Weekend MusicWatch: Jazz gems, Baroque bass, and more

Bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku performs with Portland Baroque Orchestra.

Bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku performs with Portland Baroque Orchestra.

The big story in Oregon music this for the next week or so is the Portland Jazz Festival, which opens Friday night with the Barry Harris Trio at Jimmy Mak’s club and Afro Cuban All Stars at the Aladdin Theater. That show is actually sold out, but you can catch ’em at the Shedd in Eugene Saturday, and having seen them last year in Portland, I can tell you they’re worth the trip.

But those acts, along with Alfredo Rodriguez Sunday, Gerald Wilson Monday, guitar great Kurt Rosenwinkel Tuesday, and others, are only the headliners. PDX Jazz is replete with free events and low cost partner concerts featuring such excellent locals as Rebecca Kilgore, Randy Porter, Andre St. James, Dave Frishberg, Devin Phillips, Mel Brown, Art Abrams Swing Machine, Blue Cranes, Seattle’s great composer pianist Wayne Horvitz, and much more. Check the festival website for the big picture, and catch as much of this annual profusion of jazz riches as you can. And speaking of jazz pix, check out photographer Bruce Polonsky‘s images of PDX Jazz fest at the Oregon Jewish Museum, starting this Friday through April 14.

PDX Jazz: A Musical Celebration For Portland from Don Lucoff on Vimeo.

Boss Bassist

When Chi-chi Nwanoku was a schoolgirl in Britain, she thought she might grow up to be an athlete. Then, while playing football with other students, the half-Nigerian, half Irish girl was swarmed by her opponents, one of them kicking her so viciously that her knee was permanently damaged, so much that she couldn’t run again. In the documentary where she recounted the story of her life-changing injury, Nwanoku never specifically identifies the non sports-related reason for her victimization, but if it was related to her race, her antagonists certainly lost the battle to keep her down. Nwanoku’s teachers steered her toward music, she picked up the double bass shunned by the other girls at the school, and went on to become one of the instrument’s most prominent practitioners, performing with the finest orchestras (particularly in Baroque music) and receiving honors from the queen of England herself. This weekend, she brings her nearly four-century-old instrument to the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall Sunday in Eugene and to Portland’s First Baptist Church on Friday and Saturday to perform, with Portland Baroque Orchestra directed by Monica Huggett, music from the golden age of the double bass — late 18th century Viennese music by Haydn, Mozart, Boccherini and more. Here’s an interview with Nwanoku conducted by the always insightful Caitriona Bolster of Eugene’s KWAX radio.

In an earlier post here, I referred to PBO as “Oregon’s most accomplished orchestra,” and a reader asked why I didn’t accord that honor to, say, the Oregon Symphony.

I confess that I was being a bit provocative. It’s almost an apples to oranges to comparison: OSO is many times larger than PBO and plays a vaster variety of repertoire. And by the strictest definition, PBO may not even be considered an Oregon orchestra; not all of its members live in the state (its director doesn’t even live in the US, though she’s here often and has been coming here for decades). It’s really an all star ensemble of musicians who perform in other orchestras like San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and others.

Actually, I resist the idea of such competitions in the arts. PBO and OSO do their own, different things, and we should be very happy that we have both. As another sometime Portlander, Bill Walton, noted around the same time, “I learned not to rank coaches, concerts, championships, children and congratulations.”

But the reason I used those words was to awaken Oregon music lovers who may not have heard PBO to the wonder in our midst. I fear that orchestras like PBO (or, for that matter, new music specialists like Third Angle or FearNoMusic, which typically perform at ensemble rather than orchestral scale) can be ghettoized as mere specialists, and their quality overlooked.

PBO does perform several times a year in Oregon, and some of its players, like Huggett, oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, who teaches at Juilliard, flutist Janet See and others, have collectively appeared on more recordings than all the members of the OSO combined. Several are regarded as among the top players in the world on their instruments.

And as my esteemed fellow ArtsWatcher Barry Johnson points out, in the history of performances of say, a Mahler symphony, no one would argue that an OSO recording would rank among the best. But in the same history of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, PBO’s recording at least belongs in the conversation. Granted, it’s a much smaller orchestra, but, like comparing Sugar Ray Robinson to any heavyweight champion of his era, pound for pound, I’ll stand by this statement: the musicians of PBO regularly deliver the most accomplished orchestra performances in Oregon.

The best way to gauge an orchestra’s appeal, though, is by its audience response, and here is where PBO really eclipses any orchestra in the state. At virtually every performance, audiences go (in classical music terms at least) crazy over their performances, whereas I always spot dozers at other orchestra concerts. I suspect that some of this has to do with the respective venues: First Baptist Church and even Kaul Auditorium are much smaller venues than the dreadful Schnitzer concert hall, bringing audiences much closer to the action and personalities of the musicians. And thanks to Huggett’s unbridled emotional connection to the music, she and PBO musicians express their joy in their body movements and facial expressions as well as their playing style — without sacrificing necessary precision. It doesn’t hurt that the players often stand, and that there are so relatively few of them. Their faces and styles become familiar after only a few listens. Other orchestras could take some lessons from PBO; others may not be replicable.

That said, I take the point that PBO doesn’t play nearly the variety of works that OSO or other Oregon orchestras and chamber orchestras regularly try. In fact, I would love to hear PBO expand its ambit. Huggett has already got them playing music of the Classical and even early Romantic eras, though to my ears, those efforts have generally been less persuasive than performances in their Baroque wheelhouse. But it’d be a thrill to hear PBO essay some contemporary music — even a commission from composers who know Baroque style, like Eugene’s Robert Kyr. Portland born Lou Harrison was a Baroque fan who wrote many works in tunings that Bach himself used, Portland’s own Tomas Svoboda has composed a “new” Brandenburg Concerto, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned some modern Brandenburg concertos from well known composers a few years ago, and other contemporary composers have written new music for ancient instruments.

None of this is to disparage the OSO, which continues to punch above its weight (to continue the boxing analogy) and in fact my original comment was made in the context of noting the symphony’s rapidly improving skill and power. On its best days, it can play with just about any orchestra in the land, and I’ve heard most of the best. We’re lucky to have them. And, considering that there only a dozen or Baroque orchestras in the entirety of North America, even luckier to have PBO.

The University of Oregon's Beall Concert Hall hosts the world premiere of Canticle of the Black Madonna Saturday.

The University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall hosts the world premiere of Canticle of the Black Madonna Saturday.

Chamber Choices

The PBO shows aren’t the only Baroque fare on tap on this sunny Oregon weekend. On Sunday afternoon, lutenists John Schneiderman and Hideki Yamaya play music of Domenico Scarlatti and other composers at Musica Maestrale’s concert at southeast Portland’s Community Music Center. And speaking of strumming and picking, there’ll be Baroque music on the program in two guitar concerts, one by the great American classical guitarist Jason Vieaux Friday at Marylhurst University, and the other by the San Francisco Guitar Quartet Friday at Linfield College.

More intimate music is on stage Sunday afternoon at Silverton’s Concert House, where the Dulcet Abiqua Duo play music by Bartok, Shostakovich and the duo’s own pianist/composer, Christopher Wicks. His partner, Niels Nielsen, will play the douçaine, and ancient predecessor to the oboe. Also Sunday, Opera Theater Oregon music director Erica Melton accompanies baritone Ben Bell in one of the great Romantic song cycles, Schubert’s “The Lovely Maid of the Mill,” at downtown Portland’s St Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

On Friday and Saturday night at southeast Portland’s immense YU art center, California cellist Charles Curtis plays midcentury modernist music by eminent French composer Éliane Radigue, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, American composer Alvin Curran, and more.

Also on Saturday night, pianist Maria Choban, a great friend of and sometimes contributor to ArtsWatch, stages one of her provocative, intense (one hour, no intermission) free MC Hammered Klavier concerts at Portland’s CMC, this one featuring guest appearances by tenor Kenneth Beare (in Ravel’s sublime Greek songs), former Oregon Symphony flutist Dawn Weiss (in contemporary American composer Paul Schoenfield’s wild, klezmer influenced “Ufaratsta,” the Mousai ensemble (in tuneful, danceable contemporary music by Miguel del Aguila and Kevin Gray) and more. Another enticing mix of old and new sounds (Palestrina, Bjork, Lassus, Gillian Welch, etc) informs the Julians concert Saturday at Wilsonville’s St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church.

While the Oregon Symphony is dancing with the stars this weekend, classical orchestral fans can check out the Vancouver Symphony‘s fine 20th century program of Samuel Barber’s heart-tugging nostalgia trip, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Manuel de Falla’s electrifying “Love, the Magician,” and music from Bizet’s opera, “The Girl from Arles,” at Vancouver’s Skyview concert hall, or the Columbia Symphony’s fundraising concert at the Portland Marriott led by Oregon’s own David Ogden Stiers and featuring music by Ravel, Rossini and more.

The Canticle of the Black Madonna Trailer from Ethan Gans-Morse on Vimeo.

Maybe the most exciting show in Oregon this weekend is the world premiere of a new opera-oratorio, “The Canticle of the Black Madonna,” at the UO’s Beall Hall Saturday. Composed by UO grad student Ethan Gans-Morse, who won a young composers award given by Portland Vocal Consort a couple years ago, it features his Ambrosia Ensemble. As I wrote in Eugene Weekly, “With its combination of original music, masks and movement, this major creative event reminds me of the late Catherine Vandertuin’s Eugene Chamber Theater a decade ago, or Seattle composer Garrett Fisher’s original, myth-influenced operas. Librettist and artistic designer Tiziana DellaRovere’s book tells the story of a PTSD-afflicted American soldier returning home to Louisiana from combat in Afghanistan during the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill, and how he and his wife recover from the devastating wounds inflicted by environmental and military violence. Using six operatic soloists, chorus, and chamber orchestra original poetry, masks, costumes, paintings, and music, the ambitious production draws on ancient Greek drama, Jungian psychology and current events to tell a story of healing.”

One Response.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    “And as my esteemed fellow ArtsWatcher Barry Johnson points out, in the history of performances of say, a Mahler symphony, no one would argue that an OSO recording would rank among the best.”

    And what about a Vaughan Williams symphony?

Comments are closed.