Weekend MusicWatch: Esteemed visitors

Friends of Chamber Music brings the Takacs Quartet to Portland Monday and Tuesday. Photo credit: Ellen Appel.

“The Schumann songs are a bit gloomy — well, they’re very gloomy! — but I wanted to do that. When you think of these 19th-century composers, a lot of them dealt with depression, and some of their best work came out of depressing periods. It’s just amazing stuff. So I went there with the Schumann.”

Singer Eric Owens, in San Francisco Classical Voice.

I realize the days are nearing their shortest of the year — but did vocal recitalist Eric Owens have to remind us of that fact by bringing Oregon one of the darkest song programs in recent memory? For the morose first half of his Friends of Chamber Music recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week, the powerful bass baritone, ably accompanied by last- minute replacement pianist Jay Rozendaal from Seattle Opera and Western Washington University, chose somber repertoire  — as dark and heavy as a German winter beer — by Schubert, the above mentioned Schumann and Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. Owens’ glowering voice captured the desolate, angst-ridden emotional landscape of settings of poems by Goethe and others as clearly and effectively as he’s done in his famous opera roles.

So effectively, in fact, that I wasn’t sure how many listeners would return for the second set, but those who managed to avoid suicide at intermission returned to a gradually lightening songscape of French repertoire, especially after the three Henri Duparc songs gave way to Maurice Ravel’s evocative Don Quixote music, whose closing “Drinking Song” finally drew some much needed laughter. You know it’s a bleak night when Wagner (the rousing Two Grenadiers) lightens the mood.

I have to admit that I’d hoped for some of the contemporary repertoire that Owens has earned plaudits for, but as he told SFCV, “I’m a person who sings a lot of new music, so I wanted to make an effort to sing 19th- and early-20th-century music, and to represent the two languages that are most associated with recital — that’s German and French,” both with the accent on despair.

Fortunately, Owens’ two encores (which the enthusiastic audience demanded — obviously not all of them were as bummed out as I was) finally let the light in. Owens called Henry Purcell’s tender “Music for a While” particularly close to his heart, and it sure sounded that way. And his lovingly rendered closing spiritual — “my answer to the Schumann set,” he said — “Shall We Gather at the River” washed the gloom away.

Maybe solemnity is appropriate for the advent season and its themes of yearning, longing, expectation and redemption, as the text and music of many of the songs chosen for Cantores in Ecclesia’s concert last Sunday expressed. But reflective subject matter couldn’t prevent lovers of the human voice from reveling in the glorious sounds of this sublime Portland choir. Many of the faces and voices in this performance at Northwest Portland’s St. Patrick’s Church would have been familiar to anyone who frequents Portland choral performances — most of the women’s vocal ensemble In Mulieribus, members of Cappella Romana, Resonance Ensemble, and other top Portland choirs, for which Cantores serves as a kind of incubator. Hearing them all together was a special treat.

My favorite moment came in probably the least somber music on the program, a characteristically refulgent piece by the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria,  but every work really took flight, including contemporary compositions by Arvo Part (his relatively austere Magnificat) and James MacMillan. At their best, this exceptional corps of singers is one of a handful of Oregon classical music institutions that can really aspire to world class status. This concert was certainly one of the most memorable I heard this season.

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s concert last week was really a chamber music show, featuring only at most eight players — but what an octet. Led by guest director, cellist and viola da gamba master Jaap ter Linden, one of the real stars of the 20th century’s Baroque music revival, PBO once again demonstrated the superb poise, expressivity and rhythmic punch we’ve heard in their larger incarnations. The group blows away the old fussy, academic stereotype of period instrument groups, delivering fiery, joyful performances as electrifying as any classical ensemble in town. In Telemann’s Suite in D, they watched each other carefully so they could respond to ter Linden’s phrasing with maximum flexibility, producing an almost jazzy coiled-spring performance propelled by tension and release, yet maintaining the composer’s trademark elegance. Guest harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, from Seattle Baroque Orchestra, contributed crisp continuo.

Even Luigi Boccherini’s comparatively lightweight Quintet in E, whose familiar minuet is one of the most popular tunes in Baroque music, sang sweetly, and again it was a pleasure to watch the small ensemble members grinning and responding so tightly to each other, like the best chamber ensembles.

The biggest thrill, unsurprisingly, came in the closing number, J.S. Bach’s great Brandenburg Concerto #6, the all time showcase for that most under-appreciated of instruments, the viola. As he had throughout the evening, newly shorn violist/violinist Rob Diggins flung himself into his half of the famous duet, his unrestrained grin even more visible without his usual full mane and beard, while his viola duet partner, Victoria Gunn Pich, locked in precisely.  What Baroque violas lack in consistent intonation, they more than make up for in expressivity, especially in hands as sensitive as these, and this performance of the last Brandenburg was a joy from start to finish.

Along with their undoubted skill and the power of the authentic instruments and tunings they use, PBO’s exuberant physical and musical expressivity — the sheer joy they pour into their music making — surely accounts for their audience’s typically enthusiastic response, and the group deservedly received a full share at this sold-out performance.

Historic authenticity and appreciative audiences also marked pianist Douglas Schneider’s prodigious performance at Opera Theater Oregon’s The Black Pirate vs. The Flying Dutchman at Portland’s Mission Theater last week. Sporting a piratical bandanna, the normally bookish-looking pianist, who’s surely of one Portland’s most valuable musicians because of his many accompanying roles in concerts all year round, swashed as many buckles at the keyboard as the film’s star, Douglas Fairbanks, did on screen.

Back in the silent film era of this still-astonishing 1926 classic, musicians would improvise accompaniments on keyboards in the theaters where the films were shown. Schneider improvised on themes from Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, along with occasional other tunes, classical and pop, and it sounded perfectly natural — although admittedly, it was hard to focus on the music while Fairbanks was pulling off his own spectacular stunts.

The climactic sequence in which his fighting men victoriously hoist him up several decks of the recaptured vessel made even CGI-spoiled audience gasp in astonishment. With sea shanties sung before the show, and pirates mingling in the audience, Schneider’s impressive performance provided a splendid kick off to OTO’s season of opera meets film.

This weekend offers another great improvising pianist, when one of today’s most important jazz stars, Vijay Iyer, performs Saturday at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall, the culmination of a week-long residency. After more than a decade of impressive small group performances and compositions for film, chamber ensembles (including a piece played by the Brentano Quartet at last summer’s Chamber Music Northwest), dance and orchestra, Iyer finally broke through with one of last year’s top jazz albums, Historicity, and his recent solo album of music by Monk, Ellington, Michael Jackson and original music promises a stellar solo show at the UO.

Also in Eugene, The Shedd opens its new, fully staged production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, based on the 1959 Broadway production, which contains music dropped from the later film. The hills will be alive through December 18.

Still another great pianist comes to Oregon this weekend when Portland Piano International brings Richard Goode to the city’s Newmark Theater Sunday afternoon to play music by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. And more pianophilia strikes on Saturday night when members of the Portland Piano Club play music by Satie, Ellington, Ravel, Chopin and more.

As that terrific Cantores show demonstrated, it’s already been a strong season for choral music in Portland, and this weekend, Chamber Music Northwest brings one of the world’s most renowned choirs, the Tallis Scholars, from England to sing Part’s Magnificat, along with music by  Palestrina, Britten, and more at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Northwest Portland. You won’t hear a finer choir anywhere.

Friends of Chamber Music brings another of the world’s most acclaimed classical music institutions, the Takacs Quartet, back to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall Monday and Tuesday to play music by Beethoven, Janacek, Bartok, Britten, Haydn and probably my favorite work of chamber music, Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet. This will be the fourth interpretation I’ve been privileged to hear in Portland this year, and it should be fascinating to compare them.

On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, big band fans can hear famed violinist Pinchas Zukerman play a Haydn Violin Concerto and conduct the Oregon Symphony in Schumann’s Symphony #2, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, and more. On Saturday at Lincoln Hall, the Portland State Symphony Orchestra, following up its ace performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream last weekend, plays more Tchaikovsky (a suite from Swan Lake) plus Darius Milhaud’s pioneering classical -jazz one night stand, The Creation of the World, and a contemporary work by acclaimed Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

Moving another step down in age, a la Benjamin Button, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony will perform Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons and music by J.S. Bach, Bizet and more on Sunday afternoon at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. And on Saturday, the award winning Portland Symphonic Girlchoir will sing holiday hits and more at Portland’s Zion Lutheran Church.

Sometimes it feels a little, I don’t know, Marie Antoinettish to be focusing so much on the arts when so much else of immediate importance to our society is going on in the streets. Recently, New Yorker classical music writer Alex Ross asked Lindberg’s colleague and countryman, the great former LA Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who last week nabbed the biggest prize for music composition) this:

AR: There is presently a worldwide rebellion against inequalities in income. How should classical music, popularly associated with elites and wealth, react in the current climate?

EPS: All we have to fight is the prejudice, a false image created by miscommunication and sometimes by total lack of communication. In this country for instance, the cheapest tickets to orchestra concerts are not dramatically more expensive than tickets to sports events or movies. Without any student or senior reductions, the cheapest regular tickets cost little over twenty dollars mostly, in Europe often a lot less than that. By far the most expensive concert ticket I ever bought was for a Madonna show, by the way.

The sad fact is that we are witnessing a fierce anti-intellectual period in Western culture, both here and in Europe. Populist right-wing movements are attacking the arts and enlightened critical thinking everywhere, and the epithet “elitist” is being used as the favorite blunt instrument by those politicians. So far I haven’t seen the anti-Wall Street/London City protest movement forming any direct cultural positions, but I cannot see how classical music with its very modest commercial dimensions would be seen as an enemy by anybody who is willing and able to look beyond the uninformed use of the word “elitist.”

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