Weekend MusicWatch: Looking backward

Danish modern and more: Trio con Brio Copenhagen performs at Portland State University

Perhaps appropriately, given the new year’s daunting prospects in politics, economics and other affairs, 2012, in Portland classical music, started off with a backward gaze — and a prayer.

In its biggest project ever, involving more than two dozen of the city’s finest singers, Cappella Romana’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 All-Night Vigil was much more than a concert. Along with the Russian composer’s settings of hymns, canticles and psalms appropriate for the traditional Orthodox Saturday evening service, the Northwest’s pre-eminent vocal ensemble interpolated other choral arrangements by Russian composers of the time and earlier, including Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, creating what felt like an actual liturgical experience and thereby adding depth, breadth and historical context. Yet listeners were there for a musical experience, not a worship service, and the additional selections, well-chosen by CR music director Alexander Lingas, infused welcome stylistic variety to the program, particularly jolting the second half with more animated musical energy. The show also gained variety because the spotlight kept shifting to different soloists and subgroups, and the sound ranged from delicate to exultant. Still, it all felt remarkably integrated despite the music’s divergent eras and styles.

Even though a couple voices sounded a tad frayed on this third of three consecutive performance, and even though the augmented ensemble’s roster was barely sufficient for this music, Cappella Romana’s immaculate attention to detail and diction (they sounded Russian, not Byzantine), and the sheer power and character of those great voices, made the group sound bigger than it was; few other groups of that size would have been capable of generating enough sound to fill a cathedral in that particular music. (I heard the concert at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral, a relatively acoustically “drier” space than the other two, more resonant venues for this program, where they probably sounded much bigger.) As befits a sacred service rather than a stagier setting, the performance felt both restrained and reflective, yet still powerfully moving. As the group left the stage while singing the last of several seasonally appropriate encores, I felt less like applauding (though I did, of course) than saying “Amen.”

Incorporating such historical and contextual elements is becoming more popular these days in classical music. One of the prime proponents of this approach, the esteemed music historian Joseph Horowitz (who also serves as advisor to Washington DC’s Post-Classical Ensemble), insists that classical music institutions should serve as educational as well as musical enterprises. For decades, he and other have lamented their disconnect from the cultural life of the communities they allegedly serve. Horowitz thinks classical institutions should function more as museums (including contemporary museums, not just the fusty old kind) that help meet audiences’ craving for knowledge of history and cultural context. Accordingly, his P-CE partners with educational institutions and museums to present ancillary programs such as readings, films, plays, and thoughtful essays and presentations — and they seem to be broadening their audience beyond just music lovers as a result. We’ll have more to say about this here on OAW in coming months.In Oregon, Cappella Romana (whose Lingas is a scholar as well conductor) has long provided such context, and I think it adds to the music’s appeal.

Another concert at the very end of last year also provided some lively historical tidbits. The Oregon Renaissance Band’s New Year’s Eve performance interspersed little explanations among vivacious renditions of songs from the 16th century. Fortunately, the players delivered real joy and often humor along with the brief history lessons. The rich, burly tone of sackbutts (a trombone ancestor), the blown-speaker rattle of krummhorns (which I kept expecting to attract waterfowl), the flatulent racketts, bagpipes and other historically accurate replicas (some handmade by ORB’s Philip and Gayle Neuman, who also performed and talked between songs) lent a delightfully earthy character to ancient melodies that we still sing today, though usually to much different words than the original versions. Repurposing sturdy tunes for different songs was and is a staple of folk music tradition. Phil Neuman’s fun explanations of how, for example, one durable tune became associated with the story of King Wenceslas really illuminated both the music and our history, and they made sure to leaven the frequent instrument switches with funny historical anecdotes. Like Cappella Romana, ORB is celebrating two admirable decades of contributing both music and musical history to Oregon.

You can hear another such historically oriented concert Sunday in Eugene, when the Oregon Bach Collegium with soprano Catherine Olson performs 17th century music at United Lutheran Church. But Eugene Baroque music fans will still be mourning the news that the greatest singer I’ve heard in person, Thomas Quasthoff, who made his American debut at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1995 (where I first heard him) is retiring from performance. Bach Festival music director (and fellow Stuttgarter) Helmuth Rilling spotted Quasthoff’s talent early on, and he treated OBF audiences to half dozen more appearances at the festival, the last being 2010’s fortieth anniversary affair. It’s yet another reason for Oregon to be grateful to Rilling and the festival that has brought so much great music to the state.

The Oregon Symphony will also go Baroque, briefly, on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday with fiery music by Handel and even a brief Renaissance moment by Adriana Banchieri. But the main attraction is the orchestra’s latest Big Name Guest Soloist, the great violinist Joshua Bell, who’ll solo in a warhorse, Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The concert also features Leos Janacek’s stirring, nationalist 20th century landmark Sinfonietta, which makes a cameo appearance in the new Haruki Murakami novel.

Another hot classical soloist was supposed to hit Portland this weekend, but pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s illness forced Portland Piano International to find a substitute, and they came up with a pretty good one in Vladimir Feltsman, one of the last artistic refugees from the Soviet Union, who’s been one of the world’s most prominent solo pianists for three decades now. The New York resident will play a nice program of Haydn and Chopin at Newmark Theater. Meanwhile, PPI is hosting auditions this weekend for young area piano prodigies who aspire to appear on the excellent public radio program, From the Top.

Speaking of great pianists, Portland’s own Gordon Lee and his trio perform Saturday night at Arrivederci wine bar in Milwaukie. Check this splendid new interview with the Portland jazz stalwart, which illuminates, among many other things, his debt to Debussy.

More Haydn and more touring talents arrive at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Monday and Tuesday. Friends of Chamber Music brings one of the world’s most acclaimed threesomes, Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, to perform the Classical master’s bubbly “Gypsy rondo” piano trio, as purely delightful a piece of classical music as any I know, along with heavier fare by Tchaikovsky and an Irish-inflected trio (with Eastern European flavors) by Swiss composer Frank Martin. On Tuesday, the trio plays popular trios by Mendelssohn, Anton Arensky and a tense, atmospheric contemporary work by Danish composer Bent Sorenson.

Just downstairs from that Tuesday night show, you can find more new music in the smaller Lincoln Recital Hall, where Northwest New Music has gathered another sampling of some of Oregon’s finest musicians from the Oregon Symphony, FearNoMusic, Third Angle etc. They’ll be performing contemporary music inspired by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. NWNM’s last concert demonstrated that this new ensemble is adding an important dimension to Oregon’s already formidable contemporary music scene. Their show next week is just the first in a flood of new music concerts rolling our way in coming weeks. The backward glances were rewarding, but now, it’s time to look forward.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    thanx for your ongoing, comprehensive coverage, brett. it truly is invigorating to be part of such a thriving PDX music scene. wow!

    and, gracias for pointing us to claire sykes’ excellent article on gordon lee. gordon is a PDX treasure – wonderful pianist, composer & big band leader.

Comments are closed.