have received from our local classical and contemporary classical ensembles.
One problem may be that Third Angle and others have relied primarily on Oregon Symphony musicians; they’ve become almost an unofficial new music chamber extension of the symphony. I’m grateful, since the orchestra itself shamefully neglected new music over the decades and still devotes only a tiny fraction of its classical series minutes to works by contemporary classical composers, though the percentage seems to be slowly improving.
While many in the classical music world insist that that sphere is divided into hemispheres that don’t overlap—that is, that you’re either a good chamber musician or a good orchestra musician but not both—it’s not necessarily that orchestra musicians can’t play chamber music, much less by-definition-unfamiliar chamber music, competently. Granted, it can be a lot harder to figure out how to persuasively interpret rule-breaking new sounds than taking on yet another Brahms chestnut.
But that’s always been the case. What has changed since Third Angle last chose a music director is that Oregon Symphony musicians have gotten a lot busier. Like orchestras everywhere, financial pressure has forced new contracts that demand more “services” from orchestra musicians. That sometimes leaves them, from what I can tell by the product on stage, evidently not enough time to practice adequately for other gigs. With a few exceptions, like the Delgani Quartet (Eugene Symphony musicians all, but that orchestra only plays a dozen shows per season) and ARCO PDX, at many new music shows in Portland, performance quality ranges from at best adequate to sometimes abysmal, with just enough amazing to keep me coming back.
With so many other outlets now available, those of us who cherish new music are increasingly less likely to put up with lame performances in which the musicians are clearly struggling just to get most of the notes. And now we don’t have to. I’ve covered most of the nationally known new music groups—eighth blackbird, Imani Winds, So Percussion, Kronos Quartet, Signal, Alarm Will Sound and many others. Most play Oregon every couple or three years, presented by Portland5, the refreshed Chamber Music Northwest, Friends of Chamber Music and others. Though national prominence is no guarantee of polished performance, you can usually hear a big difference between groups that can devote full time to practice, rehearse and actually interpret new music, and those just surviving it without falling apart. And they typically tour just a few programs per year and hone the same pieces over and over, not trying to play an entirely new repertoire every month or two.
But since it often costs the same to hear too-often-lame locals as it does polished touring pros, from the audience point of view, where’s the better value? This poses a big question for Third Angle: Is it better to have more new music poorly played or less new music played well? We’ve had too much of the former—and I worry that if we’re trying to grow the audience for new music, and we succeed in luring newbies to shows, only for them to hear terrible performances, they’re going to blame the music, not the performances. And next time they have to decide where to spend their dollars, they’ll choose tried-and-true Beethoven or contemporary non-classical music that’s not so hard to play right. Poorly played new music is worse than no new music at all.
Oregon Music Explosion
One way local groups like Third Angle can distinguish themselves from national new music groups is to add value by playing music not just of our time but also of our place. Yes, it’s great to avoid provincialism and bring non-Oregon music from outside to refresh the pool, but if you believe that our own artists are best positioned to create music relevant to us, and with national new music now easier than ever to discover, Oregon’s new music groups should focus more than ever on Oregon music. We can hear most of the rest online or from touring groups.
Happily, there’s been another big change since the last Third Angle AD search: In the past decade or so, Oregon has witnessed a true efflorescence of often excellent homegrown music. And although 3A (and even more, FNM and younger groups like Sound of Late) has nodded to it, even commissioning some local composers, its programming hasn’t kept up with this growth in local music quality. Why, for example, did Third Angle have to go all the way to Brooklyn to find half-a-dozen composers to reimagine the music of Portlander Elliott Smith, when there’s a whole cadre of Cascadia Composers (founded a decade ago, seven years after Blessinger took over Third Angle) right here in Smith’s onetime hometown? While the Third Angle ensemble has occasionally played music by David Schiff and other Oregon composers, homegrown sounds have hitherto comprised too small a fraction of the season’s concerts, and there’s plenty more Oregon music that desperately needs well-prepared performances.
New music hasn’t just grown more abundant, both nationally and in Oregon—like the state and the nation, it’s becoming more diverse. Yet Oregon new music programs and stages have rarely reflected the increasing diversity of our culture and community. It’s mostly middle-aged, middle-class white men playing music by middle-aged (or older, or dead, middle-class white men, for audiences of mostly middle-aged and older white people. Nothing wrong with them (I’m one!), but such a limited demographic doesn’t reflect the community’s growing diversity. (The sole exception I saw this season was at that spring Elliott Smith show, which had audiences that looked younger than others.)
New music should welcome the kind of diversity of genre, race, musical style, gender, etc., that ArtsWatch has advocated from the get go. That means more music played and written by composers and musicians of color and women, and a demonstrable commitment to reaching broader audiences—including more affordable ticket prices to expand the demographic of new music audiences.
Signs of Change
Third Angle’s next season, supervised by interim artistic director Sarah Tiedemann, a flutist who’s performed in 3A concerts and is a candidate for the permanent job, seems to begin addressing some of the future’s demands—particularly diversity.
“Our music should reflect the makeup of the society we live in,” she told ArtsWatch. “There are a lot of white male composers who may be well-known and who have had access to opportunities, and it’s too easy to go straight to them. We were pretty selective with asking better questions about who is doing great work so we can connect with a wider cross-section of people.”
The team solicited suggestions from contacts including Peruvian-American composer Gabriela Lena Frank, with whom it’s worked several times. It also utilized Chamber Music America’s comprehensive list of composers from under-represented groups. “We wanted to diversify without tokenizing people. Everyone is a part of the season because they’re the best person for the job.”
But at the same time, Tiedemann, who is a white cis-gender woman, “didn’t want to be in the position of speaking for [under-represented groups]. We’re trying to create a safe space for artists to give their input at every stage of the process, from marketing materials to outreach to the actual show.”
One of those influential voices belongs to Subashini Ganesan, who is the Creative Laureate of Portland and also runs New Expressive Works, where Third Angle presents their Studio Series. Ganesan will choreograph and dance in the group’s January Indian Music Now show, which features new music by Indian-American composers whose music reflects the intersection of both cultures. Three out of four of those composers are female. One performance takes place at The Vault in Hillsboro, home to a large Indian American population and arts and culture organizations, reflecting Third Angle’s goal to further diversify its audience by performing outside of central Portland.
September’s season-opening concert adds gender diversity with Sarah Hennies, a Time Based Art Festival concert that combines voices of transgender women with live music and film. Hennies and partner organization Portland Institute for Contemporary Art are helping the organization plan ways to connect with the LGBTQIA+ community.
As for Oregon composers, Tiedemann says Third Angle will collaborate with Creative Music Guild composers Branic Howard and Loren Chasse in a March concert featuring locally sourced soundscapes. Commissioned by Third Angle, they also represent a different kind of new music than past composers it’s worked with, coming more from an improvisatory tradition.
Rounding out the season are November’s Play Like a Girl—with solo percussionist Luanne Warner Katz playing music by leading female composer Eve Beglarian, as well as by Steve Reich and others—and concerts featuring works by leading American composers John Luther Adams and Steven Mackey. The season’s varied lineup of performers makes Third Angle more and more resemble a presenting as well as performing organization.
Tiedemann and I spoke just after I’d seen The Thanksgiving Play, which is about, among other things, the paralysis that can result from well-intentioned people trying desperately not to cause more offense than has already occurred. Tiedemann passed on another lesson for anyone from a historically dominant group trying to achieve greater diversity: “It’s complicated because you want to make the world better and you don’t want to offend anyone,” she explains. “But on the other hand, you can’t learn without making mistakes. You have to be willing to take action, to listen to as many voices as possible, to have someone tell you you’re doing it wrong, and to teach yourself to hear that without getting defensive. It’s one of the scarier parts of the process of trying to be more inclusive—the fear that you’re going to offend people, that you’ll undermine the progress you hope to make.”
To the question of performance standards, Tiedemann noted that next season relies on musicians from a wider cross-section of Portland’s arts scene—not just Oregon Symphony musicians. Moreover, “we moved the planning schedule up several months, with all our players secured for next season and the repertoire and commissions arranged well in advance. Having everything nailed down earlier enables our conscientious performers to do their best work.”
The organization builds from a strong base, says executive director Lisa Volle. It recently had what she calls “the largest fundraiser in Third Angle’s history,” and since then “we’ve had really successful meetings with foundations and donors” that resulted in a big increase in support. “That provides stability and a foundation that allows us take more risks,” she says.
“We’re evaluating everything we’re doing,” Volle says, from the number of concerts to venues, to programming, to communicating with audiences, to collaborating with other organizations, to providing context for the music. “As a new music ensemble, we need to expand and change. Every organization needs to ask whether its vision and goals are still relevant, or whether it needs to make new ones. This is a natural time to do it. With any transition, it’s good to analyze and critique what you’re doing well and where there’s room for improvement. That’s an important part of the journey.”
As for Blessinger, he’s landed at 45th Parallel as executive director, followed by the rest of 3A’s string quartet, which included 45th Parallel founder/director Greg Ewer. That ensemble, whose board is mostly comprised of Oregon Symphony musicians, has also announced its forthcoming season—and the program is in many ways an impressive one, with one concert featuring African American composers and another, Oregon composers.
More so than Third Angle, 45th Parallel, whose new motto is “Having our Cake and Eating it Too,” er, sorry, “Embracing musical tradition even as we challenge it,” mixes old and new music on its programs. That approach can avoid the ghettoization of new music, potentially bringing old music audiences to new music and vice versa, and reinforcing the connection between old and new classical music, demonstrating that new music hails not from another planet but rather from ancient traditions. But with so few outlets for new music, it’s hard to blame groups like 3A, FearNoMusic, or for that matter non-Oregon trailblazers like Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can for focusing entirely on new sounds, any more than your average rock band covers Chuck Berry anymore. Oregon is lucky to have an ecosystem that provides listeners choices among multiple approaches. And those approaches should continue to evolve.
Other once-hidebound classical organizations like Chamber Music Northwest and others have proved that it’s possible to change course to meet changing conditions. Third Angle has provided some of my most memorable and treasured musical moments since I’ve been in Oregon, and I want it and our other music organizations to succeed and to reward Oregon music lovers—by evolving with the times.