Weekend MusicWatch: Moderne Times

Tardis Ensemble performs at March Music Moderne

Tardis Ensemble performs at Portland’s March Music Moderne Sunday.

This weekend begins Oregon’s most important week for music in the classical tradition. Now in its fourth season, March Music Moderne has transcended the mid-century sounding name to be a showcase for music from the late 20th century up through today. Chief provocateur Bob Priest deserves enormous credit for creating a space for today’s music — so criminally ignored by most of our classical music institutions most of the time —  that he and others have stuffed with a wide range of performances in a startling variety of venues. Priest has his preferences and boundaries, of course, but his ambit is wider than just about anyone else in the Northwest, and the festival he founded and runs pretty much on enthusiasm and effort has become one of Oregon’s most vital and valuable arts institutions.

Anyone who follows other art forms might be puzzled about why we do the happy dance about a series that presents today’s music; after all, that’s what happens all over Oregon every night in pop music, in dance, in theater (and not just festivals like Fertile Ground) — and in fact in classical music up until the last 100 years or so, before the relentless retrogressives seized and nearly suffocated the art form to extinction.

Fortunately, we’re lately seeing a resurgence of vitality in Oregon contemporary classical (for want of a better term) music, albeit seldom from the timid, sclerotic big institutions (although some, like Friends of Chamber Music, which recently presented the contemporary orchestras A Far Cry and Fireworks, are taking tentative steps to break out of the stupor). Instead, the new vitality is emerging from the grass roots and universities, and MMM provides an appealing, affordable showcase for much of it. For that, Priest and the musicians and other fellow travelers who sustain deserve every Oregonian’s gratitude,  and these concerts demand and reward our attention.

MMM master Bob Priest

MMM master Bob Priest


ArtsWatch itself is even participating this year, as Priest offered us a slot to celebrate the launch of our new Oregon ComposersWatch project (where you can right now learn more about the music of some of this year’s MMM composers) next Saturday, March 15, at noon at Portland’s TaborSpace Cafe. We’ll tell you more about that shortly. For now, here’s a quick rundown of MMM’s first-week highlights (all events happen in Portland except where noted), followed by other weekend music highlights. Remember to spring forward on Sunday! Information on all shows is available at the MMM website.

Some MMM events, like the Oregon Symphony and Friends of Chamber Music, exist independently of the festival but their organizers agreed to cross promote them under the MMM’s aegis; the newest pieces in some concerts date from the 1920s, before the great grandparents of many of the young audiences the presenters allegedly aim to attract were born. But given the self-defeating, musty museum mentality of too many Oregon classical music institutions, works that in any other art form except classical music would be considered old qualify as positively newfangled and radical. It’s valuable to expose those music lovers to what’s happening in music now … but imagine a theater festival pushing, say, a Eugene O’Neill play as “new”! Only in the topsy turvy world of institutional classical music, alas — which is why Oregon needs March Music Moderne so much.

Nine Beet Stretch, Saturday-Sunday, Milepost 5. Read my preview. 

Soundwalk, Saturday, Mt. Tabor Park. Portland composer Susan Alexjander  leads an aural tour in which participants divine the richness of their surroundings through their ears instead of their eyes.

Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project,  Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Saturday, 2 pm. See Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Metal Machine Music, Saturday, 11 pm, Three Friends Coffeehouse. Lou Reed’s infamous 1975 double disk feedback fusillade was either a brilliant experiment in proto-noise music or a kiss off to a recalcitrant record company, maybe both. (Late one night during a long-ago public radio on-air fundraiser, I once heard an exasperated, desperate host threaten to play the whole thing unless listeners met that hour’s elusive goal. After a one-minute excerpt, they surrendered.) Either way, Reed’s MMM spawned a cult following, and including his most out-there effort in this year’s MMM seems an appropriate memorial to the late, great LuLu’s passing, and not just because of all those initial Ms. Adding butoh dancers, who embody and complement the high-tension music, is a brilliant stroke the  ever-cranky Reed himself might have appreciated, or scoffed at, which would also be fitting.

Tardis Ensemble, Sunday, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church.  Comprising players from the Eugene Symphony, Oregon Mozart Players, Portland and Eugene Opera orchestras,  this ensemble (which includes oboist Catherine Lee, one of the most welcome recent additions to Oregon’s new music scene) plays music by some of the most acclaimed late 20th century modernists, minimalists, postminimalists and more, including Peter Maxwell Davies, Louis Andriessen, Can-Banger and recent Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, and more.

Resonance Ensemble  and Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan ensemble, Saturday, Evans Auditorium, Lewis & Clark College, and Sunday, The Armory. The first-rate Portland choir sings contemporary British composer and gamelan expert Neil Sorrell’s Missa Gongso, which sets the Latin mass text to Javanese percussion accompaniment, plus Portland native (and father of American gamelan) Lou Harrison’s In Honor of Aphrodite; and folk song settings by Indonesian composers that apply gamelan’s interlocking melodies to voices. Full disclosure: I’m performing in, but profiting not from these performances.

Classical Revolution PDX, Sunday, Holocene. My pick for the possible sleeper hit of the festival. Read my preview.

Cascadia Composers, Monday, The Old Church. Full disclosure: composer Jeff Winslow is a frequent contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch. Read my preview.

Ebene Quartet, Friday and Saturday, Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, Ashland; Monday and Tuesday , Lincoln Hall, Portland State University. The elegant young French foursome, so impressive in previous Oregon visits, returns to play music by Haydn, Bartok (his great 1926-7 third and fourth string quartets, still startlingly modern-sounding), Schumann, Mendelssohn and maybe an amuse bouche of their agreeable jazz arrangements.

Oregon Wind Quintet with Idit Shner, Tuesday, The Old Church, Portland. In this free concert, the University of Oregon sextet (including saxophonist Shner), which recently toured the San Francisco Bay Area, plays lively 20th century pieces by Jean Francaix, Elliott Carter (a taut 1948 quintet that sounds nothing like his fearsomely complex later works), Paul Hindemith and a fresh, rollicking quintet by Portland’s own Kenji Bunch.


Portland Columbia Symphony,  Friday, First United Methodist Church, and Sunday, Mt Hood Community College. Jeffery Meyer conducts Dvorak’s joyous Carnival Overture and Rimsky Korsakov’s gorgeous, popular Scheherezade; Stephen Beus joins the band for Beethoven’s big Piano Concerto #5.

Oregon Symphony, Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. $tar power is the attraction at these concerts featuring the superb violinist Hilary Hahn as soloist in Nielsen’s 1911 Violin Concerto (and, if everyone’s nice, maybe a selection from her welcome series of newly commissioned 21st century encores), and a pair of 19th century chestnuts: Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite and From Italy, Richard Strauss’s early attempt to follow the path set by other northerners (e.g. Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn) who wrote music evoking their sojourns in sunnier southern climes.


Unistus Chamber Choir, Friday and Sunday, Milwaukie Lutheran Church and Gethsemane Lutheran Church. The singers perform music by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, and Britten.

Marylhurst Chorale, Choral Union, Jazz Ensemble and Guitar Ensemble, Saturday, St. Anne’s Chapel, Marylhurst University. The students perform music from Duke Ellington’s magnificent Sacred Concerts, including tap dancer, big band and narrator.

Oregon Chorale, Saturday-Sunday, Beaverton First United Methodist Church and Hillsboro High School. The choir sings American spirituals.

Vox Resonat, Sunday, First Methodist Church, Eugene. The early music ensemble sings music by William Byrd, Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, and other great Renaissance and Medieval composers.


Tunnel Six, Barra Brown Quintet, Friday, Jazz Station, Eugene, and Saturday, Secret Society, Portland. T6’s young members, who met at the famous Banff jazz workshop, have maintained their solid, straightahead yet original musical connection despite being scattered in different cities as far-flung as Nashville, London (where longtime Portland pianist Andrew Oliver moved last year), Chicago, Portland, and Toronto. Portland drummer/ composer/ flutist / guitarist Barra Brown’s young group incorporates folk, pop, and classical as well as jazz elements to produce a groove whose appeal both includes and transcends just hardcore jazz fans.

Get Smashing Love Power, Sunday, The Blue Monk, Portland. Oregon jazz luminaries Reed Wallsmith (Blue Cranes), Tim DuRoche, Andre St James form the core of this band inspired by the modernist jazz of the ’60s.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    hey there OAW!

    all of us @ MMM thank you for your gloriously kind & punchy coverage.

    isn’t it grand to be living, loving, working & playing together in the Global Village PDX here of the now?


    bob priest

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