Fear No Music’s artistic director Kenji Bunch is a talented programmer, not to mention, composer and violist. He plans concerts that open ears to music we’ve never heard–and, sometimes, to music we’re uncomfortable with. Though a leader in exploring and exposing so-called “new music,” he’s not starry-eyed about it; once played, the music falls into the old-music file. Everything builds on everything else–and that concept inspired FNM’s Legacies 1: The Creative Continuum concert Nov. 30 at Portland’s The Old Church. You can’t tackle the new till you process the old, Grammy-nominated rapper Tobe Nwigwe says, (though he was not part of this concert).
Bunch and FNM push the envelope for audiences hesitant to expand their ideas about what music can be, though FNM audiences lean strongly toward the musically open-minded. Still, Bunch structures performances so that alienating or difficult pieces are balanced by newly beloved ones.
Take Alfred Schnittke, the mid-20th-century Russian composer known for “polystylism” and his deep dark long look at man’s spiritual struggles. Bunch has a soft spot for the composer, who was one of the most popular in the mid-to-late 20th-century. Schnittke was part of the mid-century Soviet avant-garde, and his 1976 Piano Quartet, a rare piece of his chamber music and thankfully only 8 minutes, incorporated harsh shifts of style from Baroque to extreme modern dissonance. The quartet, played in the first part of the concert, was taxing to listen to, and judging by the winces among the pews, it assaulted the ears of some of the most musically liberated. One man said he almost walked out of the church, and I’m sure that sentiment has been shared by others during the 50 years that Schnittke’s work has been played—and it has been played often. Of course, the FNM musicians—violinist Inés Voglar Belgique, Bunch on viola, cellist Nancy Ives and pianist Monica Ohuchi—are top-drawer and were able to soften the blow. Intermission was welcome.
Schnittke, gratefully, was a small part of the concert, which in part celebrated the first of FNM’s 25-year-old Young Composers Project. This month’s concert featured composer Nathan Campbell, a pianist in Bellingham, Wash., who studied in earlier years with FNM pianist/co-founder Jeff Payne, the shepherd of the composer-mentoring program. Aside from paying tribute to a former student-turned-composer (as FNM will in several subsequent concerts), the program drew a throughline, beginning with Campbell’s meditative and mystical 2014 Cloud Valley for four cellos. The piece’s performance was held together deftly and unobtrusively by Oregon Symphony principal cellist/composer Ives, joined by MYSfits string musicians Catherine Hartrim-Lowe, Naomi Margolis and Merle Hayes from the Metropolitan Youth Symphony–with whom FNM is making a point to collaborate.
The throughline descended from present to past, ending the concert–or beginning the string of influence–with Clara Wieck-Schumann. In between were pieces by Schnittke, Ukrainian-born Victoria Polevá, Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms, subtly revealing the influences these composers had on one another.
As for the meaty middle of the concert—and I won’t pick on Schnittke anymore—Polevá’s Simurgh-quintett, written in 2000, was an example of sacred minimalism, inspired in part by Schnittke. This piece had its discordant moments, but the slow liturgical tone, occasionally disrupted by strident conversations among the strings and piano, perfectly fit the Old Church and the concert’s tone. I have never heard anything quite like it—prayerful, mysterious, mystical, despairing—perhaps a piece to accompany grief. It skirted monotony and left you wanting more. Surely the composition and the sacred minimalism movement or “genre” exerted some sway on Campbell’s reverential Cloud Valley. Let’s hope to hear more from Polevá, who lives in Switzerland and is better known in Europe than here.
Brahms’ Five Songs, op.46, showcased Vakarė Petroliūnaitė’s strong, clear soprano as she sang some familiar pieces, such as Brahms “Lullaby” and “To a Violet.” Each was no more than 3 minutes, and FNM piano accompanist Payne kept the tempo exacting yet fluid. Petroliūnaitė has sung one other time with FNM, and she appeared to be at home. The audience welcomed the shift from strings to voice.
And finally, there was the Wieck-Schumann, the main moment of the evening.
Wieck-Schumann, too often known as Robert Schumann’s wife, was the first noted piano performer to pioneer the practice of performing music by memory. She’s also a composer whose work is starting to garner more significant attention. Her 1853 piece, Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, op. 20, was sensitively and mellifluously brought to life by uber-talented pianist Ohuchi, who mentioned in James Bash’s Nov. 22 Oregon Arts Watch story that Schumann’s hands were bigger than hers–so that her execution required a stretch on the Steinway grand. She overcame the obstacle gracefully, playing rolled chords to compensate, looking and sounding as if she were performing by memory, the music in her bones. Written to honor Wieck-Schumann’s beloved husband–Romantic music giant Robert Schumann, who was seriously ill–the 15-minute piece concluded the concert to enthusiastic applause, letting us forget about Schnittke, or even Wieck-Schumann’s alleged canoodling with Brahms. Ohuchi, by the way, toughed out performing a Chamber Music Northwest concert this summer at the Alberta Rose Theatre with a sprained ankle. As with Wieck-Schumann, it would be a mistake to underestimate these two pianists.
This fully Western-music concert was an education in influences, yet honestly, not as intriguing as 31-year-old FNM’s “Asian Resilience and Joy” May performance that explored three generations of seven composers with roots in various parts of Asia. That’s not because the Nov. 30 program traced Western music—or included Schnittke!— it was simply one reviewer’s preference.
And no matter which my preference, FNM “sells” tickets on a donation basis. Give what you can … a generous way for accomplished musicians to put new, and often old, works out into the world.